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.

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