A Quiet Life


In a piece of remarkable serendipity, I happened upon A Quiet Life at Powell's just after reading Claire's post about the authors she planned to read for the Japanese Literature Challenge. Knowing the lady has taste, I picked it up and started reading. I got through the first chapter in the store, bought it, came home and devoured the rest of it over the course of three days, letting it eclipse any other reading I might have been doing. I've been reading a lot of the bizarre and macabre lately, and the understated, minimally-drawn yet intimate realism of A Quiet Life felt like exactly the contrast I needed. It's always such a gift to happen upon something so precisely calculated to resonate with my mood at a particular juncture, and when it happens I always try to welcome it with open arms.

Two things really made this book for me: the quality of the writing, and my warm liking for the main character, Ma-chan. The plot, which is apparently an artful mixture of fiction and autobiography, concerns the three adult children of a famous Japanese author, K, who retreats to a temporary post at UC-Berkeley to deal with one of his recurring existential crises (which he calls "pinches.") His wife accompanies him, leaving the three kids, the eldest of whom (Eeyore) is brain-damaged, to fend for themselves. They are all making their ways through that liminal space between adolescence and adulthood, and the quietly-narrated events of the year or so in which they live alone in their parents' house serve to deliver them a bit closer to realizing who they are as human beings.

I've seen several reviews that claim this book is essentially written from Oe's (or K's) own perspective, and only "ostensibly" narrated by his daughter, Ma-chan, who is used as something like a smokescreen. I didn't find this to be the case at all. Ma-chan, for me, is vividly her own person, and I feel a great deal of wamth and tenderness toward her. It's been a while since I've read a book whose main character I flat-out liked as much as I like Ma-chan. She's struggling with all the universal difficulties of being 20 and figuring out what kind of adult she's going to be, and, as a young Japanese woman, she's been socialized in the importance of filial piety, respect for her elders, and some degree of submissiveness. These things are genuinely important to her; she's no cultural revolutionary. At the same time, there is a core of confidence and vehemence to her that coexists with her diffidence. She is honest with herself about her growing consciousness of faults in her parents, particularly her father, and of the feelings those faults arouse in her. She sees herself as "a coward" in social situations, yet she finds the courage to do a wide variety of scary things - call attention to an assault on a young girl, care for her brother, write her college thesis on a writer everyone says she is too female and inexperienced to understand. When she encounters attitudes and actions that she doesn't like, she may not say anything out loud, but her inner refrain of "Hell no! Hell no!" articulates her strong selfhood.

As a side-note: Ma-chan is writing her undergraduate thesis on Céline, who she was inspired to read after meeting Kurt Vonnegut (K.V. in the novel) and having him autograph a volume of Céline's work for which Vonnegut had written the introduction. Coincidentally, I also came to Céline first through Vonnegut. I think this must be pretty common for American readers who read Céline at all - after all, Vonnegut is extremely popular, and praises the French writer in one of his most famous books, Cat's Cradle - but it was yet another endearing connection with Ma-chan.

Above all, I love Ma-chan's thoughtful intelligence. Not only does she cultivate a loving and observant relationship with Eeyore, but she thinks deeply about the ways in which people interact with the mentally handicapped. She and her siblings (and their parents) live a rich life of the mind, conversing about films, novels, and philosophy in a way that is real and profound without ever seeming ostentatious. Despite the difficulties in Ma-chan's relationship with her father, I felt so tenderly toward them both for the way they respect each other's intelligence and do their best to help each other along their diverging paths.

I don't have the ability to comment on French style, but with Céline, I get the impression that he writes in a way that, contrary to what I had imagined, presents a serious subject in a light and straightforward manner - and I like this. I had copied this passage on one of my cards a few days before, and was translating it far into the night, when I realized Father was standing beside me, having snuck up without my noticing - which is another reason this passage, in particular, remains in my heart. Father doesn't dare touch my letters, but he readily picks up the books I read, or the reference cards I make, and looks at them. He does this all the time, and it has irritated me since I was in kindergarten. And that night, while I was copying down some more passages from the book, he picked up a few of the cards and said, "Hmm ... 'the old have nothing more to hope for, these kids, all ...' How true." His voice was so unusually earnest and sad that I couldn't make a face at him for having read my cards without asking me.

The next day, however, Father brought me volumes one and two of Céline's Novels, from the shelf of the Pléide editions he especially treasures...

One of the things that struck me about A Quiet Life was how enigmatic the supposedly autobiographical character - the novelist/father K - is to all the other characters. Wherever Ma-chan and Eeyore go, people are speculating about the cause of K's "pinch." His old friend Mr. Shigeto thinks that K is having some kind of religious crisis - that his all-or-nothing "lack of faith" (K perceives a necessity for sacrificing all worldly entanglements in order to be a "person of faith," and he has chosen instead a family and material success), is throwing him into a metaphysical quandary. Ma-chan's aunt, with whom the main characters converse while attending K's brother's funeral, theorizes that K was frightened by the looming reality of his brother's death, and ran away to California in order to avoid dealing with end-of-life issues. Ma-chan herself wonders whether her parents have retreated to the United States in order to repair damage done to their relationship over the years - damage partly caused by K's attitude toward Eeyore. Ma-chan's mother suggests that K's "pinch" may be caused by his feelings of inferiority and failure as family patriarch, which were touched off when he was forced to call a professional plumber to sort out a sewage problem.

