BJ. William Plomer

Not ‘indiscriminate japanegyrics’ but a ‘search for an honest approach to a very few aspects of the Japanese character, in which are involved so many complications and contradictions’.

3. Paper Houses. London: Hogarth, 1929. Reprint, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1943 (see 11).

A collection of short stories about Japanese subjects, dedicated to Sherard Vines (Ap). Plomer’s own assessment of the work in Double Lives (10) is as accurate as any: it ‘provides . . . detailed and accurate reporting on a few phases of Japanese life and character’, and though ‘the canvas is small . . . the painting is careful’. The work appeared in Japanese translation before Plomer departed the country, and he noted later that he received congratulations from Japanese acquaintances on his ‘insight into the character of the female of the [Japanese] species, towards whom their attitude was of course disdainful,’ but ‘of the Japanese male’ they thought him ‘less understanding, no doubt because, regarding themselves as superior entities, they did not like being analysed or criticized’. See also 28a, 29, and 30b, and 41.

a. Prefatory Notes. Plomer begins by contrasting himself with Hearn (see also i, 10a, and 27a2). Some Japanese acquaintances ‘have been good enough to express . . . the hope’ that he ‘might become “a second Lafcadio Hearn”’, but Plomer is content to be himself, for ‘the more the unfortunate Hearn tried to be a Japanese the more he proved himself to be . . . European’; Hearn’s best work is ‘an exquisite retelling of old stories’ of Japan, but mainly his ‘indiscriminate japanegyrics’ are ‘an insecure and degenerate-buddhistic fool’s paradise of scented shadows’. Plomer’s own work attempts no more than to ‘search for an honest approach to a very few aspects of the Japanese character, in which are involved so many complications and contradictions’. He ‘admits’ that he is ‘an admirer of the Japanese’, but he ‘disbelieves’ in ‘their tendency to nationalistic paranoia and . . . politico-religious superstitions’, which are ‘more insidious and locally almighty than those of nearly all other countries . . . and which, if persisted in, will have terrible results’. At present, however, Japan offers to the world ‘the memory of a clean old culture’, and an ‘object-lesson’ about ‘the danger of isolation from the rest of humanity’. Includes reference to Gould’s study of Hearn (see D9c), Chamberlain’s Things Japanese (see D5b), Bryan’s Civilization of Japan, (see BD20), Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthéme (Ap), Waley’s Tale of Genji (see D26c), the ‘little masterpieces’ Hôjôki (see CA13b) and Kenkô’s Tsurezuregusa (Ap), the artists Nonomura Sôtatsu (fl. ca. 1625-43), Sesshû Tôyô (1420-1506), and Maruyama Ôkyo (1733-95), and to various places around the country, including Osaka, Nara, Ise, and Yokohama. Written in Tokyo, 1928.

b. ‘Nakamura’. The title character, a chauffeur in Izu, drives a geisha, a sumô wrestler, and a farmer through the mountains toward Shuzenji from Itô, and the events that occur become ‘one of the most romantic modern legends of [that] part of the country’. Plomer notes in Double Lives (10) that the work is modelled on the ‘psychological studies’ of Akutagawa Ryûnosuke (1892-1927, see also i below). Reprinted in 26.

c. ‘The Portrait of an Emperor’. About blind obedience to authority, a particularly Japanese sense of responsibility for something over which one has no control, and the reverence of a petty school official for a portrait of the emperor. A bitter commentary about the ‘politico-religious superstitions’ Plomer discusses in his prefatory notes. Reprinted in 14, where a note identifies the year of composition as 1927.

d. ‘A Surplus Woman’. Set aboard a ship carrying passengers from London to Japan, including a young English missionary and the ‘surplus woman’ of the title, on her way to become the governess for ‘a Japanese millionaire’.

e. ‘A Brutal Sentimentalist’. A Japanese diplomat convalescing from an unspecified illness in England becomes introspective about the Japanese sense of duty to the emperor, patriotism, and the brutality that grows from these, and ‘confesses’ about the traits to an English friend. The title character is one of several Japanese men in Plomer’s work who illustrates what Plomer in Double Lives (10) calls the ‘dualism of the Japanese nature’. ‘It would have been convenient’, he writes there, ‘to divide the Japanese into Thugs and Gentles, but too simple, and erroneous besides, for the thugs were often largely gentle, and the gentles often tainted by the traits or tenets of thugs’. He goes on to discuss this work, in which he ‘tried to realize a not impossible conflict between the two strains in one breast’. Miner (A25) notes a resemblance here to analyses of the Japanese character in the fiction of Mori Ôgai (1862-1922).

f. ‘A Piece of Good Luck’. Sympathetic account of a Japanese country girl, whose ‘piece of good luck’ is to have the opportunity to go to Tokyo to be sold into servitude at a second-rate hotel. The scenes in the hotel are among the most striking in the Plomer canon, and no doubt derive details from his stay at the Kikufuji (see BD166j), which like the hotel in the story was in Sumida-ku. Includes scenes at a street fair in Asakusa and a fictionalised temple in the heart of the city, where the main object of worship is a stone phallus prayed over to induce fertility. Reprinted in 14.

g. ‘The Sleeping Husband’. The conceit is that a Japanese woman, staying at the foreign speaker’s home while her family’s belongings are being packed for a move, writes an autobiographical tale while her husband is sleeping beside her, and the next day leaves it behind, where it is discovered, translated into English, and set forth here. The theme is the cruelty of men toward wives and daughters, and the strength of women in the face of this. Reprinted in 14.

h. ‘Yoka Nikki: An Eight-Day Diary’. Recounts a foreign narrator’s journey from Tokyo to Hokkaido with a Japanese companion, ‘N’. Miner (A25) suggests that the work is an example of that ‘peculiarly Japanese genre, the fictionalized diary’, but Alexander (40), drawing on Plomer’s letters and notebooks, disagrees that it is fictionalised, and notes that Plomer took such a trip to Hokkaido with a student named Honda in the summer of 1927. In either case the model is surely the Japanese nikki (travel diary), and Plomer’s contribution to the genre is among the most engaging of his work about Japan. Includes extended description of the natural beauty of Hokkaido, and reference to the Ainu and to many specific locales on the island. Several passages extol the virtues of Japanese hot springs, which Plomer writes are among the greatest ‘achievements’ of the civilisation.

i. ‘Mother Kamchatka’. Miner is surely correct in finding the source of this long satire on ‘the worst sides of Japanese life’ in Akutagawa’s Kappa (1927, see also b above), and calls this work ‘the most extraordinary literary echo’ in Plomer’s writing about Japan. An Englishman, Mr. Mainchance, and a Japanese, Count Hibachi, are led on a tour of the island nation of Kamchatka, a transparently disguised Japan, providing Plomer opportunity to lampoon the more patently absurd of the country’s myths about itself and its cults of militarism, Emperor worship, and vagueness. Includes satirical treatment of Hearn (see D9), in the guise of ‘Cadwallo Tern’, who ‘was very far sighted, but . . . could only focus on the remote past’, and of much else, from Tokyo Imperial University (The University of Taboo) to Japanese literature (Kamchatkan literature ‘is confined to elegant, natural objects—the moon, the pleasures of flowers and drunkenness, the shortness of life. . . . Nearly all other subjects are taboo’). Plomer probably is not overstating the case when he writes in Double Lives (10) that if the work had been read and understood by ‘some chauvinist fanatic’ its author might not have left the country alive. By the time the work was published Plomer was on his way to England.





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