A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
An Exquisite Sense Of What Is Beautiful is an accomplished and finely structured novel that takes a wide sweep across the world and through time, from London to Japan and from the Fifties to 2003. Its protagonist (I won’t call him a hero) is Sir Edward Strathairn, a revered British writer, in his 70s when the novel begins, whose reputation rests on a small but hugely influential oeuvre of just a handful of novels. All his work is highly valued and praised, but none of his novels had had the reach and impact of his first, The Waterwheel, a love story set in Japan during the post-war occupation. The Waterwheel dares to raise the moral questions surrounding the ending of the war with Japan in 1945: Hiroshima, the fire-bombing of Tokyo and, especially, Nagasaki. It is admired in Britain, revered in Japan, and viewed with deep suspicion by a particular school of thought in the US. Fifty years and a whole literary life later, Strathairn returns to Hakone with his professional and ultra-loyal personal assistant Enid, to the luxurious mountain retreat hotel in rural Japan where he lived for a season and wrote this novel. Through what happens to him there, and the excavation of his memories, we explore the ambiguities in his character, so that, well before the end, the reader is weighing his fitness to pronounce on morality at all, let alone one of the great moral dilemmas of history, the means used to bring the war in the East to an end in 1945. Sir Edward Strathairn is a figure of reputation and stature, but what secrets are hidden in his past, how will they be revealed? Will they overwhelm him or leave him unscathed? For me, the greatest strength of the novel lies in the complexity of its protagonist.
The novel intercuts scenes from Strathairn’s past with episodes from this 21st century journey back to the Japan and the source of his literary fame: his family and boyhood as an only child in Glasgow; the charmed life that got him his education in Japanese studies and his passage to post-war Japan, to a commercial post with a British car firm sharing technology with the nascent Japanese motor industry; the windfall that bought him his year in Hakone and his break-through novel The Waterwheel. Then his return to London and the blossoming of his career as a writer, his marriage and the growth of his literary reputation. Three women over time are important in his life, American, Japanese and British. The nature of these relationships, each so different, is explored with great insight, and just as the fictional novel The Waterwheel juxtaposes the private and the public, the intimate and the social, so does this novel. The author gently takes our assumptions and stereotypes and undermines them, to the extent that it is difficult to pin down any thesis based on certainties. This is what makes the novel so thought-provoking – questions are raised about how far someone from the West who is seduced by Japan in all its aspects, geographic, cultural, linguistic, can engage and disengage without harm to himself and others. Strathairn’s eventual Japanese fate is both timeless and contemporary. His actions and decisions at various times in past years, of which nothing would come at the time, and the solipsism that ensures he stays detached from their possible consequences, are catching up with him now in a 21st century when moral grey areas are being reappraised – again, such a contemporary theme.
I love novels about writers, writing, and writers writing, and one excellent thing you can do as an author in these circumstances is write your own aphorism and put it in the mouth of a fictional character. Such fun. This novel has a wonderful title – it must come from somewhere, and duly we find out that it comes from the words of Aldous, the young Strathairn’s mentor – editor, literary agent and splendid addition to the roll of fictional London ‘literary gents’. He reminded me of someone out of Anthony Powell, and believe me, I can scarcely pay a higher compliment. So, if you want your title to sound like a quote from someone you admire, write it yourself!
Tokyo, Japan ~ 2003
It was all around him. This ping-ding, flashing, Hello Kitty, Softbank-Sony, pachinko-pachinko, vending machine, giant plasma screen, cartoon, Shibuya girls, 100 megabits per second, nonsense … A girl with pink hair. A giant, lurid-green octopus painted on the side of the building, its tentacles strangling the concrete. What was that all about? He didn’t belong in this jingle-jangle world. How did Aldous describe it? ‘The Japanese have an exquisite sense of what is beautiful and no sense at all of what is ugly’. That was it. How these two sensibilities could exist in one culture was an enigma to him.
Not that that stopped him in his rash youth from writing a novel rooted in his perception of Japanese culture. This passage gives a flavour of the assured language of the novel, the author’s confident grasp of the required tone at any given time. The sense of the otherness of Japan is well-realised, too, and I really enjoyed that. Part of the literary conceit is that J D Simons’s novel is prefaced and ended with ‘extracts’ from Edward Strathairn’s The Waterwheel. I was fascinated to find out that, whereas I read An Exquisite Sense … with absorption and suspension of disbelief, I decided I could never have read The Waterwheel with enjoyment, finding as I did something inauthentic about it. Just my taste? Accident? Or Design? If the last, just one more layer of cleverness.
This is such a thought-provoking novel, with such a plain *provoking*, solipsistic protagonist in Strathairn, so full of writerly awareness yet blind at so many turns, that what I’d really like to do is settle down with someone else who has read it and begin a high octane discussion of what happened, what it all means. That would be far, far too spoiler-rich to be fair to potential readers, so I have done my best to keep my remarks generic; because this novel is so original and distinctive that I should be sorry to give too much away.
And a final word about the gorgeous cover of this novel: I am generally not very happy with the current trend for fondant fancy colours and palely loitering text – I do not appreciate having to take my glasses off and peer at the book to find out what it is. However, this cover for me is appropriately restrained and – well – exquisite. But then, I do love Koi, and their presence on the cover also give a suitably Japanese hint of what is inside.
J David Simons: An Exquisite Sense Of What Is Beautiful. Glasgow: Saraband Books, 2013. 294pp