Wednesday, 21 January 2015

J-Lit Giants: 15 - Fumiko Enchi

We're back with another J-Lit Giant, and today's post looks at a writer who, while not exactly unknown in the West, still hasn't got the readership she deserves.  The person attempting to change that is Carola, a Dutch blogger with a background in Japanese studies, whose work can be seen over at the brilliant years site.  Take it away, Carola ;)

These days Fumiko Enchi (1905-1986) is perhaps the most well-known female author among the classics. Born in Tokyo, she was brought up with lessons in English, French and Chinese literature, and frequented the Kabuki theatre as a child. So it is no surprise that her first piece of writing was in fact a play, the one-act Furusato (Birthplace) in 1926. She continued to write plays in the Twenties, and they were positively received.

Enchi, however, did not start writing novels until after the birth of her daughter in 1930, and she was not having such an easy time then. Her first book, Sambun Ren’ai, appeared in 1936, but her novels did not receive the same attention as her plays. On top of that, she suffered from cancer and post-surgical complications and lost her possessions in an air raid in 1945. 

It wasn't until after the war that her works were received favourably. In 1953, she won the Women’s Literature Prize for her work Himoji Tsukihi (Starving Days). What is especially interesting about her work is that she embraces Japanese traditional values and borrows from the classics, but at the same time much of her work is surprisingly modern and feminist. It is the women who star in her books, and they are well-rounded characters, both psychological and sensitive, but also definitely in a sensual way.

Enchi continued to win prizes with her novels, the most impressive being the Order of Culture in 1985, awarded by Emperor Hirohito, just a year before Enchi died. 

Masks (1958) is perhaps Enchi’s best known work in the western world and the first to get translated into English. A widow's mother-in-law manipulates the relationship between the young woman and the two men in love with her. The mother-in-law is based on Lady Rokujo from the classical Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji). 

The Waiting Years (1949–1957) won Enchi the Noma Prize for Literature in 1957. A young woman, Tomo, is married to a government official. Soon she has to accept her husband taking a mistress and is even forced to pick him one... and then another, and another... 

A Tale of False Fortunes gives an alternative account of the classical Eiga Monogatari (Story of Splendour), which is believed to have been originally written by several authors over a period of nearly a hundred years, from 1028–1107.  During her career, Enchi regularly translated classics, such as Genji Monogatari, into Japanese, so this adaptation is definitely an interesting work.

Many thanks to Carola for the great introduction to Enchi's life and works :)  I'd only previously tried a couple of short stories, but I recently read Masks and can definitely recommend it.  Hopefully, there'll be some more (re)translations appearing soon...

Has anyone out there tried any of these (or other) Enchi books?  If so, please share your views on her work in the comments area - we'd love to hear what you have to say :)