The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

As WWII approaches, a Japanese family is ostensibly run by the household of an oldest sister, Tsuruko. However, Tsuruko’s household does preciously little other than give marching orders in the crisis faced by the extended Japanese family…finding a marriage for an aging middle daughter Yukiko and then one for a younger and increasingly troublesome daughter Taeko. Instead, these problems are primarily addressed by the household of the second oldest daughter in the family, Sachiko, as Tsuruko’s household leaves the family seat for Tokyo as part of an increasing focus on money making and thrift as opposed to family obligations. This is The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Valerie Martin, 10th for David Mitchell, and 9th Cathleen Schine.)

Arranging Yukiko’s marriage is a difficult matter. Many years have passed as suitor after suitor was refused due to inflexible standards due to the Makioka family standing. Yukiko herself creates problems when the family decides to let their standards slip a bit:

Most unfortunate, thought Sachiko. Yukiko’s dislike for the telephone was no secret, and when—rarely—there was a call for her she usually had someone else do the talking and went to the telephone herself on very special occasions. No one had objected up to now, but this was one of those special occasions. Whatever Hashidera’s reasons for calling, it seemed imperative, since he had asked for her, that Yukiko take the call. He would receive quite the wrong impression if Sachiko were to talk to him instead. Yukiko was after all not a sixteen-year-old. Though her sister understood this shyness, they could hardly expect a stranger to understand. They would be lucky if Hashidera was not offended. Perhaps Yukiko had gone to the telephone, timing and protecting? But to go reluctantly after having made him wait, to say almost nothing—she was even worse over the telephone than she was face-to-face—and as a result to have him break on the negotiations—the better alternative might be to let him go on waiting. There was always that stubborn core. Possibly she had refused to go near the telephone, and was waiting for Sachiko to rescue her. Even if Sachiko were to rush home, however, she would probably find that he had given up, and if he had not, what could she say by way of excuse? This was one time when Yukiko herself should have taken the call, and promptly. Something told Sachiko that this trivial incident could mean the end of the negotiations on which they had worked so hard.

Taeko is an entirely different problem. She almost eloped when she was younger (causing a newspaper story), wants to work for herself, sponges off a man she no longer intends to marry, and worse:

Taeko nodded apathetically. “I know what is wrong without calling a doctor.”

“Oh? What is it then?”

Her face against the chair, Taeko looked sluggishly up at her sister. “It looks as though I am three or four months pregnant.” She spoke with the usual calm.

Sachiko gasped, and stared as though to bore a hole through her sister’s face. It was a moment or two before she could ask the question: “Is it Kei-boy’s?”

“Miyoshi’s. I think Yukiko heard about Miyoshi from the old woman.”

“The bartender?”

Taeko nodded. “I am sure that is my trouble.”

This all doesn’t help the family’s attempts to get Yukiko get married, much less help Sachiko figure out what to do about Taeko.

Of course, this is all going on as WWII is about to explode. We can see it coming, and the characters think about what they see and hear, but they are inescapably wrapped up in their own family problems above and beyond any of that. They just can’t see how insignificant their personal problems are about to be. WWII will change Japan forever, but until then Yukiko must get married and something must be done about Taeko.

The Makioka Sisters is an enthralling picture of pre-World War II Japan. The characters are vividly human, the described world is tangible, and the interrelationships are meticulously ordered. It involved a declining family as opposed to a destroyed one, and that gives a different kind of urgency to their preservation efforts and struggles. All is not yet lost, meaning that their efforts have more significant weight. All in all, The Makioka Sisters is quite beautiful.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Devil went down to Moscow…he was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind and he was looking to make a deal. Okay, maybe not, but I decided to check out The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov for my first actual review here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books (in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title of the post).

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Kathryn Harrison, 5th for David Mitchell, and 5th for Annie Proulx.)

This one is an interestingly layered story. Seemingly at the core is a story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Supposedly, the story is written by a man who calls himself the Master (see the title) and is intensely loved by a woman named Margarita (also see the title). However, his literary efforts were lambasted by the literary establishment and he was even hounded by the Moscow police. All that is in the past though, as the Devil descends upon an unprepared Moscow that has rejected religion.

Of course, Bulgakov’s Jesus isn’t exactly the Jesus you might be thinking of. Consider this portion from the interrogation of Yeshua Ha-Notsri by Pontius Pilate:

            “Well, all right. If you wish to keep it secret, you may do so. It has no direct beating on the case. So you maintain that you did not incite them to tear down…or burn, or in any other manner destroy the temple?”

            “I repeat, Hegemon, I did not incite them to any such actions. Do I look like an imbecile?”

            “Oh, no, you do not look like an imbecile,” replied the procurator softly, breaking out in a fearsome smile. “So swear that you did nothing of the kind.”

            “What would you have me swear by?” asked the unbound prisoner excitedly.

            “Well, by your life,” answered the procurator. “It is most timely that you swear by your life since it is hanging by a thread, understand that.”

Though this reminds me a little of Jesus’s trial before Pilot, it is certainly not how I remember the story.

Also, Bulgakov’s Devil, named Woland, is nothing like any Devil I’ve ever seen before. His antics in Moscow may have a serious edge for a few unlucky people, but he seems more interested in making the arrogant and money-grubbing residents of Moscow look foolish than in endangering their souls or taking their lives:

            “Do I note a touch of surprise, my dearest Stepan Bogdanovich?” Woland inquired of Styopa whose teeth were chattering, “But there is nothing to be surprised about. This is my retinue.”

            At this point the cat drank down the vodka, and Styopa’s hand began to slip down the door frame.

            “Any my retinue needs space,” Woland continued, “which means that one of us in this apartment is superfluous. And I think that someone is—you!”

*****

            And then the bedroom began to spin around Styopa, he hit his head on the door frame, and as he was losing consciousness, he thought, “I’m dying…”

            But he did not die. He opened his eyes slightly and saw that he was sitting on something made of stone. A sound could be heard nearby. When he opened his eyes properly, he realized that it was the sound of the sea and that a wave was, in fact, breaking at his very feet, that, to be brief, he was sitting at the end of a jetty, and that a blue sky was sparkling above him, and behind him was a white city nestled in the hills.

*****

            Then Styopa resorted to the following maneuver: he dropped on his knees in front of the unknown smoker and said, “Please tell me, what city is this?”

            “Are you kidding?!” said the heartless smoker.

            “I’m not drunk,” Styopa replied hoarsely, “Something’s happened to me…I’m sick…Where am I’ What city is this?”

            “Well, Yalta…”

            Styopa sighed softly, fell over on his side and struck his head against the warm stone of the jetty.

Regardless of Jesus or the Devil, or the Master or Margarita (who don’t really seem to be in a lot of danger for being in a novel with the Devil), Bulgakov has to be the strangest Russian writer of his time. I mean, he was only a generation after Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. This book is set in Moscow in the thirties, if you can believe it from the small chunks I’ve shared. Yet, if I didn’t know better, I’d really think he was writing just a few years ago. There is just something remarkably similar to contemporary prose in the way that Bulgakov wrote. It really makes the book interesting, considering its actual age.

And, all in all, the whole novel is a great deal of fun. Bulgakov may have been an anomaly in his own time, but today I found him delightful. The book is definitely weird, don’t get me wrong on that, but it was a good kind of weird. The Master and Margarita is a strange thing, living and breathing in its own little world.

– David S. Atkinson