I had initially decided that I wouldn't write a review about this book, because I had hoped to write about Shikitei Sanba(*) (1776 - 1822) after reading an entire novel. But after a few days of combing the usual resources I have found no complete translation of one of his novels into one of the languages I can read. So...since I want to draw your attention to this writer, it will have to be here.
In what appears to be Robert W. Leutner's sole book, Shikitei Samba and the Comic Tradition in Edo Fiction (1985), there is a translation of about 50 pages of what is held to be Sanba's best novel, Ukiyoburo (The Bathhouse of the Floating World - 1809 - 1813), more than twice as much as I have been able to find elsewhere. What is more, the translation is most enjoyable.
Why does it matter if that novel is translated or not? I'm glad you asked.
Up until around the mid 18th century, Japanese literature was written by the royalty, the nobility and members of the samurai class. And, following the lead of the Chinese, they viewed fiction as beyond the pale. It was acceptable if a few noblewomen like Murasaki wrote fiction (because the writings of women were beneath the threshold of attention of the men), but for a male member of the elite to write fiction was a kind of social suicide. In China this prejudice was increasingly sidestepped by publishing fiction first anonymously and then, with further passage of time, under pseudonym. A few of the Japanese elite began doing the same.
However, they did not try to imitate the huge novels which were being written in China during the later Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Instead they wrote relatively short pieces with deliberately humorous and ironic intent. Over simplifying, the authorial stance was "I know this is rubbish, and you know this is rubbish; we agree on this, so our taste is still impeccable. But it is late and we are tired, so let us men of the world have a little laugh before we fall asleep." And throughout the texts the author makes such signals to his readers again and again. Let me rephrase this: In 17th and 18th century Japan authors were developing many of the tools that make up the toolbox of any self-respecting 21st century postmodernist author.
And I don't mean merely the ironic distance, the constant in-your-face winks to the reader, the repeated reminders from the author that he is writing this and you are reading it and neither of you can forget that relation; but I mean also that the very language was being stretched and deformed and beaten into a shape it had never been in before.
Japanese literary language was frozen in the 11th or 12th centuries (if not earlier); the spoken language continued its natural development, but the literary language was petrified. (The same was true in China, except the freeze set in even earlier.) With that language one could beautifully and sensitively express many things, but not ordinary life. As literacy slowly filtered down to the emerging chonin class of merchants and artisans, some of them tried to imitate the samurai authors. As the chonin class became increasingly important economically, the chonin started writing for the chonin. But when they wrote fiction, they had the remarkable model of the ironic, self-deprecating pose of the samurai before them. They took it and developed it for their own purposes.
Now the challenges to the literary language grew to unavoidable size. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Japanese had to completely re-invent their literary language.
On this side of the wall of translation we get little sign of that turmoil and the resulting inventiveness, the false starts and dead ends, but also the moments of serendipity and breakthrough. Sad, but true.
What does all of this have to do with Shikitei Sanba? Well, the place where most of this the-rubber-of-literary-language-meets-the-road-of-ordinary-life-and-is-transformed was being carried out in the novels written for the emerging mass market constituted by the chonin - yes, the transformation of the literary language was being carried out by the Stephen King's and Dan Brown's of 18th and 19th century Japan. One of the most important of these is Shikitei Sanba.
And one of his most important novels, not merely because of this invention of language, is Ukiyoburo.
Imagine for a moment: the setting is a public bathhouse, where the entire middle class comes at least once a day, because only the elite can afford a private bathroom, and the lower classes must make do with the canals. So, the whole neighborhood, all the types, are there in unavoidable promiscuity. But, remember, it has been this way their entire lives. So they are quite comfortable with it. Everybody is relaxed and naked, gossiping away, breaking into song (!), laughing and getting angry. There it is - all of life in the bathhouse.
What a perfect setting for a novel! And Sanba takes us there and let's us listen and watch, an entire day long from the opening to the closing of the bathhouse. He has a sharp eye for revealing detail; he is compassionate and satirical. He knows how people rationalize, self-aggrandize, prevaricate, etc. and shows them doing it. But he is not bitter or destructive with his satire - he knows and accepts how we are.
What is more, he characterizes his figures through dialogue, not through description or authorial editorializing. And the dialogue is choice; it is funny; it is priceless. Sure, they are gossiping about trivialities; that is what we do. But we reveal ourselves through such trivial conversations to a remarkable degree, as Sanba artfully shows.
I love this book, and I want someone to translate all of it for me. Don't make me learn Japanese!(**)
There is much more to say about Ukiyoburo, but I'll give it a rest for now. Leutner provides in this book an overview of the development and genres of popular Edo culture, as does Donald Keene in his excellent World Within Walls, volume 2 in his tetralogy on the history of Japanese literature. Keene is not kind to Sanba's work, though there is some grudging admiration there. From Leutner's summaries of his other books it is clear that Sanba was what I would call today a commercial hack, but he was a hack with a gift which, at least sometimes, elevated his books into serious literature. Of the thousands of gesaku novels written in the 18th and 19th centuries, Ukiyoburo is one of the few still being widely read in Japan.
(*) or Samba - both seem to be used.
(**) Worse than that: apparently our Japanese contemporaries have found it advisable to translate this book into modern Japanese. Japanese had a great deal more churning to do between 1813 and now.