Obituary: Shin'ichiro Nakamura

Shin'ichiro Nakamura, novelist, poet, translator, scriptwriter, critic, biographer, essayist and painter: born Tokyo 1918; married Sakiko Nakamura (Erinu Saki); died Atami, Shizouka Prefecture 25 December 1997.

It is incredible that a writer of such range and substance and with such superb literary gifts as Shin'ichiro Nakamura should be almost totally unknown outside Japan. When the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a much lesser writer, Kenzaburo Oe, in 1994, my heart sank. I knew that no other Japanese writer would be considered for many years.

Nakamura was 79. Apart from a few brief extracts from his monumental opus that had appeared in Russian, Korean and Japanese-English little magazines, only his 1978 novel Natsu ("Summer") had been translated, into French, by the brave orientalising publisher Philippe Picquier, in the Unesco Representative Japanese Works Series. Without English translations his work was literally a closed book to the Nobel Prize Committee.

Nakamura was a modest man, little inclined to publicise himself. In his youth, he was apparently a great lover of women, and at the end of his days he was still writing obsessively about the sex life of the very old. He was endearingly unpompous, and cheerfully accepted any chance to make a little cash from his totally uncommercial pen: he would proudly joke about having collaborated in the scripting of the 1961 movie Mothra, the SF fantasy monster that battled with clumsy animation against Godzilla, Rodan, King Kong and all that tribe.

Nakamura studied French literature at Tokyo University, where he was enraptured by the prose of Gerard de Nerval, whose Les Filles du feu he was to translate in 1942. In the same year, with his friends Shuichi Kato - now Japan's leading literary critic - and the novelist and poet Takehiko Fukunaga, he founded the "Matinee poetique" group, whose aim was to introduce contemporary Western poetic styles and techniques. After the Second World War, they were joined by the left-wing novelist and critic Hiroshi Noma to publish an anthology of their poems and a Manifesto (1946) championing a renewal of the Japanese novel through study of European and American works.

The influence of Proust and the French roman fleuve but also of Joyce, Svevo, Kafka, Sartre and Faulkner was strong, and helped Nakamura develop a sophisticated style sometimes compared with Proust's. But the writer he always reminds me of is the "stream of consciousness" trailblazer Dorothy M. Richardson and her 12-volume novel Pilgrimage (1915-38).

Nakamura had not expected to survive the war and had started his first series of massive novels, regarding them as a testament. The first, Shi no Kage no moto ni ("Under the Shadow of Death", 1947), was followed by four others of equal length, ending with Nagai tabi no owari ("End of a Long Journey", 1952).

Nakamura returned to his interest in classical Japanese and Chinese literature with Ocho no Bungaku ("Literature of Dynasty", 1957), in which he explored the Heian Period (794-1185), discovering in it a surprising modernism of thought, sensibility and morals. He next analysed the Edo Period (1568- 1867) in his huge biography Rai-sanyo to sono jidai ("Rai-sanyo and His Times", 1971), the life of a 19th-century historian and poet.

But his series of expansive novels continued to flow: Kuchu Teien ("Hanging Gardens", 1963), and Kumo no yukiki ("Passing Clouds", 1966) and a new epic cycle, Shiki ("Seasons"), a tetralogy whose broadly meandering 600- page second volume, Natsu, is his only translated work. Its main theme is no less than a leisurely, dream-like exploration of the whole of human consciousness, employing, in the author's words,

a realism that is not external (based in observation and depiction of the world around us), but internal - a realism representing facts and things that have already been projected within my subconscious.

It is a deeply introspective approach, based on what Nakamura calls his "mania", an obsession with existential difficulties:

This mania for introspection has become with me a reflex of the same order as the taking of my pulse.

When he turned 40, Nakamura passed through a personal crisis. In his novel, a friend advises him to "take a cure of alcohol and sex" that sends him down into Hades, like Dante conducted by Virgil around the select private clubs of the capital. His Beatrice is "Badgerette" (a sly dig perhaps at Simone de Beauvoir, whose friends called her "Badger") - who queens it over a pseudo- intellectual Salon Noir and its teams of de luxe prostitutes.

By present-day standards, this sexual hell seems rather tame, but it is convincingly evoked in Nakamura's fragmented visions. There is character analysis of great subtlety, in the manner of Proust, but enriched by essential native elements from Heian culture and the Buddhist themes of reincarnation and predestination, in what the author calls "a multistratification of consciousness".

Shin'ichiro Nakamura was unclassifiable, and this accounts for his neglect by our literary fusspots who like everyone to fit into their neat little arrangements. Like many in Japan today, he insisted that he should be given no funeral. (He had died suddenly after lunching with his old friend Shuichi Kato.) He asked to be disposed of "without name, without nationality" and with only the words pacem nobis aeternam on his monument. He wrote this "death haiku": "Roses and lilies / - perfume evening shadows / on the road to the dead!"

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