In the midst of all this theorizing, K himself comes almost to resemble a blank canvas, onto whom each character projects their own interpretation of his actions. Even his name, K, while possibly short for "Kenzaburo," is also familiar to Kafka fans as the shorthand for "everyman." I wondered whether this blankness was a comment on the traditional, patriarchal family structure, in which the father is supposed to be removed and inscrutable, and is therefore left without any confidantes. It also occurred to me that the reduction of palpable selfhood in K, which allows all the other characters to project their own theories onto him, is a good approximation of severe depression, in which the sufferer often feels less and less "like himself" the longer the malady continues. Compared with this sliding into a lack of self, Ma-chan's refrain of "Hell no! Hell no!" seems even more remarkable, as does Mrs. Shigeto's insistence on standing up for the basic human dignity of oneself and all the other so-called "nobodies" with whom one lives:

"Ma-chan," she said, "the little relief I find in what you told me, if I can call it that, is that you apologized for Eeyore before the girl called you dropouts and not afterwards. I wouldn't have gone so far as to slap her in the face, but if I'd been there, I would at least have made her take it back. I wish you had. It's very important for a human being to take such action."

I strongly recommend this understated story of figuring out what actions are important for human beings to take. A big thanks to Claire for putting me on Oe's track; I anticipate enjoying more of his novels in the future.

(A Quiet Life was my sixth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing Japan.)


  • I'm not very up to speed on Japanese literature, so I appreciate this recommendation. As for Céline, I think I was either introduced to him through Bukowski or through friends in college who helped me take after Bukowski for a year or two. In any event, I've been wanting to reread Journey to the End of the Night for a while now and have even considered it for my own Orbis Terrarum Challenge read this year. Nice review!

  • I'm so happy you loved Oe! I've never read this. In fact, I've only ever read one book by him, and it's not even one of his more popular ones (Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!). I tend to reserve my fave authors for later (delaying gratification). Even so, with that mainly disregarded book, the quality of the writing can't be ignored. Well, I'll be reading Kobo Abe one day, because of you. (And hopefully, this, sooner.) :)

  • Like Richard, I know only a little about Japanese lit and appreciate this well-considered review. Do you mind if I post you in as a guest blogger on the Lost In Translation reading challenge with this piece?

  • Richard - Thanks! You remind me that Bukowski may have had something to do with my introduction to Céline as well...like maybe I noticed Vonnegut's reference to him, and then a short time later I read one of Bukowski's references, and I was like "Who IS this dude?"

    Claire - Thanks for the recommendation! I totally know what you mean about delaying gratification with favorite authors - Virginia Woolf has been a cautionary tale for me, because I've now read everything she wrote except her novelty biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog, and there's little left. Of course, there's always re-reading!

    Frances - Please do; I'm honored! And happy you like the review. :-)

  • Thanks a ton for this. I've been trying to read more non-Western lit. So far, the only book I've read is Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which was okay, but I feel like everyone reads Murakami.

  • EL Fay: For good reason! I love Murakami. But I do know what you mean. When there's such a superstar representative of a given literature, it's sometimes hard to move beyond them. Glad you enjoyed the review!

    Frances: Thanks for the inclusion, lady!

  • Sounds like an interesting book. When my obsession with Latin American lit wears off I have been thinking of turning to Asian liturature is it is another area I haven't yet explored. I'll be adding this book to my list. Thanks for the review!

  • Wow, this is a truly wonderful review. I have to say, I'm simply blown away by level and amount of insight you've shared with us regarding this book, specially with regards to the characters. I also read this book just recently and I posted my own review just two days after you did yours :)

    I also liked Ma-chan's character. Everytime she says "Hell No, Hell No!", I can just vividly imagine her as a real person in a real dilemma. The way Oe crafted his characters is simply amazing, don't you think? They all feel so real, and their dialogues (and monologues) so evocative, so affecting. And like you, I loved the way Ma-chan's mind works and her "thoughtful intelligence".

    Oh I just love the way you wrote this review. You were able to articulate so smoothly things about the characters and the narrative that I simply had trouble to finding the words for. How I wish I had found about your site earlier :)

  • By the way, I also found this book by chance. I wasn't even looking for Oe when I found it at the bookstore :)

  • I agree with Mark David above. I just love the way you wrote this review. It seems to echo the quietness you loved about the writing in A Quiet Life.

    And I too am blown away again with how much you know about writers and books. I know nothing about Japanese literature. And also, as Mark said, with the level of insight and the clarity of your writing.

    I am adding this book to my list, which now borders on the ludicrous in terms of numbers.

  • I forgot to mention how true the first part of this sentence is and how lovely the second part is:

    "It's always such a gift to happen upon something so precisely calculated to resonate with my mood at a particular juncture, and when it happens I always try to welcome it with open arms."

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography