Whenever a Japanese crown prince gets married, to this day, the new groom and bride have to crawl, on their knees, into a secret enclosure in the Imperial Palace to seek the approval of the prince’s official ancestor, the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The Emperor and Empress are, by tradition, not allowed to watch the rites in person—they have to content themselves with following the action outside the shrine on TV. After the new bride bears children, she will not, if she is a commoner, be permitted to introduce them to their nonimperial grandparents. And when the prince accedes to the throne, he retreats to the same place to lie down for a night with his mythic forebear, in what sounds like a somewhat incestuous, as well as cross-species, alliance.
It’s small wonder, perhaps, that when the current heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne was looking for a bride, any woman on whom his eye alighted was said to have raced off to divest herself of her virginity, or at least to pierce her ears so that, ritually defiled, she would no longer be a candidate for regal immurement.
We’ve always, perhaps, made of our rulers what we will. The traditional point of a monarch is to be someone we hardly ever approach in person but live with in our heads—a legend brought to earth, but still belonging to a different realm. What used to be personages within an allegorical pageant are now, however, more like tragicomic types in a daily soap opera. We watch the toe-sucking dalliances of princesses; we hear crown princes longing to be Tampaxes to their mistresses. In countries like Britain and Monaco, where crowned heads have declined to rebrand themselves as bicycle-riding Everypeople (as many Scandinavian monarchs have done), we almost want them to be figures of jeweled glamour who are also entertaining fools. They’re just like us, we sometimes think, except that their mistakes and betrayals are available to us on page 1.
Japan, quite typically, is the one nation where, to some extent, the monarchs still live behind a veil, and daylight, in Bagehot’s famous phrase, has not been fully let in upon the magic. Geographically, they remain sequestered behind high walls and a moat in the center of Tokyo, a grand ceremonial absence. And though they come out to recite ritual poems every New Year, and are often seen doing good deeds and offering sweet nothings to their people, they remain sheltered and largely beyond public criticism. The press inquires constantly and pitilessly about when the crown princess will deliver an heir or what color shoes the Empress might wear, but by Western standards reporters on the palace beat are still kept largely under control, and defer to some of the proprieties one might have found in Britain in the 1950s (when, as Tina Brown tells us in her Diana Chronicles, Lord Altrincham was slapped in the street and dropped from his regular spot on the BBC after he wrote, in an obscure journal, that the new queen resembled “a captain of the hockey team, prefect and a recent candidate for confirmation”).
The only problem is that Japan, in this respect as so many, does not seem to have decided which century it will inhabit. Almost no common people had ever heard the voice of Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, until he announced the end of World War II in August 1945. Five months later, prompted by the occupying forces, he suggested, suitably obliquely, that his connection to his flock might not be connected to divinity. But his people remain uncertain about how much of their proud tradition they want to jettison (and, indeed, about how much they can jettison while still remaining Japanese and not becoming just a suburb of America).
The Showa Emperor’s son, the current emperor, married a commoner in 1959, for the first time in the 2,600-year lineage, as if to suggest that Japan was now entering the world of modern, democratic nations (and his son, the current crown prince, did the same in 1993). But in each case the spirited, cosmopolitan Everywoman they chose disappeared so quickly behind the walls of the imperial compound and so entirely became a silent mannequin that many Japanese were reminded that, in their stage-managed society, even the figures wearing the crowns—perhaps especially they—are meant to be seen, now and then, and not heard.
It is a mixture of all these elements that John Burnham Schwartz brings together in his impressively imagined and often exquisite act of ventriloquism, The Commoner. Ever since his first novel, Bicycle Days, in 1989—a seemingly autobiographical account of a young American going to Japan for a summer, written soon after Schwartz had graduated from the East Asian Studies department at Harvard—he has shown himself unusually sensitive to the Japanese habits of reticence and indirection, and preoccupied with universal themes of family dynamics and confinement. How characters negotiate personal relations, what they can do to escape the roles that are assigned to them, and how narrative can really be a series of nuances and observations are all concerns so central to Schwartz’s four novels that he might almost be a Japanese writer in translation.
In its outline, The Commoner follows, virtually to the letter, the life of Michiko, the current empress of Japan, presented here (as in most places) as a highly energetic, free-spirited, intelligent young woman who has the misfortune of catching, in the mid-1950s, the eye of Japan’s crown prince (its current emperor, his father having died in 1989). The two meet while playing tennis in the summer resort of Karuizawa; a proposal is finally extended, through a series of painfully indirect approaches; and though both the young woman and her parents cannot bear the thought of her disappearing into the byzantine ritualism of the imperial household, there is no way out. In 1959, for the first time in more than two millennia, a commoner was inserted into the world’s longest-running monarchy and, within a few years, was so stifled that she literally lost the capacity to speak for seven months.
