The I-novel is a genre much maligned and misunderstood, but its lasting effects on Japanese literature are undeniable.
To many literary critics, it is an outdated, narrow genre confined to a specific time and place at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet I-novels (shishōsetsu or watakushi shōsetsu) provided a cultural bridge for early 20th century writers to cross beyond Confucian ideals of highbrow literature into a landscape that allowed modern fiction to flourish.
Translated by Ted Goossen
Following the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854 and the subsequent Meiji Restoration, sudden exposure to Western literature compelled Japanese writers and thinkers to devour ideas from abroad. Many cultural movements took hold, one of them being naturalism. Made popular by French journalist and writer Emile Zola (1840-1902), naturalism in French literature trades the romantic for the scientific, using tenets of observation and self-examination to present a realistic, humanistic view of the external world.
In response, shizen shugi (Japanese naturalism) developed, turning the French focus on using observation of society to create socially-conscious literature toward a more introspective emphasis on the realities of the individual. This in turn inspired the I-novel, where confessional, autobiographical works delve into the internal experience of the author. At their best, I-novels offer the opportunity to examine not only the individual but society as a whole, revealing universal truths about the human condition.
An exemplar of the genre is “Reconciliation” by Naoya Shiga (1883-1971). The novella, translated by Ted Goossen, was published for the first time in English in August. Shiga recounts with searing honesty his personal struggles as a young writer, father and son. As author and narrator, Shiga’s flaws are painfully yet soberly revealed as he battles his estranged father, setbacks with his own writing and the tragedy he faces with the death of a child.
When it debuted in 1917, the novella won praise for its understated, finely-wrought reveal of humanity. In Goossen’s translation, it stands the test of time, simultaneously proving its enduring relevance to the themes of relationships, grief and aging, and as a perfect example of what the I-novel aims to achieve.
“‘Reconciliation’ is a way to understand not just Shiga himself as a person but more generally ourselves and our changing roles from child to parent,” says Goossen. “I first translated the work as a graduate student back in the mid-1980s and my children were three and five-years-old. I could naturally empathize more with Shiga’s role, a young father estranged from his own father.
“This time, when I went back to the translation, I was already past 70. So I was (closer to) the father’s age, yet the novel still feels relevant (to me). My perspective was altered simply by my own aging process. A lot of good books are like that. You go back to read them at a different age and you can see them in a new way. It’s what makes a work enduring.”
Another reason the novella endures is because of its distinctive style, which features a clinical, detached voice that draws the reader into the complicated pain of the narrator’s experiences. As Goossen puts it, “the scenes unfold ruthlessly.”
In the most memorable sequence, the narrator’s two-month-old daughter suddenly becomes ill, and the young parents’ escalating worry is palpable as they desperately seek treatment. Goossen says reading the original translation when his own children were small “left (him) unable to sleep.”
Shiga’s autobiographical novella and other I-novels helped to usher in a new attitude toward fiction in early 20th-century Japanese culture. Goossen, who is a professor of Japanese literature at York University in Toronto, says that “lying behind the I-novel tradition is a Confucian tradition that saw fiction in very negative terms. A true scholar or gentleman writing for the right reasons was not cooking up plots. That was for the masses, the hoi polloi, so that type of writing was not respected. If you told your parents in the early 1900s you wanted to be a writer, they would have been terribly upset. I-novels helped change that attitude.”
Famous examples of I-novels include the original pioneer of the genre, 1907’s “The Quilt” by Katai Tayama, which follows in detail a married, middle-aged writer’s attraction to his young female student and the ensuing complications. There’s also “No Longer Human” by Osamu Dazai, which chronicles the author’s struggles with depression and recounts his many suicide attempts, becoming a bestseller when it was published in 1948 and spawning manga and film adaptations.
To Goossen, using your own life as material is something most writers do, in one way or another. “Autobiographical fiction is an interesting pair of words to stick together,” he says. “You have ‘autobiographical,’ which sounds like nonfiction, jutting up against ‘fiction.’ Yet unlike some I-novelists, Shiga sometimes felt the need to fictionalize to reach the true essence of his experience. He never felt he was pulling the wool over his readers’ eyes or creating something out of nothing. When he added fictional elements to his work, he did it to make his experience more real, to crystallize what he had seen or thought.
“For him, it’s all the same process. You are trying to find the best way to replicate images and feelings.”
This new translation achieves just that.