- Refining Nature in Modern Japanese Literature: The Life and Art of Shiga Naoya by Nanyan Guo
Shiga Naoya (1883–1971) seems to have posed a challenge for literary critics. Some Western critics have faulted his works according to classical criteria of characterization, plot development, and thematic coherence, while others have groped for categories such as “artlessness” or “Zen aesthetics.” Japanese critics seem to be sunk in [End Page 173] biographism, as if this master of the I-novel were a mere diarist. The frontier between autobiography and fiction is remarkably porous in Shiga, but his projection of the world of “I” has a potency beyond autobiography. Few writers have captured so well the inner landscape of the self, of everyone’s self. Writers such as Henry James, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf may capture the intimate murmur of self-consciousness, but they process it according to an elite aesthetics. Shiga’s writings are closer to ordinary life, in all its mediocrity, messiness, and inconsequentiality, and they present it in a pellucid style that beautifies nothing yet gives dignity to daily reality by naming it as it is. The Japanese male reader must in particular feel at home with the self-scape that Shiga projects in his one full-length novel, An’ya kōro (A Dark Night’s Passing). This work may owe more to the older Japanese authors Shiga read, such as Ihara Saikaku, than to Western models. He enthused about European writers such as Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, Gustave Flaubert (Trois contes), and André Gide (La symphonie pastorale), and he claimed Lafcadio Hearn as the chief influence on him besides Saikaku. Unlike Tanizaki Jun’ichirō or Mishima Yukio, however, Shiga was not a great absorber of Western influences.
Refining Nature in Modern Japanese Literature does not solve the problem of finding a fertile literary-critical approach to Shiga’s writing (or, as author Nanyan Guo calls it throughout, his “literature”). Guo recounts what critics say about Shiga’s works, as well as some of Shiga’s own comments on it, which are often rather jejune, as are his comments on other writers. For instance, on a sentence from Maxim Gorky (“We wanted something to love, we had found what we wanted, and we loved it”), Shiga comments: “How simple. But it is really true.” And Guo adds: “This shows Shiga’s fondness for brevity and clarity in sentence structure” (p. 136).
Guo focuses on Shiga as a nature writer, which is a promising path into the texture of his writing. She tackles this theme in a documentary fashion, with detailed examinations of his rapport with the moon, the sun, plants, and living creatures. We learn, for example, that 30 kinds of plants are mentioned in An’ya kōro, as contrasted with 77 in Kojiki, 85 in Nihon shoki, 160 in Man’yōshū, and 116 in Genji monogatari. What Shiga called the “original sin” in his background (quoted on p. 63), mirrored in the murky circumstances of the protagonist’s birth in his novel, ironically concerned a poisoning of nature: his father was connected with the ninety years of pollution caused by the Ashio Copper Mine. This fact cuts athwart the healing, maternal role that nature played at many points in Shiga’s life and writings.
The biographical approach takes Guo to great lengths of Sherlock Holmes-style investigation, notably in her reconstruction of when and where exactly the climactic Encounter with Nature in Shiga’s novel took place. On the basis of repeated visits to Mt. Daisen, she verifies that at the moment of the day when Shiga stood there, the shadow of the mountain did not in fact reach to the bay, contrary to what the novel recounts. There have been similar investigations of the real origin of famous poems such as William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” usually to bolster some literary-critical point. The point in...