Some people seek relaxation by reading detective stories or SF thrillers. I prefer Japanese novels. They often have a peculiar charm, strange yet banal, and the leisurely, rambling form of the works gives one a sense of being suspended in time. There are long, aimless conversations that recall vividly the hours of trivial chatter and gossip that so often passes for intellectual exchange in Japan. There is a slightly fusty, old-fashioned air about the lengthy descriptions of houses, gardens, family relationships and the often tedious formality of daily life. The wandering plots and profusion of characters remind me of old Russian novels. For someone who has never lived in Japan, the names of the various objects, flowers and foods found only in that extraordinary land are often filled with exotic mystery. The episodic arrangement of events, the sudden, unexpected meetings, the curious coincidences that all Japanese long to experience in ordinary life but rarely do – all these things contribute to the unreal, restful, dreamlike atmosphere, an atmosphere found every day in the scores of family dramas and soap operas churned out from six in the morning to the small hours by the many TV networks watched by millions of Japanese.
Even the so-called intellectual novelists like Osamu Dazai (easily my favourite), Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki have this quaint, Sleepy quality. Overpraised Yukio Mishima sometimes reads like a jerky newspaper feuilleton. The younger novelists, like Takeshi Saito, (whose best work, Darkness in Summer, is an obvious echo of Sartre's La