Like all artists, novelists find the impetus to begin in various places. Some inspire themselves with a formal challenge. Georges Perec, for example, asked himself what would happen if he tried to write a novel entirely bereft of the letter “e.” Others, in their doodling and false starts, stumble upon a sentence that compels them to go on, perhaps because that sentence seems to contain, in its 10 or 20 words, the novel that must be written. The opening of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” — is exemplary in this regard. Most commonly, though, novels find their genesis in other novels: Books are built upon books. In some cases the books upon which other books are built are difficult for the undiscerning reader to see: the Wilkie Collins in Franz Kafka, for example. In other cases, the source texts are obvious and acknowledged. Minae Mizumura’s “A True Novel” is one of those.
“A True Novel” is, in part, an updating and relocating of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” to postwar Japan. That sounds like it could be quite awful, but Mizumura, avoids the trap of slavishly following Bronte, and in so doing makes her novel something different — not a copy of Bronte’s classic, but a commentary on it, and also on themes, most notably passion and social class, that also interested Bronte, but do not, of course, belong to her.
A crude indicator of how different Mizumura’s book is from Bronte’s is that it is more than twice as long. The length of Mizumura’s version, however, need not daunt us. It is no less of a page-turner than “Wuthering Heights” and, indeed, thanks to the knowing twists Mizumura gives the form — she is a scholar of French literature and has written on the literary theorist Paul de Man — it is, in some respects, more interesting.
Mizumura has written her own book, but “Wuthering Heights” is always present. Driving the novel, for example, is the Catherine-and-Heathcliff-like passion between a woman called Yoko whose background is respectably upper class and Taro Azuma, a war orphan returned from China, who is not so much working class as a total outcaste.
Mizumura borrows from Bronte, too, in the manner in which the story is related. The main narrative of “Wuthering Heights” is mostly told by one of its characters, a servant named Ellen Dean, to another character, Lockwood. Mizumura takes this story-within-a-story frame further: “A True Novel” is mostly told by a servant named Fumiko to a young man she happens to meet, who tells it in turn to a character called Minae Mizumura, a novelist writing a book not unlike this one and living a life not unlike the novelist Minae Mizumura’s. Fumiko is certainly Mizumura’s Ellen Dean, but Scheherazade seems present as well.
Fumiko is as unreliable a narrator as Ellen Dean, and just as some have seen Ellen Dean, rather than Heathcliff, as the true villain of Bronte’s novel, so it is hard to find Fumiko blameless. Though as with Ellen Dean, it will be easy for unwary readers to sympathize with her and to see her as offering an objective view of both the upper-class Saegusa and Shigemitsu families, and the impoverished background out of which the Heathcliff stand-in, Taro Azuma, emerges. What is undeniable is that Fumiko is capable of telling as riveting story as the gossipy Ellen Dean.
One thing that makes” A True Novel” a welcome update on “Wuthering Heights” is the subtlety with which Mizumura draws the key characters. Azuma, for example, like Heathcliff, is an abused child, but he doesn’t, as a result, turn into a demon. Rather, his obsessive love for Yoko, and her rejection of him for his working-class manner — “He looks so rough, and his speech is rough too. … How could I upset Mama and Papa to marry him? What would Aunt Harue and everyone say?”— drive him to find a way to make himself into someone that even snooty Aunt Harue would accept or, rather, into a person for whom Aunt Harue’s opinions are of no account. His impulse is human rather than demonic.
Fumiko and Azuma are so richly conceived that one is surprised to see Mizumura bungle her depiction of “Aunt Harue and everyone,” the established upper class from which Yoko springs. A recurring marker of their snobbishness, for example, is their love for and knowledge of classical music. Considering that Japan is a country where a substantial number of middle-class girls play Chopin, and where Tower Records’ classical floor is crowded more often than not, this seems almost comically off.
Such lapses are rare. Indeed, thanks in part to Juliet Winters Carpenter’s fluent translation, one skates right over such stumbles, eager to know what happens — or what Fumiko, by way of the fictional Mizumura (and also the real one), says happens — next. Readers happy to lose themselves in a narrative but who prefer to lose themselves in a maze that is cunningly wrought, that is artful enough to stand with a book rightly called a classic, will relish “A True Novel.”