Minae Mizumura is an important Japanese author, three of whose books have been translated into English: A True Novel, which I reviewed earlier in this blog, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which the Columbia University Press published in 2015, and Inheritance from Mother, which the Other Press is publishing in May 2017.
Mizumura was born in Tokyo, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve. She after studying fine art in Boston and then lived in Paris, she studied French literature at Yale College and Yale Graduate School. While a graduate student, Mizumura published "Renunciation," a critical essay on the work of literary critic Paul de Man. The essay is often
cited as one of the earliest contributions toward a comprehensive study
of de Man's writings. Upon finishing her M.Phil. program, Mizumura returned to
Japan to write fiction in Japanese. She has taught modern Japanese literature at Princeton, the
University of Michigan, and Stanford, and has been a resident novelist
in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Inheritance from Mother, whose Japanese title includes "—A Newspaper Novel," is a 66-chapter, 448-page fiction Mizumura wrote as a weekly newspaper serial. In Part One, Mitsuki Katsura is a Japanese woman in her mid-fifties who works as a French language instructor at a private university in Tokyo and who cares for her terminally-ill mother until she finally—finally!—dies. It is not an easy death (the mother is not going gently into that good night) and Mitsuki must also deal with her flighty, wealthy older sister and her professor husband who is teaching in Vietnam while having an affair with his current lover. In Part Two, Mitsuki retreats to a lake-front hotel in Hakone, the historic mountain resort south of Tokyo, where she contemplates her impending divorce, her mother's legacy, and her impending independence.
In the course of the novel, impressively translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, we learn a great deal about ordinary, middle-class Japanese life while simultaneously seeing the society and their personal situation through the eyes of well-defined individuals—a neat trick. With an aging population, how are the Japanese coping? What are the effects of class, rank, and education on familial obligations, marriage, aging? What remains of traditional Japanese life and attitudes toward death, dying, divorce? For Mitsuke, "After giving the matter a great deal of thought, she decided that even if she did not go through with the divorce, facing squarely the fact that her marriage had been a failure was the least she could do to live out her life with dignity."
In addition to Mitsuke's interactions with her dying mother and feckless sister, a pleasure of Inheritance from Mother is an observation like:
"Western novels made much of love and lovers, an influence that came to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West. Although the eponymous hero of the classic Tale of Genji was known for his amorous adventures, in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many—certainly less central than the change of seasons. The Western novels that had reached Japan in the last century and a half were almost all romance novels, transforming Japanese readers—especially women—into romantics. Women became more particular. They grew discontented with the husbands chosen for them by parent, relatives, or neighbors, longing like Emma [Bovary] for someone to whisper thrilling words of love . . ."
And in an interesting comment about serial newspaper novels in a serial newspaper novel, Mizumura writes, "If the content of serial novels was no longer as impressive as it had been, neither was the style, which had often been of a rare sophistication . . . Over the course of a century, as newspapers increasingly became part of every household's morning ritual, subscribers were exposed no only to novels patterned after western novels, singing of amour and amants but to articles full of new words translated from the West, among them words for 'democracy,' 'individual,' and 'liberty." Gradually, newspapers shaped a new language and a new breed of Japanese people."
I hope I have not given a distorted impression of the novel by these quotes. Inheritance from Mother, as a Japanese reviewer wrote, is filled with "human longings and hatreds; beauty and ugliness; grace and vulgarity; money problems, family lineage, and a marriage gone sour; sickness and old age. The author's adeptness in dealing fully with a plethora of such themes in simply scary." I can only concur and recommend the book.