A Two-in-One Post: Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water & Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone

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Here is a two-in-one post.  Why?

Occasionally I get behind in keeping my book journal.  I read many books I admire and enjoy but do not want to devote an entire post to (says she who has written more than 800 posts).   And so here are two brief “post-ettes” about two very different books,  Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water and Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone.

Oe and his son, Hikari.

Oe and his son, Hikari.

Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe. This elegant new novel by Ōe, the Japanese Nobel Prize for literature winner in 1994, is  meditative, thematically-diverse, and not big on plot.   But if you are a theater person, I guarantee you will be fascinated by the writer-narrator’s complicated relationship with a theater group devoted to dramatizing his work.

This is the latest of Ōe’s  semi-autobiographical novels narrated by  his thinly-veiled alter ego, Kogito Choko, a famous writer who is also the father of a brain-damaged son, Akari.  (Ōe’s son Hikari was brain-damaged at birth.) The first of these novels, A Personal Matter (1964), is about Choko’s coming to terms with his son’s disability.

In Death by Water, the narrator, Choko, is now in his 70s and is a blocked writer.  He has long dreamed of writing a novel about the death of his father, a right-wing activist who,  during World War II, plotted a quixotic mission with friends at a military training camp, and  took off in a boat, packed only with a red leather trunk, on the river near their house during a storm and drowned.

But Choko’s mother, fearing a scandal about her husband’s politics, denied Choko access to the papers in the red leather trunk that was in his father’s boat.

Ironically, a joke made by Choko’s mother gave him the idea for what he calls “the drowning novel.”  When he was a student and his uncle expressed distress over his majoring in French literature,  his mother said,

“Well, if he can’t find a regular job, then he’ll most likely become a novelist!” This pronouncement was greeted with stunned silence, but the tension was quickly dispelled by my mother’s next remark. “In fact,” she went on, “there’s more than enough raw material for a novel in the red leather trunk alone!” That made everybody laugh.

Ten years after his mother’s death, his sister Asa calls to say the will specified that he would now be allowed to see the contents of the trunk.

After he inspects the trunk (which turns out to be a bust), he explores the history of his father’s drowning through dreams, memory, and conversations with his father’s friends.  But it is the theater group, the Caveman Group, that inspires him most.  He becomes especially close to Unaiko, a young woman who is both manipulative (she stages their meeting by showing up on the trail where he takes his daily walk) and creative.  And she has her own interactive theater project, which is based on rape and war crimes.

Choko also has problems with his son, now middle-aged and a composer, and some of the mediation between the two men is done by women in the Caveman Group.

I admired but didn’t love this brilliant book, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm.  It is a very great book and some of you will love it.

drabble the millstoneMargaret Drabble’s third novel, The Millstone (1965), won the  John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize.  It has been highly praised by the writer, Tessa Hadley, , who last year wrote an essay for The Guardian, saying “For my money, it’s the seminal 60s feminist novel that Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is always supposed to be.”

And so I decided to reread it.

This charming comedy is what I call “Drabble-lite,” though it is a perfect book, a ’60s classic.  The narrator, Rosamund Stacey, a brilliant scholar,  has the bad luck to get pregnant the first time and only time she has sex, with a  fey BBC announcer who mutters something afterwards about the act’s being “pointless.”  She does not want the baby, and tries the gin and hot bath folk remedy, but friends interrupt her and drink most of the gin, and in short it doesn’t work.  Fortunately for Rosamund, there is a fairy tale aspect to the novel: she doesn’t have to deal much with the unwed mother stigma. Her  professor parents are in Africa for a year and she is living in their desirable flat, so the address impresses the NHS doctors and then the hospital nurse.  Her friend, Lydia, a writer, moves in and helps with the babysitting.  Rosamund loves her baby, and the baby has some serious health problems, but this is basically a ’60s fairy tale, with an optimistic, confident, lucky heroine we love to spend time with .

Drabble is one of my favorite writers. We Drabble fans all have our  favorites.  Mine is The Realms of Gold.

4 thoughts on “A Two-in-One Post: Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water & Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone

  1. Two authors I’ve never actually read, and both sound fascinating! Oe in particular keeps floating onto my radar. I’ve read several Classical Japanese authors but not so many modern ones – shall definitely keep a look out for his books!


  2. Two more wonderful novels and another wonderful blog. Hadley’s review is superb, and I also loved that photo of Drabble. I have a love and hate affair with her novels: some I love intensely; others I can’t get past the third page. She can do passion and in a big way: The Waterfall, Brontesque, comes to mind. She can also do irony at lack of passion: a small novella mocking and parodying Austen comes to mind here, but alas I can’t remember the title. It was published in an old special number issue of Persuasions (the JASNA periodical).
    Hadley can be very good — she is a regular at the LRB. I like, nay am drawn to all Lessing’s realism in the Golden Notebook mode, but I often find that when I get to the core or center, or end of the book she turns round and presents erotic abjection to a man as a kind of salvation and I get angry, so it’s smart of Hadley to link Lessing to The Millstone where (at the time, 2nd wave feminism) women were supposed to be abjuring motherhood. I’m glad she screamed her head off at those nurses. I’ve spent time in English hospitals. I enjoyed reading this blog and will get myself the Millstone. I am interested in the book about the man with a disabled son but I can’t read everything 🙂 and it might come too close. I read non-fiction about disability more readily.


    • Drabble can write about anything–it’s always worth reading–but I, too, prefer her more complex books about women who are both brilliant and passionate. Rosamund in The Millstone is a very likable character, and Drabble’s writing is superb, but I enjoyed this much more when I was young and first read it!

      I love Lessing. Yes, Anna in The Golden Notebook seems a bit masochistic with men. Martha Quest, on the other hand, is not. Lessing and Drabble both know how to write about women who are not themselves!

      The Oe is excellent, but yes we all have to pick and choose.


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