Let­ter from

The New York Review of Books - - Contents -

John Whit­tier Treat

To the Edi­tors:

John Nathan is al­ways worth read­ing, even when it’s an un­happy re­view of my book The Rise and Fall of Mod­ern Ja­panese Lit­er­a­ture [NYR, Au­gust 16]. While he re­ports on only a few of the chap­ters, I find my­self of­ten in agree­ment when it comes to what he does fo­cus on. Nathan read the book care­fully, per­haps more care­fully than any­one will in our niche field of Ja­panese lit­er­ary stud­ies. He sum­ma­rizes many of my ar­gu­ments cor­rectly, and I am grate­ful for that. But I would ap­pre­ci­ate a chance to set the record straight on a few points. My definition of “mod­ern” is not ab­sent, in fact, but on dis­play on nearly ev­ery page. Not just the tra­di­tional sig­nal dilemma of a novel’s in­di­vid­ual at log­ger­heads with his or her so­ci­ety, as Nathan’s own work, most re­cently on Nat­sume Sōseki, re­it­er­ates for us, but more than that: it lies in the di­verse and of­ten semi-sub­merged machi­na­tions of a na­tion-state that would cre­ate con­vinced read­ers along with obe­di­ent cit­i­zens, as well as in the man­i­fold dis­sents of writ­ers not al­ways along for the ride. If this makes my method “con­tex­tu­al­ist,” I can only say that lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship al­most al­ways is: the al­ter­na­tive to map­ping the course of mod­ern Ja­panese lit­er­a­ture along the lines of na­tional his­tory are the philo­log­i­cal, the aes­thetic, the bi­o­graph­i­cal, or, as is Nathan’s fa­vored choice, the psy­cho­log­i­cal. Each is a “con­text.” The ad­van­tage of my ap­proach is that his­tory boasts an archive far larger than any of the oth­ers, the psy­cho­log­i­cal the scant­i­est and thus the most elu­sive. Nathan thinks my choice of writ­ers “ec­cen­tric,” in part be­cause I deny his own fa­vorites, Mishima Yukio and Ōe Ken­z­aburō, their own chap­ters. Mishima and Ōe were al­ways bet­ter crit­ics than nov­el­ists, an ob­ser­va­tion fre­quently found in the co­pi­ous schol­ar­ship on them al­ready (in­clud­ing Nathan’s and my own); and I al­ready made am­ple room in my lit­er­ary his­tory for one poor writer, Mu­rakami Haruki. As he is the best-known Ja­panese writer ever, the ap­pro­pri­ate word for Mu­rakami is surely not “ec­cen­tric” but “rep­re­sen­ta­tive,” proof that present-day Ja­panese lit­er­a­ture with am­bi­tions to en­ter­tain the world needs to be quirky at ev­ery turn.

Nathan ends his re­view hop­ing that my book’s con­clu­sion, wherein I spec­u­late that mod­ern Ja­panese fic­tion is mor­ph­ing into some­thing no longer mod­ern, Ja­panese, or even lit­er­ary, is wrong. I would add that I’d like to be wrong, too, but each day the news brings us fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion that our species is in­deed be­ing “stalked” by forces, nat­u­ral and man­made, that might sweep all of us and our coun­tries’ books away. My hope is that there will be some­thing to take our place even if it is no longer pre­cisely us or our sto­ries, Ja­pan’s in­cluded.

John Whit­tier Treat Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor Yale Univer­sity

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