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An I-Novel

by Minae Mizumura

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213851,609 (4.1)1

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By definition, and I-novel is a fictionalized memoir. Although this story takes place on just one day while Minae is hunkerd down in her apartment in a snow storm, her memories and reflections take us back to her family's layered past and to both Japan and New York. The focus of the story is Minae's alienation from her family, her adopted America, her native country, and most of her relationships. Her ennui is manifest in her marginalized identity as neither Japanese nor American, as well as her insecurity with both Japanese and English languages, at the same time that she is working toward a doctorate in French Literature. We become immersed in her quandary of how to tell her sister that she has decided at long last to take her doctoral orals and move back to Japan to write a novel. While the plot is slow paced, the depth of Minae's reminiscences and introspection bring readers inside her mind so that of course we care. The translator's introduction is helpful, and I have to assume that because the writing is so fine the melding of the Japanese and English has been successful. ( )
  sleahey | Jan 30, 2021 |
'And then I knew, in a way I'd never known before, that the act of writing was itself bliss.'

We've had to wait 25 years for an English translation of this ground-breaking Japanese work from Minae Mizumura, and Juliet Winters Carpenter has bravely taken on a task that Mizumura herself once stated was impossible: to replicate the Japanese/English bilingual nature of the original work in an English translation. Indeed, it's almost impossible to imagine the contrast between us as Western readers coming to this translation, and the reaction of Japanese readers coming across the layout and structure of the original. Nothing could ever replicate that, and so we have to work with what we have the endeavour behind it.

What we do get is a beautifully layered meditation on family, language, identity (both personal and national) and, through it all, on writing and what all of these other themes bring to a writer's work. In this thinly veiled auto-fiction (the i-novel) Mizumura is forced to face huge questions as she remains in her flat over the course of one day. The snow is falling outside, and her day is punctuated by lengthy phone calls with her sister (also living in the US) and a letter from her mother. A graduate student, Mizumura has already decided to return to her native Japan and start writing in Japanese, but has yet to take the plunge and tell her sister. Conversations lead to extended musings on memories of school, childhood, failed relationships and the odd family that they have.

This is a quiet novel, but the questions it raises are important and resonant. There are echoes of Proust, Woolf, Joyce, as well as some of the treasured Japanese authors that Mizumura herself has found during her lifetime of reading. It is a song to the art of writing, and to the beauty of words. In this, I feel that the translation does indeed do justice to the original, with beautifully rendered passages which reflect the nuances of the feelings and emotions at the heart of the book.

So all in all, this is a must-read for fans of Japanese literature, but also really for anyone who likes to linger over a book that will make them reflect on their own lives.

There is the issue of the bilingual nature of the original book to address. The translation gets around this by using different type faces for the Japanese and English original text. Which is fine, and indeed it does justice to what Carpenter calls, in her introduction, 'Mizumura's concern with the visual aspect of written language'. But it is, of course, by its very nature not a bilingual book in translation into English. Also, in e-book form (in which I read this as an advance copy) the whole feel of it was clunky, with some passages being lost simply because of the issue of differing fonts. This is, if ever there was one, a book that you simply have to read in its physical paper form. I'm sorry to sound like a Luddite, but there you go. E-book, no! Bad!

Might well have been 5 stars but for the e-book issue, so a very solid 4.5 instead. ( )
  Alan.M | Dec 21, 2020 |
An I-Novel, by Minae Mizumura and translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, is a moving novel that takes place over the course of one day but takes us through the years of the semi-fictional Minae's life.

After I finished this novel I tried to figure out what exactly made it so impactful for me. I am not a woman, I am not an expat living in a different culture, I am no longer young nor any longer a grad student. A certain amount of why it moved me is the basic idea of empathy and relating as well as one can to a character, any character. What I think put this into exceptional area for me is that even though the events portrayed, both on the day of the novel and throughout Minae's life, were not immediately relatable for me, Mizumura conveyed the basic human feelings underlying these events so well that I could relate in that way. It wasn't just an expat's loneliness, it was a human loneliness. And so on for the spectrum of emotions I felt.

I won't repeat the history of either the I-novel form in Japanese literature or the dual-language aspect of the original novel. Those things are discussed in most of the book blurbs and, if you're like me, you'll look up more information about I-novels before starting this one. Doing that extra little bit of work does help to make this an even more impressive work, but certainly isn't necessary to enjoy the book.

I don't know Japanese and so never read the original, so I can't speak to the quality of the translation beyond acknowledging that it worked for me. That alone makes it a success to some degree. My understanding from the one person I know who read the original and this translation is that it is impressive, so I will go with that.

I highly recommend this to readers who like to explore that area where the minutiae of everyday life meets the lifelong arcs of a character's, and by extension our own, life. This is not action packed, but you will definitely have made a journey once you complete this book.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
  pomo58 | Oct 12, 2020 |
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