The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

July 10, 2010

A. A. Knopf, 1957 (first pub. Japan, 1948)
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
Finished: April 2010
Source: heard about the author at Chasing Bawa
Genre: Novel with a capital N
On the Scales: heavyweight

The plot was quiet and multi-streamed. The characters were both recognizable and completely themselves. If I tried to describe them, I’d never talk about this book at all. But I did want to tell you what reading Junichiro Tanizaki for the first time felt like: it felt like finding out about a cache of never-before-seen completed manuscripts by Jane Austen.

If you have ever sat around around sighing, “I’m sad that I’ve read everything Jane Austen wrote,” be happy! Because you can read something oh-so-much-closer to Pride and Prejudice than Regency spinoffs.

Tanizaki was known for his European sensibility, but that’s not the connection. Neither is the way the story revolves on a shabby-genteel family’s anxious preoccupations with eligible batchelors, reputation, and the need for daughters be married in the proper order–though it was an uncanny parallel for two cultures so far apart. I believe what made reading The Makioka Sisters so like reading Jane Austen was the way both writers set up the tension between individuals and the constraints of their social circle without placing their authorial selves outside the circle. Instead they draw us in, and they do this so expertly that we can take even the most alien cultural imperatives for granted. I guess what I’m saying is that Austen and Tanizaki have similar voices. Sympathetic omnipotence?

Restrained empathy?

Quite often when I am reading a piece of emotionally complex fiction, I get the feeling that there is no backstage; the author is sweating and strutting along with his characters–which can be fine, but there is a special pleasure in the kind of book where someone is very definitely behind the scenes running the show, and an almost sublime pleasure in the best examples.

The Makioka Sisters is most excellent capital-N Novel I’ve read for years. I am going to parcel out Tanizaki’s other work slowly. For emergencies.

10 Responses to “The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki”

  1. Aarti said

    I feel like this is one of those books I had never heard of and then heard of about fifteen other people who have read and really enjoyed it. And then I saw it all over the place- EVERYWHERE. And, er, still didn’t buy it. Some day 🙂 Glad to know the author is one to savor.

    • trapunto said

      I have not read any other reviews of Makioka Sisters (I know you keep up with a lot more blogs than I do!) I read one review of another book by Tanizaki, and wanted to read him so badly I checked out the first thing I could find. Funny how often there are these waves of synchronized reading…

  2. Mel u said

    I agree about the Makioka sisters reminding one of Austin-read some of his other works like Quicksand or Naomi and you will see a world Jane never imagined!-I enjoyed your post a lot

    • trapunto said

      Thanks for visiting my blog! I have heard a little about Naomi and I am looking forward to it. I am guessing she is more like the Lydia/Marianne youngest sister in The Makioka Sisters, only not under her family’s control.

  3. I’ve wondered, sometimes, what it must have been like to read Ms Austen when she was alive, if you were already living in the culture she talks about. I mean, now, our very idea of what it was like to be in that class in that time is almost impossible to disentangle, I think, for most people from Jane Austen. A lot of the people I know like it the way they like historical fiction – it’s so immersive and it lets you vicariously live in another cultural place and time. It sounds the same (though that’s not the only reason you like it, I think) with this book – so it just makes you wonder, what it must be like to read it and just recognize, say, your sister, or that annoying lady down the street, or that obnoxious popinjay naval officer, or whatever.

    • trapunto said

      I wondered that too. I’ve heard something to the effect that people thought she was very funny, but not that she was best thing going. And I’ve tried to think of examples from our own time. I can’t. I suspect we can never fully enjoy a contemporary Austen because of our immersion in our own culture. It’s like a fish trying to appreciate a painting of fish in a river that is being held by someone standing on the riverbank. John Crowley is the only possibility who comes to mind. But he was writing about the shift of culture from the 70’s to the 80’s a decade or two after the fact, so it wasn’t direct contemporary commentary. Do you have any votes for a modern Jane Austen?

  4. Jeanne said

    My vote is for Douglas Coupland. His issues certainly aren’t the same, but the involved (even implicated) attitude seems to me as similar as it can get.

  5. Trapunto said

    I looked Coupland up to see what he had written, and discovered that I hav heard of nearly every title, but not read a single one, or or even *seen* it at the library. Do you think he writes as well as Austen?

  6. zibilee said

    I have been waiting for this review since your first mention of this book a bit back. It sounds like it was just a wonderful reading experience and I am going to have to try it. It’s been awhile since I have read something that totally blows my socks off, so I am excited about this book! Great review!

    • trapunto said

      I felt a little bad writing such a short review since I mentioned loving the book so much in that earlier post. But I guess it’s okay if it will get folks to read the book. I hope you enjoy it, too!

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