The Makioka Sisters (細雪)
This book is an epic masterpiece, pure and simple. This is a book to be lauded over, a writer to be envied and respected, and this, if not his best book (I look forward to attempting to see if he has something even better) is undeniably an exemplary work of subtle slow simple art.
The story revolves around an old merchant family from Osaka, now in the slow decline into the high working class. Not poor as such, but worse than destitute, when compared to the heyday of their father’s business success. Set in the mid 1930s and leading us quietly right into the head of the storm that begins with rumblings of a “China Incident”.
Cut into three books, and originally published serialized in the newspaper, the book does contain peaks and valleys, but none of the ridiculous shocking switches that at times worked to the detriment of making Dickens overly melodramatic. We move from peace and happiness into blunder and trouble, and end with tragedy.
One of the superior parts of this work is the amazing use of paced subtleness. Nothing is hit straight on. (I think this led me to have a bit of trouble with Banana Yoshimoto’s style in Moshi Moshi, which I read as a break before I finished this one… comparatively, Yoshimoto felt like a mother teaching me how to read, which Tanizaki was a master who demanded I catch on all by myself). This use of inference is likely the quintessential aspect of most Japanese literature, and this is among the best examples I have ever seen.
However, even more than the use of subtlety, if one part of this book must be highlighted as genius above the others, it surely is Tanizaki’s ability to juxtapose national crisis with that of the family. It is a steady hand of a strong writer that leads us to undeniably feel that, while, surely that flood was awful, it really doesn’t compare to Yuki’s trouble finding a husband. Or, yes, this tiff with China does cause concern, but is it any reason to cancel my party. Or, finally, yes, yes, yes… Hitler’s actions are certainly newsworthy, but also most certainly no reason to cancel a trip to Paris. The irony here increases, but one can imagine many readers screaming, “Stop talking about the damned war and get back to the important stuff”. Tanizaki both the ignorance of these silly aging princesses, but also the truth, that in any moment, even with bullets overhead, it’s not hard to imagine being consumed with the dreams of the one we hope to love. The level at which this is accomplished, while not once directly bringing it up, is beautiful and an awe inspiring level for a writer.
I would put this work among my most loved J-lit works, Woman in the Dunes, Master of Go, or even beside Mishima’s best.
Most highly recommended
Check out my other reviews of Tanizaki: