In the Shade of Spring Leaves, by Robert Lyons Danly, is part biography of Ms Ichiyō and part a collection of nine of her short stories. I decided to read the stories first and then go back to the biography. To my disappointment, I didn’t like any of the stories, and I struggled to get through the 150 pages of stories before today. Alternatively, I’m now reading a little bit about her life and it sounds very interesting. She was a celebrity in Meiji Japan (a “shooting star,” says the introduction, page vii), and her stories are distinct because of the realism in them: “one imagines a yarn as much to tell the truth as to tell a story.” The realism may have been my problem. I prefer happy endings.Higuchi Ichiyō certainly was good at telling the truth! Her stories all ended in a very realistic way, but this was part of the trouble for me. A few examples: in “The Thirteenth Night”, the abused wife returns to her husband. (I really disliked that ending, realistic as it may have been.) In “Troubled Waters,” the drunk man’s wife leaves him and the unhappy geisha commits suicide with her lover. Even in “Child’s Play,” probably my favorite story, it ends with the children not talking to each other: they’ve grown up and let annoyances and fights ruin the friendship. There was genius in this ability to capture the tragedies of life, but I personally didn’t like reading so much emphasis on tragedy and the rotten side of human nature.
And then we come to the writing. To be nice, I’ll say I disliked it. Especially in the first stories, I felt Ms Ichiyō forced dialog. She also spent too long describing settings and characters rather than letting them show themselves, the epitome of “tell and not show.” I also disliked her lack of segues. In the longer stories, such as “Child’s Play,” she shifted from one set of people to the next, with the result being confusion as to how each scene relates to the previous one. I suppose rereads are in order in order to see how the entire story fits together. But, needless to say, I don’t have the patience to do so. The stories were frustrating. Ichiyō definitely improved through the nine representative stories in this volume, but her writing style was still not engaging or interesting to me. I just didn’t like it. I had to force myself to keep reading, story after story. And there were only nine of them!
I recently enjoyed the fictional account of Ginko Ogino, the first woman doctor in Meiji Japan, so I was excited to read of another Meiji woman, this time reading her own words! I guess I should have stuck with reading about her life, as I’m very curious to know how she was a “shooting star” in the 1890s. I may still peruse the story of her life. It may turn out to be more interesting to me than her stories were.
At any rate, this was a reminder of why I don’t want review copies: it makes me feel awkward when I have to say “I didn’t like this book.” Although the Classics Circuit does not provide “review copies,” it’s kind of similar in that we’re writing about a specific work we’ve selected. Add to that the fact that The Classics Circuit is kind of my baby, and it becomes hard to criticize a classic that I was encouraging others to read. Let it be noted that I can now better understand people who say “Classics aren’t for me.” I have to say, some aren’t for me either!
Also on my personal Meiji-era Japanese literature list are a number of novels by Natsume Soseki: I Am a Cat (I began it this summer but stall) and Kasamakura are two I own. We’ll see if the Classics Circuit encourages me to add any others!
Check out the schedule to see where else Meiji-era Japan is touring this week.