- Reviewed by
The two volumes under review, although markedly different in their respective critical approaches, together reflect the growing sophistication of research in the field of modern Japanese literature. Edward Fowler's groundbreaking study of the shishoōsetsu, a problematic and much-debated form of autobiographical fiction that dominated the Taishō (1912-1926) literary scene, signals the coming-of-age of a narratological approach to Japanese literary texts.
Fowler's study consists of three sections, the first two serving as the theoretical and cultural-historical framework and the third exploring the work of representative authors. Fowler seeks to demonstrate that the shishōsetsu, despite its relatively brief heyday and limited readership, occupies the very heartland of modern Japanese fiction. In his view, intrinsic features of Japanese language and culture (and here Buddhism and Confucianism figure prominently) have combined to foster a literary tradition in which putatively authentic accounts of personal experience came to acquire a privileged status, while the art(ifice) of fiction, insofar as it was perceived as such, was denigrated on account of its inferior truth value. This tradition, of which shishōsetsu is a recent manifestation, has elevated "sincerity" and "genuineness" at the expense of "mere" storytelling. As a consequence, an author's life became in effect a meta-text, the ultimate referent for any judgment of one's writing.
Deriving in part from a collective literary self-examination by young writers at the turn of the twentieth century, the shishōsetsu emerged as a conventionalized form of highly subjective, largely confessional narrative in which the boundary between author, narrator, and protagonist is attenuated in the extreme. In the course of exposing the curious opacity and emptiness of what purports to be the [End Page 397] ne plus ultra of literary self-representation in Japan, Fowler comes close to arguing for shishōsetsu as the centerpiece of a general poetics of modern Japanese fiction.
Fowler goes on to explore the historical and social context within which the shishōsetsu developed. He attributes particular significance—and rightly so—to the role played by the bundan, the Tokyo literary community, which in the first decade of the twentieth century became a subculture of disaffected writers and intellectuals who, seeking to live the literary life to the hilt, ended up producing pained accounts of their marginal social status. Fowler stresses the ritualized aspect of this group confessionalism, arguing persuasively that the long-standing and uncritical assumption of nonfictionality that came to surround such writing has its basis in certain rhetorical conventions and reader expectations. In this regard he examines the work of key "harbingers" of the shishōsetsu—Kunikida Doppo (1871-1908), Tayama Katai (1872-1930), and others—whose work established the framework for bundan-centered confessional narratives. I found the discussion here—the privatization of literature in the period following the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), for example, and the dramatic expansion of literary journalism—particularly valuable.
Having thus contextualized the shishōsetsu form, Fowler proceeds to illustrate the range of its narrative styles through an analysis of three writers: Chikamatsu Shūkō (1876-1944), Kasai Zenzo (1887-1928), and Shiga Naoya (1883-1971). The first two are virtually unknown outside of Japan (and little enough known inside). Shiga, on the other hand, is a figure of enormous stature, widely reputed to be Japan's purest, most eloquent prose stylist. Fowler takes great pains to reveal the rhetorical underpinnings of the celebrated "Shiga style," and although his reading is consistently skillful and assured, there remains a tedious quality to his analysis (more so, I should add, in the case of the other two authors). Simply put, most of the excerpted "stories" under scrutiny resist being read as stories (studied artlessness, after all, having been the objective). Precious little here will interest the nonspecialist, and because so much of the literary effect being examined hinges on Japanese linguistic peculiarities...