There is something transportive about reading a book set in a place that you are travelling. Art + reading contributor, Barbara Balfour, is currently living in Kyoto for three months while on research leave in Japan. Pictured here reading The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, she reflects on Tanizaki's gift for nuanced description and the immersive pleasures of travel reading:
"In keeping with my practice of reading about a city or country I’m travelling to, I’m focusing on novels about Japan while in Kyoto this Fall. I’ve read countless Japanese novels over the years, well in advance of coming here, including a phase of crime novels written by women that includes Natsuo Kirino’s Out and Miyuke Miyabe’s All She Was Worth.
After re-reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jabob de Zoet, about Dejima and Nagasaki, I’ve started to read Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, experiencing an odd sense of déjà vu, literally, as I’ve previously seen the Kon Ichikawa film of the same name more than once. When the sisters talk to each other, in my mind’s eye I see the actresses and recognize their personal traits – and yet the novel offers Tanizaki’s nuanced handling of the characters’ introspection. I know I probably should have read the novel first – it’s the film that followed the novel, not the other way around – but it’s not affecting my enjoyment of reading it.
Several passages about the nature of ephemerality, in this novel about a family’s inevitable decline, are in tune with the same author’s essay on aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows. In a culture where seasons are observed with a bittersweet, heightened sense of awareness, one can’t help but be moved by how Tanizaki captures this phenomenon. He might be writing about the “that moment of regret when the spring sun was about to set”, during the time of cherry blossoms, and I might be keeping an eye out for the autumn leaf posters in the subways, announcing when the leaves change from green to yellow to orange to red to brown, and he might be writing about pre World War II Osaka while I’m in 21st century Kyoto, but there are some sentiments that travel over time and space, transporting one with them."
Barbara's poignant essay "When does this become that?", reflecting on the nature of loss and and the subtle shift between living and dying, is published in art + reading , Issue 1, "Rupture", Autumn 2018. Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s 1933 essay "In Praise of Shadows" is also discussed in Jenn Law and Penelope Stewart's interview with Ed Pien in the same issue.