Though he calls his main character Haruko Endo, and changes a few names and details here and there, Schwartz recreates the story, from within, with such fidelity and in such detail that it becomes hard to tell how much of his tale is fiction, how much thinly disguised fact. His empress, like the real one, is trained in classical duty by a mother superior at Tokyo’s Sacred Heart school; she finally succumbs to the prince’s proposal though they have never spent a moment alone and, ushered into the medieval confinements of the palace, she soon has nobody to confide in but her infant son. Around her Schwartz gives us vivid and scrupulously well-researched accounts of Japan during the war, when girls could be punished for wrapping their lunch in a newspaper with a picture of the Emperor in it, and of the more recent economic cataclysms that hit the country in the 1990s, by chance right after the wedding of the current crown prince.
Yet what is singular and most striking about The Commoner is how deeply and authoritatively it inhabits the mind and the sensibility of a young Japanese woman born in 1934 and trained, in the classical East Asian way, to record her feelings and fears through images from the natural world around her. The very first sentence of the book introduces us to a story about cranes, flying east and west. After the war Haruko and her family move into a house, “Western in style, with Japanese touches.” Later, birds start flying into the Endos’ summer house, becoming “hopelessly trapped in the cool, shadowy rooms.” Haruko, like her father, grows expert at learning how to rescue imprisoned birds—this is typical of the book’s foreshadowings—though as she gets to know the crown prince, members of the press start stalking her, “like birds of prey.”
This intricately oblique and lyrical way of telling a story is sustained throughout: as Haruko grows closer to the prince, the “warm, comforting light” of the sun touches “the normally shaded area of our veranda” and we recall how the Emperor and his family are traditionally seen as descendants of the sun goddess; when she is kitted out in imperial vestments, she feels “like a stuffed flamingo.” In a world of symbols and insinuations, it never seems coincidence that, at college, the empress-to-be writes her thesis on the divergent views of marriage in George Eliot and Jane Austen, or that, when she plays tennis against the crown prince, she notices that he is “still stuck at love.”
When it comes to the day of her wedding—her imprisonment—this poetic strain becomes almost deafening. A “cool morning sun” breaks through the “gray roof” of clouds, “helplessness and terror [were] patrolling my shoulders like two sharp-beaked crows,” the fallen blossoms from weeping cherry trees all around look “ponderous with decrepitude,” and, struggling under fifteen kilos of tradition in her twelve- layered costume, the poor young woman feels her chest heaving like a “newly caged bird’s.” The first thing she hears, after she finally takes on the crown, is the mockery of crows.
As in a Japanese room, nothing is out of place and no detail is accidental in this book (except, perhaps, for a long series of dangling participles—“Seeing me waiting on the platform, a weary smile creased his haggard face…”). One of Schwartz’s achievements is to take us into corridors and rituals that have almost never been revealed to the public (in a letter distributed by his publicists, Schwartz suggests that no novel has ever tried to give the imperial family a real life before the one in hand). Particularly affecting (as in Tina Brown’s book on Diana, in which familiar royals are regarded with unexpected sympathy, and shown to be much more decent than the tabloids pretend) is his account of the current emperor, as seen through the eyes of his warmhearted young companion, who registers the “endearing quality he has always possessed, at least to me, of never seeming more alone than when in public, like an only child by decree.”
Throughout the novel, indeed, Schwartz gives faces and convincingly nuanced voices to people we otherwise know only as mutes and distant silhouettes—to such an extent that it’s hard not to think that he must have had an inside source. He tells us, in the letter distributed by his publicists, that he met with the grand chamberlain, perhaps the imperial household’s highest officer, and had a four-hour lunch with one of the Empress’s oldest and closest friends; some readers may recall that in Bicycle Days his alter ego protagonist joked about having a girlfriend “who’s secretly related to the imperial family.” The poignancy of the moments he evokes lies in the vulnerability that begins to break through the excruciating protocols:
“Ah…Endo-san?” he tentatively began.
“Ah…You have returned, then.”
“And your trip? I hope it was…Hmm…”
“Yes, yes. I hope so.”
“Yes, it was, thank you.”
The Showa Emperor is seen, plausibly, as being “as vague and muddied as a roadside puddle,” more or less absent even when in the room, while the only real threat, other than a court invested in the keeping up of traditions, is, as befits an East Asian novel, Haruko’s mother-in-law, as sharp as her husband is vague.
