(Shoichido Kurihara, Japanese maidens at shrine entrance, 1930s; found here)
Ages ago – last summer? – I signed up excitedly for Dolce Bellezza’s sixth Japanese Literature Challenge. I’ve always fancied reading more from that land, but never quite got further than Murakami, some Japanese poetry and a couple of historical novels written by non-Japanese. The gods of Japanese literature appeared to be on my side, since I found a copy of Snow Country (Yasunari Kawabata) in my local charity shop. Hurrah! And then they withdrewn theif favour and I lost it. So small a book, so messy a house. Months passed, with the occasional twinge of guilt. But just the other day, I found it! Hampered by a sudden onslaught of work and sick child, I am trying to finish it and post about it before the end of the challenge (erm, the end of January).
What I wanted to write about here though was something about the novel I hadn’t expected to encounter, and that was my inability to visualise it. It was written in the 1930s and set in the mountains. In the first scene, three people are sitting in a train. What would they be wearing – Japanese or Western dress? The train reaches a mountain village. What sort of houses make up the village? What sort of a brazier has a quilt over it? Where exactly are we anyway?
I like to imagine a story as I read it, stitching together the picture from scraps the author lets fall here and there. Of course my visualisations are vague and almost certainly inauthentic. For instance, I don’t suppose that that the samovars or Petersburg or Russian steppes I imagined when reading Tolstoy and Dostoevesky more than twenty years ago bore any resemblance to the real tea urns or buildings and landscapes. (In fact, I thought of all samovars as about the size of a wardrobe, silver and wildly Baroque in style, decorated all over with grotesque heads and figures and garlands and cherubs, and with sometimes a sleeping serf beneath them.) However, somewhere over the years I had been exposed to just enough Russian nineteenth-century culture for this not to be a hindrance.
Japan in the 1930s, on the contrary, feels very alien to me. Slowly I am piecing something together. Most of the characters wear kimonos. The windows are made of glass (I had wondered if they would be paper). But there’s still a lot of white space, vagueness, a blurry shape where a table might be. Perhaps this is appropriate for this particular novel. It makes reading a little different though: more attentive and slow, I think. It’s not unlike my experience of reading De aanslag. Then I thought about all the imagined worlds we create when we read a novel or a poem, or listen to a piece of music. I wonder where all those worlds are? And are some more valid than others, because more ‘accurately’ imagined? How far do the pictures of the mind’s eye affect the interpretation?
I suppose I could search through the internet and find photographs and maps and music to supplement my fuzzy fantasies, but I feel strangely reluctant (although I have started, by looking for a picture for this post); I don’t know why, other than to say I am enjoying the strangeness. But then, is that not a way of exotifiying the novel? Would such a reading be in some way ‘wrong’, or at least ‘flawed’?
How do you read books you can’t visualise? Or does that never happen?