Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Makioka Sisters

Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka sisters is set in the years 1938 to 1942 in Japan, mainly in Osaka. It is about four sisters, whose parents have died and whose family fortunes are in decline. It is a novel of the fading of traditional values, with World War II in the backgound.

This book is said by many to be the most important Japanese novel of the 20th Century. What makes it especially interesting for the psychology of fiction is that whereas the modernist movement in the West, led by such people as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, focused on inwardness, on what is going on beneath the surface, in this novel the focus is almost entirely on relationships. It's not without interiority, but most of the action is about events and concerns of everyday life, what to eat, what one should wear, whether or not to say this to that person. These matters are presented by the narrator and discussed among the characters in terms of how each would think about them in relation to the others. We might contrast the book with Virginia Woolf's To the lighthouse which, similarly, is about events of ordinary life. But in Woolf's book, the focus is on the interior world of Mrs Ramsay.

The Makioka sisters has three main themes. One is the depiction of the second sister, Sachiko. She is competent, thoughtful, and deeply concerned about her sisters. She is married to a decent man with literary interests, and she is modelled, evidently, on the author's third wife. The second theme is the search for a husband for Yukiko, the somewhat passive third sister. Here the Western reader is introduced to a series of customs that are unfamiliar, but which can find near and more distant translations into Western counterparts. The third theme is the behaviour of the youngest sister Taeko. She is the most Westernized of the sisters, and this theme includes her having affairs that cause great dismay to the rest of the family.

Tanizaki is especially good at immersing us in family life. In this, rather than cultural distinctiveness, he seems to have achieved a remarkable universality: just exactly the mixture of commitment and critical commentary, just precisely the ambivalence of concern and knowing better than others what those others should do, with which we are all familiar. Part of the skill of the novel is that the entry into the Makioka family that Tanizaki offers is very gradual. It is as if you, the reader, had been adopted. You join the family and get to know its members little by little through their actions, deliberate and inadvertent, through how they talk, through their ways of relating.

Junichiro Tanizaki (1943-1948). The Makioka sisters (E. Seidensticker, Trans.). New York: Vintage (currrent edition 1957).

Virginia Woolf (1927). To the lighthouse. London: Hogarth.


christopher said...

Looks like I'll have to give this novel a read, but to be fair, To the Lighthouse is a lot more inter-subjective than you let on here. The narration accesses virtually every characters' inner-thoughts apart from the poet Carmichael, who is maybe too stoned for thoughts. The subjectivities tend to pile up, giving privileged moments, as when Mrs. Ramsay is seen reading to James or when the candles are lit for dinner, a kind of dense, psychological weight, meaning to approach something like the totality of the moment.

It's more complicated than all of that, but we're not locked inside the head of Mrs. Ramsay anyway, who isn't around for much of the novel, except as a sense of absence in everyone else's mind.

Really enjoy what you do here, by the way.


Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Hello Christopher,

I'm glad you mentioned this, because I've been ruminating about it, too. To join in on this, I think perhaps the difference with To the Lighthouse is that although you have access to people's innermost thoughts -- including what they think others will think of them, and what they might say, should there be an interaction (should she run into him on the lawn, for example) -- the distinct feeling of the novel is of a bunch of people kind of floating around each other in their heads. (With some notable exceptions, perhaps, but these kind of serve as the exception that proves the rule.)

I've not read The Makioka Sisters -- but my impression is that the relational aspect is more displayed, and less just imagined by characters to into whose imaginations we can pry. Keith, is this an accurate impression?

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Christopher, for your comment. I am glad you enjoy what we are doing here. And thank you, too, Valentine. Yes ... I am sure you are right. It is some time since I read To the lighthouse, and I have evidently, as you both point out, over-emphasized the role of Mrs Ramsay, to which, in my memory, I seem to have given too much priority. I am sorry. So let me try and put the contrast that I had in mind better. In To the lighthouse, there has been a shift to the interior, in the way Woolf described the movement of modernism in some of her essays. In The Makioka sisters, there is also a significant difference from the nineteenth century European novel. But here, all the action occurs in the space of the imagined interpersonal, so the emphasis is on careful consideration of what everyone else would think about a certain event, or would feel if one were to say this or express a preference for that. The effect seems to me striking, and unusual from a Western viewpoint.

christopher said...

Thank you both for responding. I think I'm just going to have to read The Makioka Sisters and get it over with. Sounds like the two novels would articulate a pretty interesting contrast insofar as it sounds like they can both be thought in some ways as responses to 19th c. realism. What Woolf says in those essays on modern fiction is that although the aim of fiction has always been to attend to human character (a kind of thing-in-itself), human character had changed and fiction must destroy the old conventions and adapt. Both novels are written, as well, in the aftermath of human-character-changing wars.

I'm not sure where I mean to go with this, but it does sound like it would be interesting to compare the two.

I was also thinking of how Mrs. Ramsay, in that novel, gave, while Mr. Ramsay took, and whether we might also read a kind of story about the gender of thought into the differences your describing, Keith.

One last thing, I mean to order the book on Folk Psychology by Hutto, but have you ever read Literature and Rationality (1991) by Paisley Livingston. It's been a little while since I've gone through it, but as the title implies, it makes a number of claims about the relation between narrative and explanations for why people do things.

Thanks again,

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Christopher, for these thoughts. Very interesting indeed. I think you are right, that the contrast of both To the lighthouse and The Makioka sisters is with nineteenth century realism, and I can't quite make up my mind whether it really is a contrast or a continuation into a further unfolding. Woolf dissociated herself from some realist novelists such as H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett; she called them materialists. But one notices that she did not dissociate herself from Jane Austen and George Eliot. So—in my mind, or is this perhaps just a fantasy?—I can imagine Woolf as suggesting that we turn our attention in one direction (inwardly), while Tanizaki suggests we turn it in a slightly different direction (interpersonally), but in both cases beyond the purely material.

I think you are right, moreover, that there is something gendered going on. Although Tanizaki was a man, he has very much the sensibility of the Mrs Ramsay side of things ... I think you are right, the two books might make a really interesting comparison.

I have not read the book by Paisley Livingston that you mention, but I did meet him at a conference a couple of years ago, and was really pleased to do so. So I will get his book ... thank you. And if you are going to get the Hutto book, it is interesting, but despite its emphasis on narrative explanation, it doesn't have much at all about fiction.

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