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