It’s seldom I’ve come across a book with a more apt title than An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful. This astutely written novel is both beautiful and exquisite.
J David Simons brings to life the spirit of Japanese culture and the subtleties of its language and landscape with confidence and elegance. Yet he doesn’t shy away from one of the ugliest and most controversial episodes in history.
His tale is of an eminent British author who returns to Japan for the first time in more than 40 years, As a young man, Sir Edward Strathairn had stayed at a mountainside inn at Hakone, intent on discovering if he had the talent to become an author. The result was The Waterwheel, a love story set in Japan during the post-war occupation that became an international success.
Strathairn is now back at the resort, taking up taking up residence in the very same suite where he wrote his debut novel. This time he is hiding, hoping to escape from some secret in his past that is about to catch up with him.
An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful moves between Japan and England, chapters alternating between Strathairn’s current visit in 2003, his previous visit and his past in London. They cover his process of self-discovery as an author, his tumultuous relationship with an abstract expressionist artist and his touching love affair with Sumiko, a maid at the Hakone hotel.
Simons keeps us waiting to discover the nature of Strathairn’s skeletons in the closet and whether they will be his undoing. But that isn’t a problem with this book because there are ample themes and topics to hold the attention in the meantime. The art of writing; reverence for cultural icons; the purpose of photographs and the morality of America’s nuclear attack on Japan in 1945 all make an appearance.
The chief theme probes the feasibility of turning back the clock, of re-living a happier time in the past and correcting actions one has now come to regret. Strathian is delighted to be reunited with Sumiko and to revisit scenes of their happiest moments. But their reunion is also tinged with sadness and regret. She is still beautiful but his body has withered along with the ideals he held dearly during his youth. One of the strengths of this novel is the complexity it shows in Strathian’s character, the older man struggling to be reconciled with his past and with his weakening body. The wisdom he achieves by the end comes with the sad realisation that it is too late.
Even the minor characters in this novel are engaging. Strathain’s literary agent, Aldous, was one of my favourites. After a chance encounter on a park bench it’s Aldous who takes the young Strathain under his wing and coaches him on how to become a writer. “All good fiction must be about something. Some underlying theme,” is one of his earliest pieces of advice, one that Srathain uses himself at literary events. It’s Aldous who in fact gives the book its title:
Tokyo, Japan ~ 2003
It was all around him. This ping-ding, flashing, Hello Kitty, Softbank-Sony, pachinko-pachinko, vending machine, giant plasma screen, cartoon, Shibuya girls, 100 megabits per second, nonsense … A girl with pink hair. A giant, lurid-green octopus painted on the side of the building, its tentacles strangling the concrete. What was that all about? He didn’t belong in this jingle-jangle world. How did Aldous describe it? ‘The Japanese have an exquisite sense of what is beautiful and no sense at all of what is ugly’. That was it. How these two sensibilities could exist in one culture was an enigma to him.
This is novel that doesn’t offer a thoroughly engrossing story. It’s also thought-provoking. I was fascinated by some of the discussions around the differences in linguistic patterns between Japanese (the verb goes at the end just like in German) and English which puts the person first or as Strathain’s friend explains it:
We’re all about “I” with a big, capital letter. Even in the middle of a sentence. Only culture to do that. But usually it’s “I” right at the beginning followed by a verb. We put our big selves first, then we do the action, then we worry about the details later. I, I, I, I. That’s what we English-speakers are all about.
For lovers of Japanese literature there are other enjoyable touches including multiple references to the Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata and the “Living Japanese Treasures” initiative started after world war 2 to protect Japan’s great artists and master craftsmen against the deluge of American culture. It struck me as an inspired idea, one which could have gone a long way to hold back the tide of globalisation which has robbed so many places of their uniqueness.
An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful is a book that delivers on so many levels. It’s sad, affecting, beguiling and utterly exquisite.
An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful by J David Simons: End notes
J David Simons is a novelist and short story writer from Scotland whose career is astonishingly varied. He’s worked as a lawyer in Edinburgh; a cotton farmer on a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, Israel; the administrator for a homeless charity, London Cyrenians, and as a visiting lecturer at Keio University, Japan. Apart from his fiction writing, he is also an editor with the Blue Pencil literary agency and a media journalist with the global technology consultancy firm, Omdia. His website describes him as a “digital nomad” – travelling, writing and working around the world since 2017.
He’s published five novels, starting with The Credit Draper in 2008. An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful is his third novel, published by Saraband Books in 2013. His latest novel,The Responsibility of Love was published privately as a limited edition by Glenkura Publishing in 2021 and commercially by Backpage Press.