Death brings with it a mercenary frame of mind. Medical bills, funerary services, and legal and estate issues immediately give rise to questions of money: How much must the survivors pay? From what funds? Through whose hands? And what remains after? Those are the most common terms by which we think of inheritance: as the physical transfer of wealth from the decedent to his or her heirs.
Yet inheritance comes in many forms, not all of them easy entries in a grim tally of money in or money out. For the death of a parent, the stakes are even higher. In the days and months before they die, in the weeks and years after they are no longer alive, the child will weigh on a different scale the benefits they have been bequeathed by birth—ethics, aptitudes, relative station in society—against the defects that have come to them by blood—congenital illness, self-destructive tendencies, a feckless family. Grief masks what some kin feel as survivor’s guilt, even as they sense a lingering, atavistic dread that some sins, too, are hereditary.
The bleakness of this perspective is undeniable in the first chapter of Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. The protagonist, Mitsuki, considers what she has been left with on the night of her mother’s death. There is the relatively meager amount of money she and her sister will split; there is the simple fact that they are both middle-aged women in an aging nation in decline; there is the romantic, grasping desire to want a beautiful life, a predilection that Mitsuki likens to a congenital defect, passed along from one generation of her family to the next; finally, there are the ruins of her own personal and professional circumstances, left unattended as she has been obliged to take care of her mother. And so the novel begins with a character who has long thought her mother’s death would mark a release, and instead finds herself mired in the messy reality of living, suffering under constraints of a different kind.
A remarkable narrative economy anchors this first chapter, which seems to contain almost the entire book in miniature. Formally, it serves as a kind of thesis, outlining all that falls under the umbrella of the book’s title; each kind of inheritance will, by the novel’s end, receive its own treatment, considered both in a positive and negative light—for example, while Mitsuki ends up inheriting a small sum of money, other characters face the possibility of inheriting significant debt. It also presages the narrative arc of each subsequent chapter, with Mitsuki looking back to the past even as she inches forward in the present, coming to terms with her grief even as she wrestles with the fact and the regret that she has wronged her mother grievously by wishing, almost daily, that the old lady would hurry up and die.
“Was there ever a right time for one’s mother to disappear from the face of the earth?” Mitsuki asks herself at one point later in Inheritance from Mother. The novel, insofar as it is a grief narrative, offers the only answer possible, as anyone who has lost their mother knows, even if their mother was, like Mitsuki’s, something of a terror. Is there ever a right time to lose a mother? No. Never. And yet, as Mizumura shows us, too, yearning for a mother’s disappearance is an impossible wish; she lives on in everything the child does, both as a curse and as a gift.
But this is not just a grief narrative; this is, after all, a novel by Minae Mizumura. Readers in English have had only two opportunities to gauge her talent and ambition, and yet those two books, A True Novel and The Fall of Language in the Age of English, should be enough to dispel any notion that Inheritance from Mother is a merely a story about a woman grieving for her mother. The first is a tour de force of narrative invention, one that builds upon the storied Meiji-era Japanese tradition of borrowing from Western novels to create something entirely new; the second is both a cri de coeur about the state of a Japanese language and literature that has become enthralled by English, and a paean to those Japanese authors Mizumura holds in highest esteem because they so adroitly adapted to “the shock of the West.”
The West’s influence upon Japan lingers over this book as well, from the beginning. Two novels haunt its pages: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and The Golden Demon by Ozaki Koyo, a serialized novel published in Japan in 1897, which tells the tale of a young woman giving up her true love for a wealthy suitor, only to regret it forever. Mitsuki notes, “Ever since [Madame Bovary’s publication], the word Bovarism had denoted women who read too many novels and have unrealistic fantasies about love and life.” The Golden Demon had a similar effect, plunging many a Japanese woman at the turn of the 20th century into self-doubt and -recrimination over choices they made—the romantic loves they gave up—for a stable, respectable life.
The choice of these books serves multiple purposes. There are the most obvious connections; namely, that both books, like Inheritance from Mother, were serialized novels; there is also the fact that women at various points in history were so profoundly affected by reading these books that they reassessed their choices in life, a tradition of sorts that Mitsuki continues as she weighs the reality of her present against the dreams she had as a young woman. But the books, and their effects on their audiences, also point to what seems to be a defining idea for Mizumura, one that would seem trite if it were not evident that she believed it so completely: That books have the power to materially change a life, both for better and for worse. The reader sees this in the story of Mitsuki’s grandmother, who abandoned her first husband for Mitsuki’s grandfather after reading The Golden Demon. It is evident, too, when Mitsuki is offered an opportunity to translate Madame Bovary into Japanese, albeit in a more practical fashion—the project would give her not just money, but a sense of self beyond simply being the woman married to her husband.
