Once upon a time J David Simons, who has returned to his home town in Glasgow, lived in Japan. He has now channelled some of that experience into his third novel, much of which takes place in Hakone, 100 kilometers from Tokyo. This by way of explanation, as to why I chose to read An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful for January in Japan. (The event organiser may, of course, rule the entry invalid ….)
Nevertheless this is a fine novel. There are, in fact, other adjectives I’d like to use but I’ve decided I’m not going to repeat those used in the title … although both apply. The novel is also unafraid to tackle the controversial. See if you can spot the controversy from the publisher’s blurb.
An eminent British writer returns to the resort hotel in the Japanese mountains where he once spent a beautiful, snowed-in winter. It was there he fell in love and wrote his best-selling novel, The Waterwheel, accusing America of being in denial about the horrific aftermath of the Tokyo firebombings and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we learn more about his earlier life, however – as a student in Bloomsbury, involved with a famous American painter – we realise that he too is in denial, trying to escape past events that are now rapidly catching up with him.
How many themes and subjects that interest me can be pulled from that synopsis? Let’s see: the writer’s life, from getting his 1st break to becoming a much-lauded elder statesman; Bloomsbury; art history; secrets from the past. The argument about America’s war record in Japan not so much, because all war subjects distress me. However, given that both sides of the argument are fairly represented (and at times very creatively in the form of extracts from a novel within the novel) I have to say that at no stage did my interest wane. There is further controversy in that personal secret; one that comes back to haunt our protagonist but only because he is a celebrity once married to another, whose autobiography tells all. Politically correct society will judge him, although surprisingly I did not. (There were, I found, convincing mitigating circumstances.)
As I’ve read and reviewed both of Simons’s previous novels (here and here), I know he is, to quote the blurb, “a skilled storyteller” and so I was expecting nothing less than a darn good yarn. So it proved to be. His style is detailed without being overly descriptive and verbose. The book is populated with characters to love (the literary agent), to hate (the protagonist’s wife, Macy Collingwood), and those who are a little more ambiguous (Edward Strathairn, the eminent author himself). The action spans East and West. The cultural differences between Japan and the West and between Britain and America are demonstrated through the behaviour of the characters – nowhere more tellingly than in the contrast between Edward’s American and Japanese loves. While present and past narratives converge convincingly into a dramatic finale, there is mirroring along the way that I found – I give in, there’s no other word for it – exquisite.
There are other enjoyable touches including multiple references to Nobel Laureate Kawabata’s novel, Snow Country, which has duly been added to my wishlist, recognition of the importance of literary translators, and some thought-provoking linguistic theory.
“…. a linguistic theory I’m putting forward about the Japanese. The way they put the verb at the end of the sentence.”
“The Japanese want to know the details first before they take action. Same with the Germans and their verb.”
“And we English-speakers?”
“Oh, that’s easy. We’re all about “I” with a big, capital letter. Even in the middle of a sentence. Only culture to do that. But usually it’s “I” right at the beginning followed by a verb. We put our big selves first, then we do the action, then we worry about the details later. I, I, I, I. That’s what we English-speakers are all about. But does our grammar create our culture of egotism? Or does our culture create our grammar?”
In the course of his literary duties, Edward Strathairn must perform public readings and answer audience questions. These scenes are playful vignettes of the “toil” of contemporary authors. At one such event I attended, a mega-selling author, (Mark Billingham, I think) stated his belief that it takes 3 novels for an author to really hit his stride. Novels 1 and 2 were good, but with this one, I reckon Simons has now taken possession of his 7-league boots.