In the second half, as it describes Haruko undergoing a nervous collapse, berated if she dares to enter a room before her husband while (as in Britain) the crown prince gamely soldiers on through the rites he was trained to observe since birth, the book loses a little of its spark as its central character does. In its final sixty pages it suddenly tries to break away from the accepted script for “zoo-kept birds” and, in the process, strains credibility for the first time. Would any Japanese woman of Haruko’s generation really declare, in the tones of an aggrieved foreigner, “There is no true privacy in this private country, just cruel reticence masquerading as discretion”?
A story of tremors and camellias, a book about the suppression of drama and the avoidance of conflict, does not lend itself easily to strong resolution or action (this was the case in Bicycle Days, too), though sentence after sentence remains at once beautifully apt (“Time was being swept up by white-gloved hands almost before it could touch the ground”) and often inspired (the crown prince has been so well-trained in ceremony he barely stirs even in his sleep). In characters like Haruko’s father, far more sensitive and affectionate and sometimes impish than our stereotype of a Japanese businessman, Schwartz makes touchingly human the very figures who are in most Western fiction the stuff of caricature.
It’s not hard, when addressing The Commoner‘s feat of imaginative impersonation, to recall another book by a youngish American male (also a graduate of Harvard training in Japanese art) that also, seemingly miraculously, inhabited the mind of a very traditional Japanese woman of the mid-twentieth century. The central character of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha* was also caught between generations, trying at once to uphold and to escape tradition, and her story, too, was set amid the silver-tongued chicanery that finds its ultimate refinement in Japan. Golden’s popular novel drew some of its appeal, perhaps, from its involving tale of a delicate-seeming woman, embodiment of elegant and largely hidden protocol, who refuses to be tamed, and some from its exotic backdrop of plum blossoms and private bickering. An afterword even suggested that the author had got some of his details from a retired geisha he met on Fifth Avenue in New York.
John Burnham Schwartz reviewed Memoirs of a Geisha for The New Yorker when it came out (one of the few reviews by him I’ve seen), and his story likewise takes us through a world of almost absurdly elaborate niceties and superstition, in the midst of which one woman tries to keep her voice. He even brings in a high-born Japanese woman now living on Park Avenue, who becomes essential to the story’s development.
This begins, perhaps, to answer a question that might arise in a reader, of why Schwartz has devoted so much energy and craft to fashioning a story that most of Japan already knows by heart. Even in Bicycle Days, after all, he was showing himself to be a keen observer of the plight of Japanese women, though in that book he suggested a kinship between them and a young American male who was in his own way as lonely, passive, and observant as the women he was watching. At an early stage in that novel’s romance, the American notes a wire birdcage against a wall and “within the cage, two lovebirds sat together on a perch, their beaks touching.” Later, when a rueful young Japanese woman follows the flight of a hawk, he hears her say:
No other animal is so free, so strong and beautiful. When I was small, I wanted more than anything to become this bird, so I could always be strong and fly where I wanted.
After the accumulating melancholy and confinements of The Commoner, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader arrives like a sorbet. Trained in structure and economy by his decades of writing plays, and blessed with what can seem a peculiarly English gift for blurring fondness and irreverence, Bennett appears cowed not at all by the task of removing Queen Elizabeth II from her throne and brings her down to earth with an easy warmth and wit that allows her to keep her brisk authority while coming to seem as endearingly human as a somewhat distant aunt.
One day, following her errant corgis through the palace grounds, Bennett’s queen finds herself inside a mobile library. Monarchs and vans are, the seasoned Bennett-viewer realizes, two of this author’s favorite themes, and part of his special skill comes in yoking them together; he writes often with the bemusement of an outsider, face pressed against the window of a lofty or glamorous world that he can discern but never enter. Feeling that it is incumbent on her to take out a book, the Queen settles on a copy of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Within a few pages, she is hooked, and starts arranging her entire life around her Wednesday trips to the van, as she begins to devour Proust and Balzac and Henry James (“Am I alone?” she confides to her diary, “in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?”).
