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!"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions