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Minae Mizumura: 本格小説 新潮社 (A True Novel)

Wuthering Heights is one of my favourite, all-time novels. I have seen a few of the film versions but they have generally been disappointing, with the exception of Luis Buñuel’s brilliant Mexican film version. There is also a Japanese film version, which I have not seen. It has not been released in English, as far as I can tell, but has been released in French. Now we have a Japanese book adapting the novel, albeit very loosely, though changing the characters, location and story. However, it is recognisable as Wuthering Heights.

In the early part of the last century , the Japanese novel moved, in part, to the I-novel. However, some adhered to the traditional”true” novel. Mizumura explains it early on in this novel.

Some still claimed that, difficult as it had proved in the past, Japanese novelists should continue to aim for what they staunchly believed was the ideal, a fictional world created by an impersonal author—a transcendent “subject.” Others thought that novelists should basically adhere to writing truthfully about themselves, because being true to oneself, and, ultimately, to life, is what ought to embody the highest aim in literature. Some went further and asserted that such writing was the very soul of Japanese literature, where the diary has been an esteemed literary genre for over a thousand years. The controversy led to the emergence of two terms for two different approaches to fiction, one normative and the other descriptive: the “true novel” and the “I-novel.”

As the title implies, she is claiming this novel is a true novel. This is somewhat disingenuous. The first twenty percent of the novel is narrated by a novelist called Minae Mizumura. Though her aim is to show how she became acquainted with and later followed the career of Taro Azuma, the Heathcliff character, much of the story is about Mizumura and her life, i.e. following the standard I-novel format. Mizumura, the character, is writing what she admits is an autobiographical I-novel, though she is struggling with it. At this point, Yusuke Kato arrives in her life. He comes to her classroom, when she is teaching at Stanford, telling her that he is a great admirer of her work but, in reality, wanting to find out more about Taro Azuma from her. He had briefly met Taro in Japan and, on learning that he was an editor at a literary magazine, Taro had asked him if he knew Minae Mizumura, whom, as we have already learned, he knew briefly as a child. At this point, with Yusuke’s permission, Minae takes his story of Taro and incorporates it into her novel. During Taro’s tale (which we get not as Taro’s tale but as Minae’s third person tale about Taro), he meets Fumiko Tsuchiya, who works for Taro and she then takes up the tale, again recounted by Minae in the third person. Apart from a few paragraphs at the end, the rest of the novel is Fumiko’s tale. As a result, we have what may be called two true novels incorporated within an I-novel. In practice, at least for an English-speaking reader, this makes little difference and the change of narrators makes little difference to the narrative flow.

Taro’s tale starts off as one of hardship. We first meet him when Minae meets him as a child. Her father has a position in the United States. He is friendly with a US businessman, Mr. Atwood, who has a Japanese chauffeur, Taro Azuma. It is quite unusual for a Japanese national to be working in the Untied States at that time unless employed by a Japanese corporation or official body. Minae’s father is impressed with Taro and when he leaves his position as a chauffeur, hires him to work in his optical company. Taro does very well, both in learning English and learning the job, and moves up the ranks to become a senior salesman for specialist medico-optical equipment. Minae later learns that he has set up on his own and very soon she hears from Mrs Cohen, a Japanese woman who has married a US national and who works for Minae’s father’s company that Taro has done very well and become very rich. He seems to have rejected Japan and the Japanese, with a certain amount of bitterness. But then he seems to disappear. Only when we get Yusuke Kato’s and Fumiko Tsuchiya’s stories do we learn both about his birth and childhood but also why he finally did return to Japan, at least to visit, and his connections there. We also meet three families with which he has been associated – the three Saegusa sisters and their children, the Utagawa family (connected to the Saegusas by marriage) and the Shigemitsus. We also meet Yoko, daughter of one of the Saegusa sisters and the Cathy to Taro’s Heathcliff.

Wuthering Heights and this novel are both about a tragic love affair. While this affair is key to both books, this novel, quite a bit longer than Wuthering Heights, is a very different novel, where the tragic love affair is only part of the novel. Mizumura writes in a beautiful, languid style reminiscent of some of the twentieth century Japanese novelists, where not a great deal happens but the skill of the writing captivates you with its charm. Her themes are a Proustian use of memory, recall of as well as loss of the past and the influence of the past on the present as well as the Brontean themes of the role of the outsider and the power of passionate love. The main characters – the three Saegusa sisters, Yoko, Dr Utagawa, Fumiko and, of course, Taro – are beautifully portrayed and it is they that add to the richness of the Cathy-Heathcliff story to make this one of the best-received Japanese novels of recent years.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchosha in 2002
First English translation published by Other Press in 2013
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter