A thoughtful discourse on literature with Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura (中村文則)

By | April 1, 2019

I’ve been an avid reader since I was young, but until high school I mostly read fantasy novels that would be considered popular fiction. In high school I was assigned to read a variety of books in various genres, but I think it’s safe to say a majority of them could be considered ‘literature’ in one sense or another. Some of these I really enjoyed (Nineteen Eighty-Four) and some were a struggle to get through (The Last of the Mohicans, which ironically I think I chose myself for a project after having seen the movie).

Into college and afterwards I continued on reading popular fiction, but at the same time I gradually began to read more books categorized as ‘classics’, like Fahrenheit 451 (which I thoroughly enjoyed). Decades later, it’s clear that the required reading program in my high school significantly expanded my horizons of what books can express, and what literature is.

Now that I am somewhat fluent in reading Japanese, my interest in literature also extends to Japanese books. While I will still read popular stuff, I like to learn about classic Japanese authors and their works. One key question I have had in the back of my mind for some time––”What is literature?”––applies equally to the world of Japanese.

I did some searching on Youtube the other day to see if there happened to be any videos on Japanese literature and came across a very interesting talk by well-known author Fuminori Nakamura (中村文則), who has penned works such as Suri, Juu, and Kyoudan X.

In this roughly hour-and-a-half talk, Nakamura speaks on a wide variety of topics, but there is one common theme that ties them all together: literature (文学 in Japanese). He talks about not only Japanese authors, but also those from other nations, for example Albus Camus, where he spends a few minutes talking about Camus’s classic novel 転落 (“The Fall”). Of course Nakamura also talks about his own works, touching upon things like common elements in his books and some behind-the-scenes details.

I haven’t read a single book of his, so I’ll admit I had time following some of the discussions. But what I really enjoyed most from this video was this author’s tremendous love of literature. He speaks with a great passion for his own works, those of others, and about literature as a whole. It was educational to hear not just what he said, but the words he used to say it.

Another interesting thing about this talk is the many questions from audience members, and he generally gives detailed answers, sometimes lasting a few minutes. In fact, he was asked the very question “What is literature?” and his answer was along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing and translating here), “Any work that has meaning beyond the sum of its literal words.”

For those studying Japanese, the frequent topic jumping and requirement of foreknowledge in a variety of areas will make understanding difficult. Fortunately, Nakamura often pauses as he thinks out loud, and this can make parsing the sentences a little easier.

But I still highly recommend this video because of the thought-provoking perspectives on literature and writing that it offers. I dabble in writing myself (and translation itself can be seen as a form of writing) and I had a mini-revelation when I heard him say that research is a key part of writing.

While I can’t claim that Nakamura is any authority on Japanese literature, just the fact he has clearly spent a great deal of his life investing in reading, writing, and researching literature made me want to try reading one of his books. He indicated that he can spend much effort at the sentence level to get the flow of the words to sound just right, and this made me even more eager to get at taste of his style.

For Japanese learners, another interesting part of this video is how each of the audience members question him with a different tone and speed of speech, though generally they are all very polite. For example, one person used the phrase お聞きしたいです(okiki shitai desu) instead of the plain 聞きたいです (kikitai desu), the former being at a higher level of politeness. If you observe closely you can tell that some of the audience members asking questions are nervous, probably because they are huge fans of this author.

Nakamura himself generally uses basic desu/masu polite forms, but midway through watching I realized that he was speaking in a very informal way (referring to both his tone and the content of his speech), almost as if he was talking to a friend. When I realized that the audience was made up of college students that were all much younger than him, his manner of speaking made much more sense. This is a good example on how just using desu/masu forms doesn’t make one sound extremely polite.

Here is the video:

(Note: the picture of a notebook used for the featured image is taken from Pexels.com)

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