This idea—the power of literature to shape a life, a consciousness, the trajectory of a tribe—is most clearly defined in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, but it is present in everything that Mizumura does; even in the semi-autobiographical frame story of A True Novel, the narrator describes how Japanese literature both provided solace for her as a lonely little girl living in Long Island and, at the same time, gave her an almost comically warped view of Japan and the world at large. Viewed through this lens, Inheritance from Mother can be seen as Mizumura’s attempt to offer absolution to the entire post-World War II generation of now middle-aged Japanese women, who have borne the burden of caring for their mothers and their fathers (and their husbands’ mothers and fathers), and who inevitably wish their elder charges would die. (Mizumura has written movingly about letters she received from readers, specifically thanking her for the novel and the way it allowed them to forgive themselves, in the New York Times.) It is an absolution that is only available through the medium of the novel, where the reader can empathize with and observe the protagonist as she struggles with the intensely personal, yet entirely commonplace, experience of watching someone die.
But there is something a little too pat about that interpretation, particularly for Mizumura, who delights in narrative reversal and ambiguity: her A True Novel, after all, was a master class in the deployment of an unreliable narrator. Mizumura courted scandal in Japan by deeming most of contemporary Japanese literature sentimental “crap” in The Fall of Language in the Age of English; for her to follow that philippic with a maudlin grief narrative would seem the height of hypocrisy, no matter how well-executed or deeply felt the story at hand. Here, again, Mizumura’s choice of literary forebears is instructive.
Mizumura idealizes Meiji-era writers for two, related reasons: both for the “sublime” work they created, and for the capability of contemporaneous Japanese readers had to appreciate their sophisticated work. The art and its reception together embodied the best of the country, and The Golden Demon is a perfect example; the story was based on Weaker than a Woman, a dime novel by an American woman, Bertha M. Clay, and yet Ozaki’s serialized text, meant for the general readership of a daily newspaper, “was full of intricate Chinese characters and long sentences written in an ornate, archaic style.” Nevertheless, Mitsuki’s grandmother, of low birth and with little education, like many other women of her generation, read it as avidly as Japanese youth now read comic books.
But if those writers’ work represented one of the benefits of Western influence, they also inherited some of the West’s deficiencies, such as an inordinate focus on love and lovers. Mitsuki notes, “in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many—certainly less central than the changes of seasons,” citing the Heian-era masterpiece The Tale of Genji as the prime example. Mitsuki blames Western influence for the unrealistic expectations she and many of the other characters in the novel have—expectations that include being able to live happily and securely as an independent woman—as if all of Japan had succumbed to a nationalized form of Bovarism. And so it is significant that Mizumura ends the novel on a seasonal note, specifically marking the passing of winter and the coming of spring, both for the way it marks Mitsuki’s character progression, emerging anew from the crucible of her mother’s death and the dissolution of her marriage, and the way it calls back to classical Japanese literature.
Yet there is a glaring omission in the novel’s allusion to Flaubert; namely, that no one—none of the characters in Madame Bovary, and none of the people they are meant to represent—emerges unscathed from under his merciless gaze, and Mizumura, I think, accomplishes something similar here. She gives the book a harder edge more in keeping with her fatalistic view toward the prospects for Japanese culture as the nation succumbs to decline.
Mitsuki observes late in the story, “At her age, she wouldn’t even make a good heroine in a novel.” Childless by choice, Mitsuki is considering her value to society, in the wake of her mother’s death, as she contemplates leaving her husband—she worries that she is nothing as an independent woman, that she only exists in relation to other people. Mizumura may have chosen to write about a middle-aged Japanese woman grieving for her mother for any number of reasons, but the one that seems to stand out most by the book’s end is that the country itself might be best represented in fiction, in metaphor, by someone like Mitsuki. Japan’s shrinking population struggles to emerge from under the crushing weight of its post-war legacy, just as Mitsuki wrestles with her family’s past and her concerns about her future; Japan’s once-robust economy perpetually struggles with recession, much as Mitsuki comes to terms with having to live in reduced circumstances after a life of relative privilege and wealth.
Mizumura seems to offer Mitsuki as an imperfect way forward: Mitsuki finds solace both in the glories of her inherited culture and in the Western ideal of feminine independence as she prepares for her own senescence and eventual death. And Mizumura appears to offer up her novel, too, as an exemplar, as if to say it is representative of the kind of literature that should chart her nation’s ruin; built on the Meiji-era syncretic tradition, confidently straddling the Western-Japanese divide, yet ever mindful of classical Japanese elements and themes. In a way, it’s a little like using mom’s good sense and the money she left you to publish a fitting epitaph in the local paper. And if Inheritance from Mother offers absolution to the many women who have wished death upon their ailing mothers, absolution offered by way of empathetic embrace, Mizumura offers it to her fellow Japanese authors in another way; absolution delivered by a slap to the face. Although no one—no country, no woman, no culture—ever dies with dignity, Mizumura suggests that one can die with a little grace.
Sho Spaeth is an editor at Serious Eats.