the art of memory.
You never know when you will cease having access to the archive of your past. The physical relics of your youth will eventually be lost to you. But memories are fickle, slippery things, like silver mackerel. They go fuzzy around the edges, grainy in the center, like an old photograph and fall from our hands just when we try to firmly grasp them.
Mitski said in a recent Vulture interview:
Things get lost or break or disappear. People come and go. But my songs, my writing, it was mine.
Journals assist in keeping a personal record, that is unless you’re afraid of telling the truth to yourself. Still, they’re a way to hold onto the good and suck the poison out. I threw away a stack of my 20-something journals at some point in the pandemic. I no longer recognized myself in the hopeful girlish handwriting. I am left with the not entirely unpleasant fuzziness instead.
I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World and Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, both books that have languished for an undetermined amount of time on my TBR book cart. Both novels are brilliant character studies that create an immersive sense of place, the primary difference being Ishiguro writes of post-war Japan and Taniziaki of pre-war.
Ishiguro’s protagonist, the artist Masuji Ono, is a man drawn back often into his past. Ono masterfully plugs holes where any real emotion might leak through. Although his wife and son have died in the war, he focuses the narrative primarily on his personal ambitions and professional life as a painter. However, his ongoing self-deception about his own remembrance of events makes him an unreliable narrator.
These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated telling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.
Ishiguro’s representation of the artist of the floating world giving way to an artist of nationalist propaganda giving way to an absence of art in the face of modernism is profound. Despite the emotionally turbulent backdrop of post-war Japan, Ono is negotiating a marriage contract for his younger daughter whose own prospects have dimmed in the wake of the war. His past as a propaganda artist continually comes into question as something that might affect her prospects. His paintings are put away now, perhaps he no longer recognizes himself in their bold lines.
In much the same way as Ishiguro, Tanizaki approaches the marriage plot of Yukiko, the third of the Makioka sisters and the one who has refused all offers of marriage. In lieu of her nationalist father, she has her own prospects dimmed by the wayward fourth sister, Taeko, who is twenty-eight and understandably tired of waiting her turn. Taeko’s failed elopement scandal made it into the papers and is still the cause for gossip years later.
In the beginning, the sisters are maddeningly slow, even to dress, and the book moves at their pace. The seasons are drawn out as each flower in the garden blooms, the cherry blossoms show the passage of time. Sachiko, the second sister and the one everyone looks to as the de facto head, is often drawn back into her remembrances and nostalgia, for once the family was quite prosperous and she misses the parties, the pleasures of decades earlier.
She had forgotten everything else, but she remembered the rushes, the thin green stems all across the forepart of the garden like lines of rain in the air.
However, things pick up when the threat of war and various familial tensions force them into action. All of the sisters discover hidden depths within themselves. At various points, the sisters also must consider uprooting themselves from Osaka, a thought which to such a cloistered group seems unconscionable. They dislike Tokyo in much the same way Eve Babitz disliked San Francisco, it is colder and harsher than LA, they could never survive such bitter winds.
To lose the Osaka house would be to lose her very roots.
At the end, we are left to wonder how the Makioka sisters faired after being thrust fully into modernity. The shadow of Ishiguro’s Masuji Ono lingers in those final pages, the artist who painted the very pleasure scenes the Makioka’s father once enacted for himself. The reader is burdened the foreknowledge of the hardships to come.
Perhaps that is why I got rid of my own journals, I possess the foreknowledge of what is to come, which can be hard for a reader. I write fiction, because I can take the fuzziness and turn it into something more interesting. Often the margins of memories make the best stories. Like Ono, I rewrite the thing in my head until it’s exactly how I wished it instead.
Certainly, because The Makioka Sisters is akin to the British gentry stories I love so much, it was easy and enjoyable for me to read this story of an upper-class family in pre-war Japan. Although the language in Edward Seidensticker’s translation is a little old-fashioned (he adds a footnote to explain sushi) compared to Ishiguro’s effortless prose, I still found it highly readable for a modern classic. An Artist of the Floating World is a something of a hidden Ishiguro gem. I’ve seen it compared to Remains of the Day (another British gentry story) in that it’s the story of an older man reminiscing and missing the point entirely, but it’s so beautiful and is now perhaps one of my favorites of his.
So, I know I said I would endeavor to only read what I already owned, but I pre-ordered a book of modern Russian poems last year and it just arrived: Verses on the Vanguard from Deep Vellum Press. Pre-orders don’t count, right? The whole book has the poems side-by-side in both Russian and English and I am excited to have some modern writing to practice my Cyrillic with. If you’re also interested in translations or poetry in general, do check it out, and really everything Deep Vellum has to offer. до скорого!