“And isn’t it better really to leave things only hinted at?”
This is a well-cited line from Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s 1929 novel Tade kuu mushi (translated by Edward Seidensticker, Some Prefer Nettles). The protagonist’s father-in-law utters the line midway through the novel while discoursing on the beauty of the past. Modernity, with its insistence on scientific rationality and electric illumination, has forever destroyed the mysterious beauty of what is left unsaid.
Perhaps in an effort to retrieve some of those shadows for himself, Tanizaki ends his novel with the suggestion of a new beginning. Readers are left with an ellipsis and are expected to answer the question “what happens next” by using their own understanding of all the novel has provided.
Having worked in Japanese literature for over forty years, I enjoy what is left unsaid. Poet-monk Yoshida Kenkō (1283–1350) anticipates the modern Tanizaki with his celebration of “incompleteness”:
In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Someone once told me even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished. In both Buddhist and Confucian writings of the philosophers of former times, there are also many missing chapters.
In fact, Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles is not the only novel to end enigmatically. Many of the most important works of Japanese literature do.
The Tale of Genji ends with a knock at the door. We are not told who it is. Enchi Fumiko’s Masks ends with the protagonist’s right arm lifting up and then stopping “as if suddenly paralyzed, [where it] hung frozen, immobile, in space.” Kokoro, Natsume Sōseki’s masterpiece, ends with Sensei’s Last Testament. What happens next? We are not told. But throughout these works, we’ve been given enough details to allow us to draw our own conclusions.
The conclusions that I imagine for these works may differ from yours, it may change as well upon additional readings. In this way, the endings of Japanese texts make demands on readers. We are invited to enter the narrative process, to continue reading even after the last page has been turned. We participate in the afterlife of the work. One may say we even write it. My students often find the endings cryptic. They want more.
“What happened?” they ask. “I didn’t get it.”
I’ve always enjoyed that about Japanese narratives. There isn’t a standardized “it” to get.
As explored in my earlier post, I find writing beginnings and endings particularly challenging. Of the two, endings are even more difficult than beginnings. By the time I come to the end, I am depleted. And I get frustrated at the unsatisfied reader who frowns at me, sighing, “Is this really the best that you can do?” Imaginary though said reader may be, I want to shout: “Haven’t I already told you everything you need to know? After all, I conceived you as a clever reader!”
Still, readers come with all kinds of experiences and expectations. We can’t possibly satisfy them all. As a glance at my readers’ reviews will make clear, I certainly don’t. Many readers found the conclusion to The Kimono Tattoo unsuccessful, noting: “the ending left me hanging.” They wanted more.
As with the beginning of The Kimono Tattoo, I rewrote the ending any number of times. In some revisions, I made everything crystal clear: the murderer, the fate of characters, the owner of the blue eyes in the last line. But the more obvious the conclusion became, the more uncomfortable I grew.
Missing chapters, empty spaces, innuendo, and incompletion engage our imagination. They offer endings that truly become beginnings.
Featured photo: Nanzenji Gate, where The Kimono Tattoo concludes.