Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity

Suzuki, Tomi. Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Suzuki proposes that the I-novel is not a literary genre that has “referential, thematic, or formal characteristics.” Instead she argues it “is best defined as a mode of reading that assumes that the I-novel is a single-voiced, ‘direct’ expression of the author’s ‘self’ and that its written language is ‘transparent.'” (6)  As both a reading mode and a discourse (in the Foucauldian sense), and she sees the mode of I-novel reading as dominant from the mid-1920s to the 1960s. She challenges Fowler (and others) by centralizing the notion that the I-novel was entirely “a literary and ideological paradigm by which a vast majority of literary works were judged and described.” (6) Semiotically she suggests the term itself is a signifier without a stable signified, following the theoretical trend to understand the very notion of self and subjectivity as a manifestation of a process of interplay between constantly shifting historical, political, and social discursive practices. Only at the end of the Taisho period, after the reading mode had been firmly established, were there authors who emerged as “self-conscious I-novelists” who “presupposed and internalized the I-novel reading mode” (7).  Although Suzuki makes very explicit moves to distance herself from both Fowler and Hijiya-Kirschnereit (who were also writing on I-novels, though attempting to define the genre and decode the “essential meaning” of the texts in it), she echoes Fowler’s assertion that the I-novel has influences far beyond the years it is to acknowledged to have been its height (1906 – 1910s). This is because the reading mode of the I-novel is part of the larger history of Japan at a time when “fundamental changes in assumptions about literature, the novel (shosetsu), language, representation, and views of the ‘self'” (7) occurred.  She contradicts Fowler’s assertion that I-novels are a cultural product of a very closed, small society (bundan) by suggesting the “growing role of journalism in an expanding industrialized mass society after the mid-1920’s, however, actually spread and institutionalized I-novel critical discourse, making it the dominant paradigm of historical and cultural analysis.” (8) Suzuki also, much like Karatani in Origins, points out the ways this critical discourse was not only deployed for new texts, but also used retroactively to order older writing styles and works to narrate in the 1930s a different genealogy of the “history of modern Japanese literature.”

In part 1 she argues the search for a “true modern self” is the primary force behind the development of I-novel and explores the variety of ways in which that self was seen as being found, developed, or written in literature. The Shirakabaha (White Birch Group) Japanese literary movement centered on magazine Shirakaba (published first in 1910-1923) associated with Shiga Naoya, Mushanokoji Saneatsu, Yanagi Sosetsu, Satomi Ton, Arishima Takeo, and Nagayo Yoshiro –fascinated by European artistic trends, idealism, humanism and individualism, set themselves against naturalism and “tended to accept Western discourse as universal.” (94) They gave rise to (and were) authors who wrote I-novels. Part 2 is a close reading of both Katai’s Futon and several Shiga Naoya works.  She identifies in Katai’s narration an “ironic perspective” (86) and in Shiga a “resistance to [the] ordering forces” of narrative (102) that complicate notions of single-voiced “factual” monologues and uncritical perspectives.  Part 3 turns to Kafu and Tanizaki as authors who intentionally play with the “I-novel discourse” in order to subvert reader expectation, but whose deployment of those strategies actually reinforce the I-novel mystique while they are attempting to problematize it. 

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About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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