How true is A True Novel?

a true novelI have never read Wuthering Heights. But after finishing A True Novel by Minae Mizumura and reading that it was a retelling of WH, I took a short cut and watched the Masterpiece Theater version of the classic to get an idea of how the two compared, at least plot-wise. A True Novel is a retelling of WH, albeit set in Japan and with a Japanese sensibility. However, the entire retelling is also framed within a uniquely Japanese literary genre of the I-novel and “plays” with the historical interest Japanese writers have had in distinguishing between a “true novel” or an “I-novel.”

I had to do a bit of Internet research myself on all this, but Mizumura–or her “I” character in the book’s prologue, explains to the reader the difference:

The “true novel” once played a crucial role in the development of Japanese literature. The period when Japan opened its doors to the West, beginning in 1868, coincided with what might be called the golden era of the western novel…It was inevitable that Japanese novelists would be moved by a desire to reproduce what they perceived to be the most highly evolved form of literature. For them,…the type of novel written in nineteenth century Europe, ones where the author sought to create an independent fictional world outside his own life, came to represent the ideal.”

This “ideal” is what became known a a “true novel.” However, Mizumura goes on to explain that as time went on, some Japanese novelists began to assert that writers should write truthfully about their own lives, citing the long history of diary writing in Japan as an important literary genre. This might be called the “I-novel” genre. So Japanese literature, she suggests, contain the competing literary styles of “true novels” and “I-novels.”

As I mentioned, this explanation of literary genres takes place in the novel’s prologue. It’s my understanding that a “Preface” gives the reader background information from the author about the story that might be helpful in understanding the novel — so it is “real”. A “Prologue” is part of the story that the author wants the reader to know about before starting the story– so it is told from or about a characters perspective. Interestingly, A True Novel contains both. In the Preface, Mizumura tells us that this whole novel came about when she was visited in California by a young man who’d just been to Japan and had met the Heathcliff of the book (or Taro as he’s called in Mizumura’s version) that Mizumara knew in real life when she was a girl in the U.S. He fills Mizumura in on what he learned about Taro’s life story. She found it so amazing — and so similar to the famous plot of Wuthering Heights — that she wanted to retell it in her next novel. Then Mizumura launches into her very, very long Prologue, in which we learn how the young Mizumura met Taro and she became inspired to write the novel. Can we assume that the Preface Mizumura is the “real” writer and the “Prologue” Mizumura is a character? It might depend on which genre of novel you think she is writing in — I or true. Either way, the intellectual ambiguity is clever while the story telling is satisfying.

I did not know anything about these Japanese literary genres prior to reading this novel and doing some research. I’m going to keep a closer eye on the Japanese novels I read from now on to see how they may or may not be informed by the conception of  the “I/true” novel. I’m also quite inspired to read Wuthering Heights now as well. Some of the dialogue and emotional expression  of Mizumura’s lovers was just plain weird to me — is WH like this too?!?  The film wouldn’t suggest so, but then I read a post today by areaderofliterature and it makes me reconsider my previous assumption that cultural differences are at work. Perhaps not…

I read this book out of sheer interest, but also as part of the Japanese Lit Challenge 9.

eBook copy
Originally published in Japan by Shinchosha Co. Ltd., 2002
Translated by Julie Winters Carpenter, 2013




5 thoughts on “How true is A True Novel?

  1. areaderofliterature says:

    I could have sworn this was a retelling of Jane Eyre when I saw it at the local bookshop. The book intrigued me, but it was just too expensive. Like, 30 dollars after currency exchange expensive.

    Thanks for the informative review. I had a cursory knowledge of the Japanese ‘I novel’ but your explanation was helpful in solidifying its meaning in my head.

    I never paid much interest in book prefaces but it’s fascinating how the author plays around with our expectations of genre, character, and content in the preface and prologue. Maybe I can find the prologue’s sample pages on amazon so I can read it for free.

    And yes, WH is indeed melodramatic and histrionic. And the “romance” is more unhealthy addiction and obsession rather than genuine love. Was the love story in A True Novel depicted that way too?


    • RareBird says:

      Yes, the love affair between Taro and Yoko in A True Novel is very histrionic — perfect word. I was sincerely puzzled by it until I read more about Wuthering Heights. I guess I expect such things from the Brontes’ time period but found it very puzzling in a more modern context.

      Another interesting part of the book is the female narrator of Taro & Yoko’s love story. She turns out to be a somewhat unreliable narrator. I am curious if such is the case in Wuthering Heights as well.

      Sorry to say that I doubt you will get through the entire prologue in an Amazon sample. It is so very LONG! Do you like reading ebooks? I was lucky in that I got the book for US1.99 on an Amazon “Daily Deal” but it is still more affordable digitally rather than in book form. I hope you have a chance to read it — very worthwhile!


      • areaderofliterature says:

        I don’t Cathy Earnshaw was ever meant to be an unreliable narrator. Neither was Heathcliff. Most of the lovers’ story were anedotes told by the Earnshaw’s old nanny/housekeeper. Perhaps an unreliable narrator was A True Novel’s modern touch?

        I can read novels on my phone although I almost never do, the screen is too small. And I still don’t have an ereader — forever hoping for someone to gift it to me since I’m trying to save for other things. But this book does seem intriguing and it’s on the “maybe someday” pile.


  2. RareBird says:

    Ok — I really need to read WH to know what I am talking about here, but the unreliable narrator in A True a Novel is the housekeeper figure. Without spoilers, I guess that her relationship to the lovers is has a modern twist not found in WH.


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