Monday, 10 October 2016

Of Love and Letters

When it comes to the pictures of the Floating World (Ukiyo-e), I've discovered through bitter experience that I am a man of firm likes and dislikes. Throughout my late twenties and early thirties, this picture above, 'The Love Letter' by Suzuki Harunobu (c.1725 - 1770), hung on the wall of the modest 'one room mansion' I used to rent in Kansai in central Japan.

I can't quite remember where I first came upon it, but in classic student fashion, I had no funds to frame it and hang it gracefully, but rather attached it directly to the wall with blue tack at the corners. It would periodically fall off and I would have to re-press it firmly to a slightly different section of wall, leaving brown thumb marks on the corners of the poster and bluish, frayed marks on the wall.

When I finally came to move home in my mid thirties, the poster alas did not survive the move: it was far too grimy for the pristine walls of my new palace and into the bin it went. Having now entered the 'Harunobu-less' years of my life, I began to pang for ukiyo-e and would periodically find myself excitedly visiting exhibitions and leafing through books. My mind being confused however, I would forget that it was Harunobu whose poster I used to gaze on every day and I would misremember that it was by another famous ukiyo-e artist, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) instead. But whenever I looked at Utamaro's pictures, I would be disappointed - they appeared to me to have less finesse, beauty and warmth - until I finally recalled that it was never him that I liked in the first place, but rather Harunobu.

Harunobu, Harunobu, Harunobu. I had to remember it was him that I liked, but then I forgot again and sat through Mizoguchi's film "Utamaro and His Five Women" (1946, thought by some to be a masterpiece - not in my opinion) and wondered once again what I had ever seen in Utamaro, until I finally recalled that I had misremembered it once again. Damn Utamaro!

Clearly I needed Harunobu back in my life. As recipients of my Facebook feed will be aware, I have been engaged in a restoration project of late on a 19th century mansion in the UK. One of its rooms I am naming the 'Arthur Waley Room' in honour of the great scholar, translator and popularizer of East Asian literature. This room will contain a writing desk and so it was a no-brainer what picture I would wish to have hanging over it: 'The Love Letter' by Suzuki Harunobu (in an even larger, framed version this time round).

In the ten years I spent looking at this picture while I was researching literature in Japan, a particular set of interpretations fixed themselves in my mind. As I will explain in a moment, this view was partly based on a misinterpretation of the picture, but I'll tell you first what particular meaning this picture of two people simultaneously reading a letter had for me and why I would wish to have it hanging over a writing desk.

Firstly, it reminded me that what you write should be capable of being read and re-read. It should be composed to last and to be mulled over. Second, it reminds me that the perspective of each person reading what you have written is different (which doesn't necessarily stop me winding up people of every possible stripe with ill-considered remarks).

Thirdly, it reminds me that if you communicate your passion on a subject, it will be of interest not just to your 'intended' audience, but to all kinds of other readers as well. In fact, it is this unintended 'secondary' readership that always provide me with the greatest thrill as a writer - those people in the farthest reaches of the world, or people with no particular interest in the subject, who somehow or other come upon what you have written and find their own interest sparked by it.

During the ten years I gazed at this picture in my room in Japan, I mostly spent my time at a Japanese university, preparing for a standard academic career. I contemplated the life of publishing articles in academic journals, producing books of academic research, tutoring graduate students - all very worthy and noble - but not, I concluded, one for me. I wanted to write things that would find not just the pre-ordained, 'intended' audience but reach out for that secondary, unintended readership. I wanted the scroll of scholarship to unfurl and land in unexpected, fascinated hands.

But when I came to order the half-remembered print after a 10 year gap, I suddenly discovered that it had a quite different meaning to what I had always assumed it to have. Knowing it only by its English title of 'The Love Letter', I had carelessly assumed it to be a picture of two female courtesans reading the same love letter, intended for the girl at the top, but also being read with interest by her friend under the blanket.

When I looked up its Japanese title however, I was startled to see it was 'A Man and a Woman Reading a Letter by a Kotatsu [A blanketed table])' The figure under the blanket is a man - you can also tell this from the hairstyle, which often reveals much information in ukiyo-e prints. This rather changes the dynamic of the picture and adds a sharp satirical edge.

But now, more than ever, I'm feeling this is a suitable picture to have hanging over a writing desk: reminding me than even the most familiar works of art have the ability to suddenly radiate in an unexpected light according to a new critical interpretation laid upon it.

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