How a poet writes a novel

Margaret Atwood came to fiction through poetry, as did Michael Ondaatje and Wole Soyinka. In her novels, like those of Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami, who wrote songs and poems before turning to fiction, her attention to sensual experiences is particularly keen, incisive, and meaningful. Kawakami doesn’t just assemble a tactile detail and park it in a scene. Sensation itself drives her scenes as the senses can drive a poem. In All lovers in the night When two work friends climb into an apartment, their heels clink “asynchronously on the steel stairs”. Because of this peculiarity, the sonic resonance of it, the reader knows that their visit will involve a kind of unacknowledged disharmony.

It took several novels for Kawakami’s work to gain worldwide recognition with the release of in English in 2020 breasts and ballsco-translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Originally published as a novelization in 2008, Kawakami was later expanded breasts and balls into a two-part novel about working-class women striving for greater autonomy over their bodies and minds. The events that propel the book forward are mostly internal in nature, the uncertain progress of understanding oneself or trusting another person. Readers in different languages ​​had no problem with the lack of a conventional plot. Kawakami’s rampant struggle against chauvinism in Japan is eventful enough, and the poetic precision of her sentences provides a lively, spiraling dynamic. In one scene, a mother and daughter begin cracking real eggs over their heads to witness them drip down their bodies, leaving “the floor covered with yolks and clumpy whites.”

After the great success of breasts and ballsKawakami’s English-language publisher, Europa Editions, published a second co-translation of Bett and Boyd of Heaven, about two children who are bullied, first published in Japan in 2009 and nominated as a finalist for the International Booker Prize this year. All lovers in the night is a new novel, once again a translation of Bett and Boyd. Its protagonist, Fuyuko Irie, is a freelance editor who recounts her torturous years at a small publishing house, where she avoided speaking to any of her colleagues. She has no close friends and no relatives come to visit. In order to get the courage to leave her apartment, she begins to consume more and more beer and sake. In this drunken state, she begins dating a lonely older man, Mitsutsuka, at a coffee shop, who tells her he is a high school physics teacher. Fuyuko delights in listening to his tutoral explanations of light and what the human eye perceives in its absence.

It’s clear that these meaningful discussions will take on emotional meaning for Fuyuko, who enjoys her connection with Mitsutsuka while also acknowledging that a relationship beyond their encounters at the café is unlikely. “We kept seeing each other… he would tell me things like he always does,” Fuyuko predicts. “But what then? Those feelings, those horrible feelings, what would happen to them?”

How to deal with emotion, with its terrifying intensity, is a central question in Kawakami’s novels—why the accumulation of something so invisible and disprovable as emotion can wield such power over our species. The amazing vividness of Kawakami’s images draws the reader deeper into the emotional intensity of the scenes. Fuyuko, who is in her mid to late 30s, hasn’t had a sexual encounter since high school, when she repeatedly said no to a boy who had assaulted her in his room, then insisted she was “a part of what.” we did, as did me.” Fuyuko recalls her descent from this boy’s room with a single memory, precise as a stanza, the shadows “noticeably denser… As if one were underground.” The encounter is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s hangsaman, where the teenage protagonist’s attack is similarly unmentioned in the rest of the novel, forcing the reader to think about it even more.

Fuyuko starts seeing Mitsutsuka every week. As their mutual trust grows, Fuyuko tells him about her days as a child, when she spent her days in bed dreaming of being a lioness where “the grass smells of home…her paws are full of power”. She doesn’t risk such vulnerable admissions with anyone else, which seems right, although the scenes with other characters lack vitality in comparison, or perhaps weren’t conjured up with the same care that went into the Mitsutsuka sections.

When Fuyuko reconnects with a now-married childhood friend with two children, I hoped that Kawakami would mess up my prediction that this friend would be a quickly sketched housewife in a sexless marriage. When two work friends give Fuyuko a gift each, I hoped that Kawakami would conjure up a surprise other than the obvious symbolism of receiving the same generic gift from two of the few people in their lives. In such cases, the novel doesn’t seem as elaborate as Kawakami’s earlier books. Even the translation sometimes ends up in a colloquial language that seems out of place. Fuyuko’s childhood friend tells her, “I mean, dude, you didn’t come to our reunion.” The choice of age seems odd here, as do some other overly Americanized expressions, like somehow and I do not know.

Throughout much of the novel, Bett and Boyd skillfully evoke the poet’s sensitivity to Kawakami’s prose, and translating together is an odd art. It requires a kinetic, triangular process with all sorts of back and forth movements between the points of three heads, that of the author and that of the two translators. I’ve helped translate from several languages, and when things go well, the give and take of the shared choice of words can create a nice intimacy.

This third Kawakami co-translation by Bett and Boyd contains ample evidence of successful collaboration. Her choices are particularly powerful in scenes where Fuyuko finds emotional relief in speech. On a drunken evening, “with her cheek pressed to the floor,” she flips through the flyers and various promotional brochures that have accumulated in her mailbox. Her editing spirit, drunk even, discovers seven mistakes that she inevitably marks with her fingernail, and in her free time neglects the work that has become her only stable identity. There’s something delightfully bookish and truthful about her attraction to “a voluminous booklet made of good quality paper.”

The seductive quality of the paper causes Fuyuko to ponder the content, setting in motion a series of impulses that eventually force her to leave her apartment. Kawakami has a keen sense of adding a touch of suspense, although that’s not what characterizes her novels. It’s her ability to make the mere passage of time, the decision to go outside and be alive, seem like an event.

At one point, Fuyuko exits a city building and experiences the plaza and larger world before her as “a sea without water.” The paradox of a waterless sea conveys a vivid sense of Fuyuko’s painful ambivalence about what social risks are worth taking and what to do with the horrible feelings consuming her whether or not she remains locked in her apartment.

Kawakami has found a sensible answer to the question of what to do with feelings. She turns them into novels. How a poet writes a novel

Jessica MacLeish

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