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Reviewed by:
Tomi Suzuki. Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996. 248 pp.
John Whittier Treat. Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. xvii + 487 pp.

In the 1880s a Japanese writer, translator, and critic named Tsubouchi Shoyo proposed that the term “shosetsu” be adopted as the standard Japanese translation for the modern literary form described by the English word “novel” or the French “roman.” In his influential essay “Shosetsu shinzui” (“The Essence of the Novel”), Tsubouchi explained the salient characteristics of this unfamiliar Western form to his Japanese readership and enthusiastically promoted “the novel” as the most effective vehicle for the expression of modern life. Thereafter writers and critics took their understanding of this form, gained primarily from attempts to translate English, French, German, and Russian novels into Japanese, and used that understanding to experiment with the writing of original shosetsu. By the turn of the century the nature and significance of the shosetsu was no longer problematized; writers had domesticated the form and had even devised a new literary language to accommodate the expression of a particularly Japanese modernity.

Through the 1970s English-language scholarship on Japanese literature reproduced the assumption of an unproblematic equivalency between the novel and the shosetsu, almost invariably with the concomitant [End Page 538] critical denigration of Japanese “novels,” which were seen as lacking in plot, character development, and dramatic incident. This continuing critical discomfort with the Japanese “novel” is perhaps not surprising; although based on (the 19th century Japanese understanding of) the Anglo-European “novel,” the modern literary form shosetsu remains stubbornly and provocatively different from its Western model. Since the 1980s there have been several English-language studies that explored the shosetsu as a separate form, to be read on its own cultural terms. Tomi Suzuki’s Narrating the Self joins this critical conversation, focusing on a sub-set of the form called the “shi-shosetsu” (or, in an alternate reading, “watakushi-shosetsu”), often translated as “I-novel.” The shi-shosetsu may be narrated in first- or third-person but is usually assumed to be a transparent depiction of the author’s own life and thoughts, devoid of irony. Japanese critics have often argued that this subset of the shosetsu is in fact the most significant and the most “truly Japanese” of modern Japanese literary forms. Recent Western studies (such as those by Edward Fowler and Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit) have worked to identify the defining formal characteristics of the shi-shosetsu, particularly as it differs from the novel, both to recuperate it from the defamation of previous Eurocentric criticism and to offer response to Japanese-language critical discussion of the form. Hijiya-Kirschnereit, for example, argues convincingly that there were women writers of shi-shosetsu, contrary to the usual Japanese critical assertion that it was a form employed by men only.

Suzuki’s study positions itself explicitly in relation to these recent publications on the shi-shosetsu: her project is to counter the notion of the shi-shosetsu as “an inherent literary genre with identifiable textual features”; she sees it rather as “a historically constructed dominant reading and interpretive paradigm.” Although the issues discussed in this book are identical to those that have configured earlier studies—authenticity, phonocentrism, the autonomous subject, and the development of a modern language, among others—Suzuki takes a historiographic approach, identifying the various moments when the idea of shi-shosetsu was created and then recruited to substantiate retroactively particular arguments about these issues. Although Tayama Katai’s Futon (1907) is frequently cited as the origin-text of the shi-shosetsu, the category was not created until at least two decades later, in the service of a critical debate about the value of Japanese literature [End Page 539] in comparison with Western forms. As Suzuki explains, significant debate over the shi-shosetsu surfaced twice more: around 1935 and immediately after World War II. She traces the circumstances that produced and defined these debates—both in the contexts of literary and social history—and then discusses (all too briefly, in some cases) the various ideological purposes served through the invocation of the shi...

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