What to Read at Silent Book Club: Spellbound by Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters

A Silent Book Club

Once a month, À la  Caffeine, the provincial coffeehouse for itinerant writers,  hosts a magical Silent Book Club.  Like the magic theater in Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, it is “NOT FOR EVERYBODY.” The head barista founded the group after reading an article at Read It Forward about the grassroots  silent book club movement.  It is certainly a freaky concept.

Nonetheless, ink-stained nerds and bibliophiles cannot forego an evening of free coffee and books.  After half an hour of book chat, everybody sits and reads his or her own book in silence.  Guinevere de la Mare in San Francisco, dissatisfied with her book group, came up with the idea. She didn’t want assigned reading:  she just wanted to go to a bar and read her own book silently.

There is an empowering feeling about it:  it is a kind of Zen experience.  And you can dumb down or smarten up your reading, The Girl on the Train  or The Man without Qualities, but you don’t have to do it at another’s bidding.

As for me, I just finished Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters.

I am spellbound by this elegant 20th-century Japanese classic. I first heard of it when Jeanette Watson, owner of Books & Co in New York from 1977 to 1997, wrote in the Literary Hub that it was the Japanese Gone with the Wind.

Well, it is nothing like Gone with the Wind, but it is a page-turner, and I am not a fan of Gone with the Wind anyway.  Set on the brink of World War II, when  Japan is already at war in China, this tender, subtle, exquisite novel is a brilliant social history of the lives of Japanese women. I am fascinated by the four Makioka sisters, whose expectations and attitudes are gradually changing as the century progresses.  And Tanizaki illustrates what a stifling culture it could be for women.

We see most of the events through the eyes of Sachiko, the second sister, who is happily married, creative, and sweet.  She often practices calligraphy and writes letters. The two younger sisters live with Sachiko, though traditionally they should live with their oldest sister, Tsukuro, whose rigid, dictatorial husband is the head of the family.

The two oldest sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, are married women with children and live in the traditional Japanese style. The third and fourth sisters, Yukio and Taeko, still unmarried in their mid- and late twenties, cause much angst.  Quiet Yukiko likes staying home, helping with the housekeeping, caring for the children, and nursing the sick.   Taeko attempted to elope when she was a teenager, but now runs a successful doll-making business. The dolls are works of art.  When she decides to become a seamstress, this  causes family friction, because it is beneath their class. And Taeko, who has affairs, is not allowed to marry until Yukiko does.  Yukiko cannont marry, because the head of the household shoots down her suitors one by one.  As the book goes on we realize Yukiko is also quietly rebellious.

The translator Edward G. Seidensticker, known for his acclaimed translation of The Tale of Genji, has a delicate, pellucid style.  This is a simply a ravishing book, with a scintillating plot, and colorful characterizations.

Perfect for Silent Reading Club!