Sunday, December 07, 2008

Appreciation: Makioka Again

The Mr. and Mrs. Buce Readaloud Club has just completed its perusal of The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki's longish, leisurely, family saga, structured around the lives of four--really, three--sisters in a genteel Japanese family in the years before Pearl Harbor (for earlier notes re Makioka, go here). Allow me to add a couple of thoughts on top of what I wrote before:

  • I remarked on the similiarity to other family sagas like Buddenbrooks and The Forsytes, and in particular, on the recurrin charcter of the servant. But here's another common theme: the troublesome younger sister/daughter. Think Candace Compson ("doomed and she knew it") in Sound and the Fury; think Joanna Buddenbrooks--beautiful, spoiled, vulnerable and out of their depth. In Makioka, it is Taeko, Koi-san, the youngest of course, perhaps not exactly doomed (or not for certain) but certainly troublesome enough to spin a plot on.
  • Makioka is certainly not a great novel in the sense of Sound and the Fury nor even Buddenbrooks. But it is a pretty good novel which is satisfaction enough in troubled times, and in some ways even better than great. And it offers one importnt virtue lacking in many novels that are better: the ending. I have a thing about endings that disappoint: I think there are rather a lot of them and over time I've come to accept the fact that even a really good novel has to be forgiven a mediocre ending--because novels end and lives do not and any novel-ending is bound to be artificial or forced.
And precisely here is where Makioka triumphs over its betters: it doesn't end, it just stops. Life will go on; it does go on. In the last chapter, two of our characters--people we have come to know well, and to care about--are stepping forth onto new stages. We haven't any idea whether it is going to work well (in both cases, there is a good chance it will work badly). We'd like to know more (it is almost as we are expecting a sequel--but we know that one wouldn't end either). And that, exactly, is the difference between life and the novel, and the place where this novel does what so many others fail to do.
  • Well, a third point, while I have the floor. And that would be the great unspoken presence in the Makioka household--the war. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and started serious hostilities with China in 1937. We get occasional glancing references to the war here and there, then one brief almost-confrontation at the very end. But it's all a sideshow. And of course we, as readers, cannot escape thought of the great looming shadow: Pearl Harbor, and Midway, and Iwo Jima and Okinawa and the fire bombings and of course, the mushroom clouds. What will happen to all these people in the horror that awaits them? Of course we have no idea. This point gets extra bite from the fact that Tanizaki wrote it between 1943 and 1948 (I'm unclear on the details). So he knew, and surely had his own thoughts on the topic, which he is careful never to share with us.
In a way, this puts me in mind of another pretty good novel where the war is an offstage presence. That would be Isaac Bashevis Singer's Shadows on the Hudson. Shadows is different in that we are after the great war, not before it. We are dealing with Jews here in New York in the late 1940s, the most unaccountably lucky of survivors. Once again, the war is more implicit than stated--itself one of the Shadows, I suppose. But the mere fact of survival gives a giddy sort of lightnesss to what is, in many ways, a dark story. And as in Makioka, once again, life doesn't end, it just goes on. In both cases, then, we've got a possibly-not-great, but certainly-pretty-good novel that captures the bite and tang of life in ways that their betters sometimes fail to achieve.

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