Like photographers, writers who stick at their trade long enough may find themselves in possession, without having realized it, of a substantial body of work, one that has accumulated silently like a snowdrift. Donald Richie’s book reviews of Japanese literature, many of which have appeared in this newspaper, were not written as a preconceived body of work but, through the persistence of time, became one.
It may seem odd to be reviewing a collection of reviews, but there are exceptions to everything, and Richie’s work is nothing if not exceptional. Reading this book, it is easy to forget that Richie is not primarily a scholar-critic, but an artist whose range of interests and devotions have included filmmaking and criticism, biography, social commentary, several works of fiction including novels, short stories and Noh plays, and travel pieces. The short form required of book reviewing suits Richie well, a writer who, like Susan Sontag, is an accomplished miniaturist. Many of the reviews in fact, read like carefully crafted essays. Richie, we realize, is a classicist.
Richie resolutely refuses to kowtow or pander to received opinions and tastes in these assessments. On the subject of a new translation of the “Hagakure,” a manual on the conduct most required to follow the way of the samurai, Richie writes: “There remains the question as to why such a silly book as this should merit four translations in as many years.” In this very personal journey through Japanese literature from its earliest to latest offerings, Richie negotiates a number of forms, from novels and plays, to historical biographies, literary diaries, and the unique poetic structures of the senryu and haiku.
Richie focuses mainly on jun bungaku — “pure literature” — eschewing the lobotomized pop of authors like Haruki Murukami, or the experimentation of younger writers influenced by digital technology, animation, and science fiction. Richie has his preferences and makes them known. He sticks up valiantly for the largely marginalized Yokomitsu Riichi; Ibuse Masuji is lauded for his clean and spare historical novels, the plywood-light Tomioka Taeko is accorded almost as much attention as the brilliant, darkly grained Junichiro Tanizaki.
If Richie is conversant with the works of Japanese court ladies, mendicant poets, and Nobel laureates, he also knows his Jane Austin and W.B. Yeats, a breadth of erudition that allows him to make some interesting contrasts and comparisons, yoking and cross-referencing the most implausible of writers.
A more than passing acquaintance with world literature, history and civilization allow Richie, when discussing subtext from the Tokugawa Period writer Ihara Saikaku, for example, to draw the conclusion that sexual predictions often mask politically driven ulterior motives, that “in a military society such as Tokugawa Japan, it would not have been surprising if the authorities found as many uses for devotion as did those in Plutarch’s Sparta or Chretien de Troyes’ Champagne.”
Elsewhere, we are invited to read Chikamatsu, not as a realistic dramatist, but as “an opera librettist . . . a kind of Japanese Lorenzo da Ponte,” after which his excellence, we are assured, will become self-evident.
The beautifully crafted and modulated writing we have come to expect of this graceful and literate wordsmith is here in abundance. Commenting on a favorite haiku by Matsuo Basho, undisputed master of the form, Richie observes that it is everything it ought to be: “a salient shaft of observance, cause and effect, a seasonal sensibility, a taste of the common humors of humanity.” This is as perfect a definition of this verse form you are likely to find.
While no critical overview of Japanese literature can be complete, at just under 500 pages, this is as good as it gets.