Quick update on the baseball front – my editors have scheduled the top 100 draft prospects list for publication on Monday night, which gave me a chance to make a few major changes based on some last-minute dope.
Junichiro Tanazaki’s The Makioka Sisters appears on the Bloomsbury 100 as the only Japanese-language novel on the list, which covers novels written prior to 1950. It’s a dense period piece, an observation on the decline of traditional Japanese culture, depicted through the declining fortune of the Makioka family and their struggle to find Yukiko, the third of four sisters, a husband.
Japanese tradition dictates (so I infer from the book) that the youngest daughter may not marry until her older sisters have all done so, and that provides the only real conflict at the heart of this wordy book, as Taeko (also called “Koi-san,” meaning “small daughter”) has already run off once with a beau and is clearly chafing under the thumb of tradition and her hidebound family. Both Taeko and Yukiko live with the second daughter, Sachiko, and her husband, but their lives are also run from afar, the “main house” in Tokyo where the oldest of the four sisters lives with her husband in gradually diminishing surroundings as their family grows.
The entire plot revolves around the family, particularly the three sisters in Ashiya, and repeated failures in the search for an arranged marriage for Yukiko; where the family had once rejected suitors because of their high standards, by the novel’s opening it’s clear that the tides are shifting, where their standards are becoming outdated while the desirability of a Makioka daughter for a wife is lessening. Yukiko herself is slowly revealed as a stuck-up, insular, immature woman in her early 30s, and it’s possible (but never made explicit) that her disinterest in every candidate presented to her is more a function of her fear of change, or a lack of desire to leave a comfortable, easy family life where she’s supported by her sister and brother-in-law and serves as a second mother to Sachiko’s daughter, Etsuko. Taeko, meanwhile, is the most compelling character but is given the least exploration, with Sachiko sitting closer to the novel’s center. Sachiko is trapped by the family’s rigid adherence to tradition, and her escapades become more serious as the novel moves on, some understandable even today (affairs with men of questionable reputation) and some not (she becomes an expert doll-maker and seamstress and earns some money for herself through her work). The same story, told from Taeko’s point of view, would have been twice as compelling, and I wish I’d had her thoughts on why rebellion was preferable to separation from her domineering family.
And, unfortunately, that was my major problem with The Makioka Sisters – 500 pages that hinge on a conflict that now feels dated without enough focus on the most interesting character in the worst position of any of the sisters do not make for a compelling read, and when the prose is dense and rich, it required some effort to get through it.
There was one moment of unintentional humor from this 1957 translation by the eminent Japanese-English translator, Edward G. Seidensticker – this footnote:
“Balls of vinegared rice, highly seasoned and usually topped with strips of raw or cooked fish.”
Yes, in 1957, the word “sushi” was sufficiently foreign to English-speaking readers that it required further explanation.
Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World.