The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki

I’ve been trying to get into more world literature recently; it strikes me as a necessary step up from the familiar world of the Brontes and Dickens and all the other English classics. I haven’t read all of those, either, but I’m at least comfortable in the company of the books that people are usually referring to when they mention Classic Literature (having under my belt six Dickenses, Austen’s big six, the Bronte big three, five George Eliots, all of Fielding, six Hardys, and so on and so forth.) I’ve been trying Russia (Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, last year), Italy (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard), and I’ve just finished The Makioka Sisters, the masterpiece of one of Japan’s leading twentieth-century novelists, Junichiro Tanizaki.

In many ways, The Makioka Sisters kept reminding me of Jane Austen. There are four of the eponymous sisters, orphaned young; they now range in age from about thirty-seven to twenty-eight, and as the story opens, the third and fourth sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, are still unmarried. Tradition demands that they marry in order of age. Taeko has a prospect, a rather feckless but well-bred young man named Okubata, with whom she tried to run away several years ago; restrained and brought home, the two of them are waiting on Yukiko, who is thirty and whose matrimonial settlements are proving troublesome.

Yukiko–I shall say this now–is a tremendous pain in the arse. She is passive, silent, boring, skinny, fragile, and at one point destroys any interest that a potential suitor might have had in her by being too terrified/traditional to answer the phone when he rings the house. When something is finally arranged for her (after five hundred and thirty pages), she “took care not to show the slightest pleasure, and above all not to let slip a word of thanks to those who had worked so hard for her.” She is described as deeply caring–her niece is closer to her than she is to her own mother, the second sister, Sachiko–but for a twenty-first century reader, her preciousness begins to wear a bit thin. Fortunately, her sisters find her trying too; she is compared to the court maidens of a thousand years ago, and it is clear that such adherence to traditional etiquette is swiftly becoming a handicap, even in provincial Japan, as the 1930s draw to a close and war looms.

A still from the 1983 film–Yukiko is on the left, in green

That is one of the parallels with Austen, I think: questions of personal choice, marriage and individual lives are played out against a vague, shadowy awareness that larger developments are occurring elsewhere. The Makiokas have German neighbors called the Stolzes, who are eventually called back to Hamburg, and Mrs. Stolz writes a letter in which she expresses her confidence that “Hitler will sort out the Czech question”. For a novel begun in 1943 and finished in 1948, that kind of detail was, one imagines, ominous when Tanizaki first wrote it, and bitterly ironic when he had finished it. Austen generally takes care to keep the Napoleonic conflicts even further in the background, but awareness is piqued by both authors through the presence of soldiers in their narratives–in Austen’s England, regiments are stationed as a matter of course in the neighborhoods of her heroines, and in Tanizaki’s Osaka, they pass through on trains, waiting to see what will come of the China Incident (known in the West as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which sparked the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War.)

Above all, there is the similarity of a slow, deliberate narrative style–in which letters and verbal message-carrying, illnesses and distance and misunderstanding, play pivotal roles–and the deep significance of etiquette. Rudeness, hierarchy, the infinite little dance motions of social interaction which determine breeding and therefore worth, are of terrific concern to the Makiokas, who are of an old and respectable but swiftly declining family, much in the same way that they are to the equally hard-up Dashwoods or Bennets. This does not prevent some rather shocking things from happening (SPOILERS!!!!!!!): Sachiko suffers a miscarriage, Taeko’s other lover Ikubata dies of a blood infection, and Taeko herself is discovered to be pregnant near the end of the book, with near-disastrous results. The way that such catastrophes are covered up, papered over, can be horrifyingly casual. Sachiko’s husband entirely fails to understand why she is crying on the one-year anniversary of their fetus’s death, and Sachiko herself, with whom we are meant to sympathize, muses that it would “probably not be impossible” to force an abortion on Taeko against her will. Partly, I think, this can be chalked up to cultural and generational differences. It may, however, also be partly intended to demonstrate the cost attendant upon a refusal to change with the times.

The Makioka Sisters is a book worth persevering with; you need to be willing to get inside its world, make an effort to understand it, but it is a deep, quiet, gorgeous book and it rewards that effort fully.

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

Not the best known portrait of Mill, but my favorite because it’s one of the few that make him look alive and interesting.

Time for another book review! I picked up On Liberty at Gloucester Green book stall last week and, idly, turned a few pages. To my great surprise, it was readable. More than that, it was actually interesting. I wouldn’t like to be thought a Philistine, but in my experience, this is a remarkable achievement for a philosophy book. I bought it and took it home, and (with a few interruptions) finished it this evening. Here’s the deal: Mill is worth reading.

The man was way ahead of his time: on women, for one thing (see The Subjection of Women, but in On Liberty he gets practically apoplectic about the status of the father as the only parent allowed any legal stake in the raising of children), but also on the idea of what can be acceptably interfered with by society and what cannot. He would be recognized today as a libertarian: any action by an individual that affects other people can be justifiably prevented, by force, by the state, but any action by an individual that affects only his or her own well-being is entirely up to said individual. No laws can be made against it; it cannot be held against them in public institutions. They may be cajoled, reasoned and pleaded with, but not compelled.

So far, so good. He moves on to a rather knottier problem, which is that of public opinion. Mill agrees that censure deriving from social pressures and the fear of “what other people will think” is an acceptable substitute for law in order to prevent certain kinds of behavior: public drunkenness, for instance, or abandoning your wife. But he also understands that such fear is one of the strongest possible disincentives to free exchange of ideas. He comes out strongly in favour of an open marketplace of expression: no one may be prevented from expressing their opinion or belief, no matter how offensive or impious anyone else may find it. There are two reasons for this: one is that, if it is a true opinion, it is vital that it should be expressed so that people may see it for the truth, even though perhaps an unpopular one; the second is that, if it is a false opinion, it must be expressed so that opinions which are true may be vitalized and rejuvenated by coming into contact with opposition.

I think that idea is the one most applicable to the world as it currently is. Especially in Britain, where press regulation is a hot topic at the moment, it’s essential to think about how we cope with being challenged. Even an opinion that is both true and popular still needs to be exercised and refreshed; without freedom in speech and print, as Mill constantly reasserts, “[neither] this nor any other country [would be] free otherwise than in name.” (He also, intriguingly, defends Mormonism on similar grounds; though I find a little doubtful his declaration that polygamy is accepted fully by the women who are involved, and therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of the state, it is quite enlightening to watch him put into effect the kinds of ideas that liberals often love in theory and find distasteful in practice. He also points out that women are taught to believe that marriage is “the only thing needful” and that, under such circumstances, to be one wife among many still appears a better alternative than not to be a wife at all. The fact that he brings this up suggests that he would rather like to see an alteration in how women are taught to think, and that if they were taught differently, Mormon polygamy might be in a rather different situation. I would argue that society is still working on this one, though we’ve made some progress.)

His prose, while not perhaps divinely inspired, is accessible, straightforward and intelligent, and does not rely heavily on definitions of terms to be understood. If you read one work of philosophy this year, read this one. The ideas he puts forth mean a great deal to Western societies that consider themselves free, and they deserve to be fully understood.

[ps: There’s a review of On Liberty here, at the always-interesting and informative books blog Don’t Read Too Fast. It’s probably a million times better than this one, but I didn’t read it before writing this, for obvious reasons.]