Such a premise cannot be handled roughly, and Bennett develops it directly and efficiently through a few short pages, till we feel we are in a Beyond the Fringe skit that is evolving into a surprisingly touching portrait of how reading can extend the imagination, not always to happy effect. The Queen’s only associate in her new passion is a kitchen boy from Stockton on Tees who also loves books, though mostly of the sort written by Cecil Beaton or David Hockney. The monarch finds herself, in short, surrounded by queens of a less formal sort, and her emerging humanity is set off by flashes of campy humor from the author (“The only queen I could never get on with,” one aged courtier confesses, “was Field Marshal Montgomery”). At one point, she is somehow urged to take out J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, because of her fondness for dogs, and finds herself a little startled by “the almost veterinary intimacies” of Ackerley’s famously louche work. No one has the nerve to tell her that, in life, the author’s own pet was called “Queenie.”
The deeper irony that Bennett teases out, without a single wasted breath, is that books, by enlarging and deepening the Queen, render her ever more unfit for her job. She has less and less patience for her workaday duties, and feels ever more the constraints of her prosaic position. Her love of writers pushes her further and further from her own family, and from her people, who do not share her interest in discussing Beckett or Alice Munro. She even starts committing the ultimate subversion for someone in her position, by beginning to do a little writing, trying out her voice.
In one classic moment, the book she has brought along to read after opening Parliament (and hidden behind a cushion in her carriage) suddenly disappears. A young footman whom she questions thinks it has probably been exploded.
“Exploded?” said the Queen. “But it was Anita Brookner.”
The young man, who seemed remarkably undeferential, said security may have thought it was a device.
The Queen said: “Yes. That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”
What begins as light comedy starts to shade into something else precisely because living, unpredictable humanity is exactly what monarchy (and farce) have no place for. “I have to seem like a human being all the time,” Bennett’s queen confesses at one point, “but I seldom have to be one.” The more she sees, and sympathizes with, the individuality of the people she’s knighting, the harder it is for her simply to go through the motions. Most dangerously of all, books give her the beginnings of self-knowledge: “One has spent one’s life not raising eyebrows. One feels sometimes that that is not much of a boast.”
At its best, unlike The Commoner, The Uncommon Reader takes us into those blended moods in which we don’t know what exactly to think. “I have no voice,” the wistful monarch declares at one moment, after hearing a boy play a clarinet at the Royal Albert Hall. Those around her, of course, remain thoroughly, even professionally, unawakened. “Not surprised,” the Duke of Edinburgh responds. “Too damned hot. Throat, is it?”
It wouldn’t be hard, putting these two books together, to draw certain conclusions about the distance that still separates Britain from America, Schwartz’s scrupulous precision and diligence contrasting with Bennett’s seemingly effortless perfection. The Commoner looks to have been crafted and plotted down to the last silence, where The Uncommon Reader takes on an antic life of its own, as if it never meant to be more than a quick sketch in the London Review of Books. Schwartz tries hard, and not always successfully, to orchestrate a liberation for his trapped empress; Bennett begins with a liberation, so as to examine the costs and paradoxes of freedom in a role that thrives on limitation. Both monarchs have only one trusted courtier that they can rely on—but Schwartz’s empress sends her friend off to get “well-written murder mysteries” for her, where Bennett’s queen, wonderfully, alights on books that make no sense at all and play with one’s sense of possibility.
Both novels, however, suggest a benign and humane emancipation for monarchs who might in other circumstances get stripped of their dignity in much more violent ways by the press. The British queen, in life, has seen three of her four children divorced, and her staunch loyalty to her position increasingly questioned in an age when loyalty and staunchness are seen as less sympathetic than talk-show confessionals. And even in Japan, a cousin of the current emperor confessed last year that the pressures of his family position had turned him into an alcoholic, and offered, “As long as I can remember, the imperial family’s been like one big ball of stress.”
The current crown princess, Masako, lives behind the moat, but everyone knows that this bright, sophisticated, and unusually accomplished woman, speaker of five languages and graduate of Harvard and Oxford, a rising star in the Foreign Ministry who at one point seemed a candidate for becoming its first female director, has turned into a white-faced wraith, unable to perform most of her duties (and even, tragically, unable to produce a male heir). The crown prince, in an extraordinary moment four years ago, actually volunteered at a press conference that “a move to deny Masako’s career and personality” had driven her to a nervous collapse.
Either she lives by the script and obliterates herself entirely, or she tries to claim a small free space for herself, and in the process betrays her country and her role: that is the tragic choice facing a monarch today. The crown princess of Japan, as intelligent and active a woman as her country has produced, now smiles sadly and waves at us vaguely from her cell. The former crown princess of Britain, as Tina Brown has it, was reduced to smuggling her Pakistani lover into Kensington Palace and heating up Marks and Spencer instant meals for him—as if her fondest fantasy, at least for a while, was just to be another lonely woman on the High Street.