Is Tamenaga Shunsui's (1790-1843) Shunshoku umegoyomi (1832-3) Japan's first modern novel? According to Donald Keene, the ninjōbon "came exceedingly close to earning that distinction.” Whether it is or not, of course, depends on how you define the term "modern novel." If we are to follow Tsubouchi Shōyō's definition given in Shōsetsu shinzui, his manifesto for a new Victorian sort of realism, then Shunshoku umegoyomi does not qualify. But if we define the "modern novel" broadly enough to allow for more "postmodern" (or in the Japanese case, pre- and early modern) elements such as involution, frequent narrative shifts, disregard for unity of plot and character development, and a distrust of "objectivity" and "realism," then the work, along with many other pre- and early-modern works, just might qualify.
There is much disagreement over what constitutes a "modern novel," so for sake of brevity let us assume here that Shōyō's definition in Shōsetsu shinzui is correct. (Note: The fact that Umegoyomi does not meet Shōyō’s criteria for the new novel is by no means an indictment of the work, but rather a simple statement of fact.)
Shōyō intended his essay to be an instructional manual for aspiring novelists. Shōyō proposes first that "realism" (as understood by the late Victorians) take the place of what Earl Miner calls Japan's traditional "affective expressive system," and, second, that a Kantian aestheticism take the place of the Confucian didacticism that he felt had corrupted the literature of the previous age. Shōyō also gives many pointers on how the writer should handle specific problems of his craft—from linguistic and stylistic concerns to the proper relation of writer to audience.
Umegoyomi is no "realist" novel. There is no Aristotelian plot, no structural unity, no development or "dignity of character." The work, a parody, is humorous and playful in tone, and lacks the moral seriousness and tonal sincerity found in "realist" works of Europe. The work also lacks the moral purpose that Shōyō cites as a secondary benefit to the realist novel. The only sermonizing in the work is farcical. Finally, the narrative flexibility displayed in the work is a feature of nonmimetic rather than mimetic or realist works.
Earl Miner argues in his essay "The Grounds of Mimetic and Nonmimetic Art" that Japanese traditional art and literature (by traditional he means Japanese literature prior to the influence from the West) is essentially nonmimetic. “Japanese aesthetic," he writes, "rests not on the imitation of discrete agencies but on relation.” In other words, the subject of the literary work is not the simulation of an external, observable reality, but rather a "re-presentation" of conventions with which the audience is already familiar. Tamenaga Shunsui's Umegoyomi is no exception, as it parodies the tales-of-a-famed-male-lover genre of classic literature, the two most notable examples being Ise monogatari and Genji monogatari. Because Umegoyomi is ultimately art-referential (i.e., a literary pastiche) rather than life-referential (i.e., mimetic), it is disqualified from Shōyō's "new novel" category. For a work to meet Shōyō’s standards, it must depend on verisimilitude to real-world characters and situations, rather than on the "unreal" world of classical legends and archetypes.
A work of pastiche, Umegoyomi is filled with self-referentiality and allusion to texts from both high and low culture—two types of referencing that Tsubouchi Shōyō warns against in Shōsetsu shinzui. Umegoyomi is also filled with product placements that never let us forget that the work exists, first and foremost, within the commercial realm of the Edo marketplace. Also, there is much self-promotion in the work, as Tamenaga Shunsui repeatedly reminds his readers to purchase his other books. Shunsui, or more accurately his author-persona, even interrupts the story at one point to defend such self-promotion. In another section, the author-persona again interrupts the story to promote a sequel, to defend his use of explicit scenes, and to provide commentary on the included illustrations. The literary fictional past, the "real" historical past, the commercial realm of present-day Edo, and the inhabited worlds of the author all simultaneously coexist in the work and interact with an ease never imagined by any "realist" novelist in Europe.
