Born in Boulder, Colorado, Julith Jedamus now lives in London with her husband and son. In her first novel, The Book of Loss (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), she explores the lives of a group of women living in the court of the emperor in 10th-century Japan through the voice of a narrator who confesses her sins to her diary. Here, she chooses her favourite Japanese novels.
1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (11th century)
The great Proustian novel from the late Heian Period. Though the world it describes is antique, the writing is wonderfully fresh and immediate. The emotions of the characters, both male and female, are subtly analysed. Read it in the new translation by Royall Tyler.
2. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (1914)
Simply told in the first person, the novel is a study of loneliness and betrayal. Published soon after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which Soseki read while studying in London) it explores the nature of evil, and the possibility of a ‘selfless self’.
3. Rashomon (1915) and In a Grove (1922) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
All right, they’re short stories – but Akutagawa, who killed himself when he was 35, never wrote a novel, and as a prose stylist he’s just too marvellous to leave out. There is enough mystery in these two tales (transposed to film by Akira Kurosawa in 1950) to fill a book as long as The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. A critic of the confessional mode of writing, Akutagawa implies in these stories that narrators are always unreliable.
4. Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki (1928)
The story of a man who, having lost his passion for his wife, encourages her to have an affair. Despite the tension between them, the couple find themselves reluctant to separate, in part to protect their young son. Wonderful digressions on dolls, puppets, garlic breath, clove-scented baths, and the love suicides of Chikamatsu.
5. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1947)
Snow is such a presence in this story that it almost becomes a character. Everything that matters is elided or implied in this ambiguous tale of a Toyko dilettante who allows a young geisha from the western mountains to fall in love with him.
6. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima (1956)
Can a crime of passion be committed against an object? In 1950, a young acolyte set fire to a Zen temple in Kyoto. Mishima attended the trial, and discovered in the monk’s confession a strange story of beauty and desire, in which a boy’s wish to protect what he loves most is transformed into an act of destruction.
7. Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1962)
“One day in August a man disappeared.” So begins this bizarre tale of an entomologist trapped by the strangest of predators: a voracious pit of sand. Within the pit lives an equally voracious woman, who, the trapped man learns, rewards those who willingly renounce their freedom to fight the relentless encroachment of the dunes.
8. Silence by Shusaku Endo (1966)
A generous and beautiful novel in which Endo, a Catholic, imagines the sufferings and self-delusions of two Portuguese missionaries forced by their Japanese captors to renounce their faith. The descriptions of the tortures endured by the Jesuit apostates and their 17th-century converts are harrowing.
9. Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! By Kenzaburo Oe (1983)
In 1963, Oe’s eldest son was born with a malformed skull and massive brain damage. In this tender and hopeful book, Oe describes how a man very like himself comes to terms with his son’s disability through a chance encounter with a mad autodidact and the prophetic books of William Blake.
10. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987)
The novel, Murakami’s fifth, whose phenomenal success led to his exile to Europe and the United States. It’s all here: the callow narrator, the deja vus and symbols, the peripheral danger – plus slug-eating, damp bras, The Great Gatsby, fires, Miles Davis, and a dead man’s pyjamas.