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Nobuko Albery

Nobuko Albery is the author of two novels, The House of Kanze, reviewed by Humphrey Carpenter in the last issue, and Balloon Top, recently published in paperback (Century, 255 pp., £2.95, 27 June, 0 7126 0845 1). She lives in Monte Carlo with her second husband, the impresario Sir Donald Albery.

Michi and Meiji

Nobuko Albery, 24 July 1986

I once received this stern admonition from an English editor: ‘If you intend to be a Japanese novelist whom we are translating into English, okay – I accept your manuscript as it is and will get on with publication. But if you wish to be considered an English writer, then you must rewrite. Don’t narrate to us, show us. And-then-and-then is not the way we want a story told.’ Ah, but I had been fed on the stodge of and-then-and-then all my life! In the course of the gruelling process of rewriting to show rather than to tell, I soon realised that we Japanese have a congenital difficulty in understanding the Western sense of ‘a plot’. To us a plot means suji, nothing more than a line, a sequential flow, which Professor Ueda, in a chapter in Principles of Classical Japanese Literature, explains is an antithesis of ‘plot’, in which the law of causality unites all the parts into a whole. This characteristically Japanese principle may seem more incidental, associational and irrational than its Western counterpart, so it is not surprising that Westerners often complain of meandering formlessness in Japanese novels, music, dance and theatre: but the Japanese in return find the implacable advance of a logical, causal plot suffocating. It seems to leave little room for the appreciation of what to them is the indispensable joy of any artistic expression – ma, literally ‘pause’ or ‘breath’. A Western play that drives helter-skelter towards a causal dénouement within a matter of two hours strikes them as jejune, they who adore sitting through a five or six-hour-long performance of kabuki, during which they pay blithely little attention to plot, logic or plausibility but delight in its incorporation of disconnected scenes from lengthy plays – to the point of knowing every line and gesture by heart.’

Fifteen years after his death Mishima is everywhere. Penguin has just brought out Hagakure, Mishima’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the 18th-century code of samurai ethics, and The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima by Henry Scott Stokes, and Secker and Warburg Mishima’s tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, in one attractive volume. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival an American film, Mishima, by Paul Schrader caused considerable controversy; and in the spring I saw in Paris Jean-Louis Barrault’s company performing Mishima’s Modern Noh Plays, beautifully translated by Marguerite Yourcenar and directed with iconoclastic verve by Maurice Béjart. I could not be better pleased. What fun for Mishima, watching all this fuss from somewhere in his reincarnation. The last time I saw him, eight months before his death, he said: ‘The Japanese will never forgive me; I embarrass them. The Westerners won’t be able to understand me and as a consequence will make a fuss of me. What fun.’ Then came that raucous, jarring belly laugh of his, which never failed to startle new acquaintances. It was the exaggerated samurai guffaw that Mishima – born a sickly, puny infant, spoilt and terrorised by his overpowering grandmother – had adopted as a symbol of virility and, as with every other camouflage, red-herring or artifice he chose in later life, had stuck to with superhuman discipline.’

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