The work also displays a complex layering of narratives within the main story. An example of this can be seen in Chapter 14 when Yonehachi picks up the book of a drunken client who has fallen asleep. The story Yonehachi reads temporarily becomes the main story, within which another story emerges in the form of a song that is a harbinger of what is to come in the lives of Yonehachi and Tanjirō. The sudden transfer from one narrative to a narrative embedded within it is a device found frequently in Shunsui (and in Edo literature in general), and shows that the author-narrator is as capable of submerging his subjectivity as he is of boisterously intruding upon the work. Long, epistolary insertions, like that in Chapter 18, also attest to the author's ability to conceal his presence entirely. Reference to songs and poetry are found nearly everywhere in the work, reminding readers that they are inhabiting a middle-ground between fiction and real life. Such narrative methods are a far cry from what Shōyō is promoting, namely a novel whose purpose is "solely to provide a critique of life." Umegoyomi is certainly not a "discussion of life" in the sense that Shōyō and Morley advocate.
Shōyō holds that the primary function of the literary work is aesthetic rather than didactic. Yet even so, he still seems to believe in the ennobling powers of the novel, and warns against pandering to the "vulgar tastes" of the public. "Eroticism, too, is to be avoided," he writes. Yet even if we dismiss the more sermonic passages of Umegoyomi as satire or as a kind self-censorship to avoid being banned, Umegoyomi still little resembles the "aesthetic" literature Shōyō advocates—for, in the end, Umegoyomi's humor is bawdy, lewd, and surely not appropriate for the "discerning audiences" Shōyō had in mind. Although Shōyō admits pleasure as one of the sources for his aestheticism, he would surely disapprove of the pleasures depicted in Umegoyomi, namely, violence, rowdy sex, even gang-rape.
Regarding problems of style, Shōyō argues that the new novel should employ more "positive description" (yōshudan) and less "negative description" (inshudan). By "positive description," he means objective, scientific descriptions made by a detached, third-person narrator, and by "negative description," he means the "Oriental" way of describing indirectly— through, say, dialogue—and which is the preferred method in monogatari.
The author-narrator's direct involvement, too, should be minimal, Shōyō advises. As noted, Umegoyomi exhibits much authorial intervention and commentary, and, since the story is related through a single, semi-involved perspective, it is more akin to monogatari than to the "positive description" of Victorian realism. The actively engaged narrator-author of Umegoyomi is thus a far cry from the hidden, omniscient third-person narrator Shōyō holds as the ideal.
Besides the authorial interjections and poetic insertions, most of Umegoyomi is presented in dialogue, thus qualifying it as a work of "negative description."
Shōyō also claims that the new novel must have a "mixed style" that is an evenly distributed combination of the literary and colloquial styles, and which is employed in a manner appropriate to content. Umegoyomi, being mostly dialogue, has a disproportionate percentage written in colloquial, and therefore does not meet his standard in this regard either. Also, in the tradition of monogatari, the work is episodic and thus structurally closer to haikai than to Aristotelian conceptions regarding unity and plot. Though there is thematic and narrative continuity between chapters, there is neither the kind of character development nor plot resolution advocated by Shōyō. Moreover, Shōyō would most likely consider Shunsui's frequent narrative interruptions for the insertion of poetry to be pedantic hindrances to the development of story and character. Finally, Shōyō asserts that the hero must possess noble, admirable characteristics. Though the audience surely sympathizes with Umegoyomi's bumbling anti-hero Tanjirō, his disgraceful financial and emotional dependency on women certainly precludes him from being considered noble.
Keene must have felt that Umegoyomi was "exceeding close" to the "modern novel" because its characters were realistically portrayed with minimal exaggeration—especially when compared with other “flawed” Edo-period works. Shōyō, too, felt much of Edo literature to be marred with exaggeration, which he found to be incompatible with “true realism.” In this sense, Umegoyomi comes closer to Shōyō's definition of realism than, say, Bakin's Hakkenden, since the characters of Umegoyomi exist in realistic settings, encounter realistic scenarios, and respond emotionally.
Indeed, Tanjirō, Yonehachi, and the other characters in Umegoyomi are not the kind of "superficial, exaggerated personalities" that Shōyō despises. Yet despite all the connections to real Edo life, this parodic work is still essentially art-referential, and, as a literary genre, is fundamentally different from Shōyō's "new novel."
[For an English translation of Umegoyomi, see Romantic Edo fiction : a study of the ninjobon and complete translation of Shunshoku umegoyomi by Alan S. Woodhull. The original can be found in the 国民の文学 Series, V 18, 春色梅暦 / 為永春水 [著] ; 舟橋聖一 他訳 ]
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
This just in from Meredith Utrabui, first-year student at the University of Nebraska: