An Exquisite Sense Of What Is Beautiful by J David Simons – an old man’s regret

Cover of An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful , novel by J David Simons set in Japan.

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.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

14 thoughts on “An Exquisite Sense Of What Is Beautiful by J David Simons – an old man’s regret

  • March 14, 2022 at 2:18 pm
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    Thanks for your fabulous review. I don’t think I can resist the invitation to read this one. Will work well after 3 months of Japanese literature challenge.

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    • March 15, 2022 at 6:11 pm
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      Wonderful, I really think Simons deserves a wider audience

      Reply
  • March 12, 2022 at 10:28 am
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    It reminds me of the English fascination with things Japanese which inspired The Mikado.
    It does seem true though that beauty and garishness seem to go together in modern Japan (everything I know is from William Gibson, Marukami, and one or two movies).

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    • March 12, 2022 at 4:10 pm
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      It’s true about the beauty/garish mix Bill. Tokyo streets are awash with bright flashing lights coming from every building yet you’ll see a graceful lady walking through them in the most beautiful of kimonos

      Reply
  • March 12, 2022 at 9:52 am
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    Very tempting, indeed. I’m curious about the comparison between Japan and the West. I’ll look it up, thanks.

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    • March 12, 2022 at 4:14 pm
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      Hope you decide to read it Emma, I think it deserves more readers

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    • March 12, 2022 at 4:14 pm
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      It’s been hanging around on my shelves for a few years – so wish I’d read it earlier

      Reply
  • March 12, 2022 at 8:21 am
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    I’m keen to look out for this. Your review is tempting me.

    Reply
  • March 11, 2022 at 6:21 pm
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    This sounds rather lovely, Karen. The point about ‘Living Japanese Treasures ‘ reminded me of a fascinating documentary series devoted to Japanese arts and crafts a few years ago which emphasised the respect paid to skilled craftsmen.

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    • March 11, 2022 at 9:25 pm
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      I hadn’t heard of that concept previously but thought it was a fabulous idea. There are a few passages in the book which describe some intricately constructed wooden boxes – they’re boxes within boxes and you need to work out the way to open them. I was quite taken with that idea

      Reply
  • March 11, 2022 at 5:57 pm
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    This sounds as exquisite as the title, just as you say, and you’ve described it beautifully.

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    • March 11, 2022 at 9:26 pm
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      I don’t think my review could do justice to this book. I’m eager now to read more by him

      Reply

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