An I-Novel

From The Wall Street Journal:

The problem of translating Minae Mizumura’s 1995 novel “Shishōsetsu From Left to Right” begins with the bilingual title. Shishōsetsu is a form of fictionalized autobiography that has long been popular in Japan. “From left to right” refers to the printed text. Ms. Mizumura, who has divided her life between her native Japan and the United States, liberally mixes English with Japanese; to accommodate the English words, therefore, she upended the usual vertical presentation of Japanese writing and published the book horizontally.

It’s easy to see why Juliet Winters Carpenter would call translating the novel a “seemingly impossible task” and why the temptation to try would nevertheless prove irresistible. The version she has produced is called An I-Novel” (Columbia University Press, 325 pages, $20), and to indicate the phrases that are in English in the original she has used different typefaces. The oscillations speak to the “in-between status” of both the book and its autobiographical narrator.

The story, set over a single day in the small American college town where the narrator is completing her Ph.D., is very much about negotiating that linguistic schizophrenia. During a phone call with her sister, Nanae, the narrator realizes that it is the 20th anniversary of the day they moved to the U.S. for their father’s work. Their conversation and the narrator’s reflections rove into the past while glancing tentatively into the future, because the narrator has decided that she will return to Japan and take up fiction-writing. Nanae is surprised that her sister plans to write in Japanese, which she has never done before. But distance has bred a kind of obsession with her native country and its literature. “In my case,” she says, “it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew.”

This is fascinating, but the trouble is obvious. The friction that results from imposing a dual-language text onto a story about choosing between languages has been lost in “An I-Novel.” In fact, the book’s untranslatability is a feature rather than a bug. In her 2014 nonfiction work “The Fall of Language in the Age of English,” Ms. Mizumura writes that she intended the novel to comment on the “linguistic asymmetry” that obtains throughout the world. Readers in Japan—or India, or France, or Brazil—could be reasonably assumed to understand most of the English that appears. Only native English-speakers are left out, since a bilingual book cannot be reproduced for monolingual societies.

. . . .

In the U.S. the I-Novel, usually called autofiction, has become popular as a means of describing the plights of different identity groups. But some writers, like Teju Cole and Ben Lerner, have used autobiography as source material to explore variations on a theme, as one might in a collection of essays or a suite of poems. Christine Smallwood’s excellent debut, The Life of the Mind” (Hogarth, 229 pages, $27), is this kind of book, linking episodes—some comic, some macabre—that delve into the cultural preoccupation with apocalypses, or as she puts it, the feeling that “ends came and came and they did not end.”

Its difficult heroine is Dorothy, an overqualified adjunct literature professor who is enduring the prolonged aftereffects of a miscarriage. The “blight” in her womb, as her doctor calls it, reminds her all too readily of her barren career prospects and of the imperiled future of life on Earth in general.

It’s a powerful metaphor, if fairly on the nose, and there are moments when the ax-grinding in “The Life of the Mind” is too predictable. Ms. Smallwood’s streak of dry, dark humor does much to dispel any restlessness, however, and the vignettes include some superb glancing satires of academia and the psychiatric racket. But it’s the miscarriage, treated not as a literary device but as a fact in itself, that occasions the best passages. In one breathtaking scene set during an OB-GYN appointment, Dorothy is mesmerized by a sonogram of her empty womb. (“She was too shallow to have an interior this deep,” she thinks.) And a bracing penultimate chapter that takes a hard, ambivalent look at another kind of termination—a friend’s abortion—leaves the novel in an aptly unsettling place of “nonconclusion.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)