I took a break from my craft series for a couple months. And then I handed in the first draft of a new book this week! Which means that this weekend I can finally turn my attention to writing about craft in The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa.
Yoko Ogawa’s slender, stunning book, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, is a challenging one to use as a writing lesson, because while I can describe a hundred smart and wonderful things about it, that doesn’t mean I know how to translate its beauty into advice to other writers. It’s not helpful for me to say, “See how perfect this is? Now go do that.”
And it is that kind of book, the kind that pulls you into a narrative dream and holds you there so gently, with such soft hands, that it’s hard to figure out how you got where you are. When did it happen, and how?
For me, it had already happened by the time I’d gotten to the end of page 3. And I think that the “how” has something to do with a sense of spaciousness.
What do I mean by a sense of spaciousness? Well, it’s pretty hard to nail it down exactly, but I’ve been considering this a lot, and I think it has to do with a combination of things. One is unflowery, unfussy prose. Another is revelation of character through brief, searing lines of plot or observation. (You know those beautiful moments in books when a single sentence seems to capture the essence of a character, and just like that, you feel like you can see into their soul?) Another is a gentle, no-rush kind of pacing. Another has to do with themes that lend themselves to spaciousness. And another is the way Ogawa hooks this story into two real-world entities that have power, meaning, and spaciousness outside any book: mathematics and baseball.
You didn’t think this was going to be simple, did you? :o) The Housekeeper and the Professor is a book that seems spare and uncomplicated as you read it, but I think it’s deceptively so. There’s a lot packed into its 180 pages. The reader who feels suspended in a narrative dream is actually perched on top of a lot of strong, invisible foundations. Today I’ll try to look at those foundations a little closer.
I’m not going to harp on the unflowery, unfussy prose, because I think you’ll see that for yourself when I share examples from the text. Instead I’ll talk first about the revelation of character, then get into pacing and themes, then say a little about the allusions to mathematics and baseball.
All page references are to the 2009 English-language paperback edition published by Picador.
First, a brief overview, with no spoilers: A housekeeper is assigned to work in the house of a professor of mathematics who lives in a small city on the Inland Sea. The professor, who’s sixty-four, sustained a brain injury in an automobile accident seventeen years ago and lost his ability to form new memories. “He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night” (5). He can only remember new things for eighty minutes.
As a consequence, every morning, when the housekeeper arrives at the home of the professor, she’s a stranger to him, as is her son who often accompanies her. And every day is predictable in some ways, yet thoroughly unpredictable in others.
Told from the perspective of the housekeeper, the book is about the inner lives and growing relationships of four people, all of whose real names are not used: the housekeeper; her son; the Professor; and the professor’s sister-in-law, who lives in the main house across from the professor’s cottage. The book contains small, quiet, satisfying revelations. You learn more information about all of the characters over time. But the journey is as satisfying as the destination. This is one of those books where I wasn’t reading to find out what happens; I was reading for the pleasure of spending time with the book.
Now, let’s talk about character.
In the hands of a clunky writer, a character’s inability to form new memories would be a gimmick. There are no gimmicks here. Almost from the first line, these are people you believe in, with thoughts and dilemmas that suspend you in a state of wanting, along with these characters, to understand what it means to be human.
Here’s how the book opens:
We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.
“There’s a fine brain in there,” the Professor said, mussing my son’s hair. Root, who wore a cap to avoid being teased by his friends, gave a wary shrug. “With this one little sign we can come to know an infinite range of numbers, even those we can’t see.” He traced the symbol in the thick layer of dust on his desk.
This opening is the first of many times when the Professor embarks on an explanation of a mathematical concept. You, the reader, might immediately groan, thinking, Oh no, he’s going to lecture, he’s going to mansplain math… But only two pages later, on page 3, our narrator, the housekeeper, addresses that concern with this description:
But the professor didn’t always insist on being the teacher. He had enormous respect for matters about which he had no knowledge, and he was as humble in such cases as the square root of negative one itself. Whenever he needed my help, he would interrupt me in the most polite way. Even the simplest request—that I help him set the timer on the toaster, for example—always began with “I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but…” Once I’d set the dial, he would sit peering in as the toast browned. He was as fascinated by the toast as he was by the mathematical proofs we did together, as if the truth of the toaster were no different from that of the Pythagorean theorem.
It’s this description of the Professor peering in as the toast browns, caring about it as much as he cares about everything else, that captured my heart on page 3. With that tiny act, Ogawa shows us something essential about the Professor’s character. And Ogawa repeats this method of revealing character over and over again, sharing small, isolated moments of searing revelation.
Here’s another example of a small moment, one where we learn the Professor’s particular, yet socially clueless, sympathy toward children:
Just then, there was a cry from the sandbox. A little girl stood sobbing, a toy shovel clutched in her hand. Instantly, the Professor was at her side, bending over to comfort her. He tenderly brushed the sand from her dress.
Suddenly, the child’s mother appeared and pushed the Professor away, picking the girl up and practically running off with her. The Professor was left standing in the sandbox. I watched him from behind, unsure how to help. The cherry blossoms fluttered down, mingling with the numbers in the dirt. (46-47)
I’m not sure the professor understands what’s just happened in that moment, but we do. And we can see him and feel for him (at the same time as we might feel frustrated with him).
Here’s one more, shorter example: “I wondered how many times I had said those words since I’d come to work at the Professor’s house. ‘Don’t worry. It’s fine.’ At the barber, outside the X-ray room at the clinic, on the bus home from the ballgame. Sometimes as I was rubbing his back, at other times stroking his hand. But I wondered whether I had ever been able to comfort him. His real pain was somewhere else, and I sensed that I was always missing the spot” (169-170).
Maybe when I use the word “spacious” to describe this kind of characterization, what I mean is that nothing is crowded, every detail is illuminated and clear, and allowed to be the star of the scene it’s in. Every description is given the space it’s needed. As a result, the characterizations seem clean and spare, but not because the characters are simple people with simple lives. They are complex people with difficult, tragic, sometimes frightening lives. But we can see them clearly, because Ogawa draws them with precise lines on a spacious page.
I almost want to say that it’s like each character is standing alone, visible to us in a bright, uncrowded room, but that makes the characters and the book sound sterile, which is completely wrong. In fact, they live in rooms full of things, especially books, papers, baseball cards, and food. And their lives, thoughts, and feelings are deeply entangled. But reading this book, the reader does not feel entangled. The reader has room.
This is partly because Ogawa gives every moment in this story the same weight as any other part of the story. The moment with the browning toast, for example, is just as important as other longer, more emotionally fraught scenes in the book. And this gets us into pacing.
This book is composed of a lot of different kinds of passages. Tiny plot moments, like the Professor watching the toast brown. Longer scenes, like one where Root gets injured and the Professor and the housekeeper rush him to the hospital; one where they all go to a baseball game together; one where they have a party. Passages where the housekeeper is musing about the life of the Professor; passages where she’s doing a little snooping in the Professor’s house, hoping to learn about his past. Occasional passages where the housekeeper is telling us something about her own past. Also, lots and lots of passages about math.
Pacing isn’t something I can demonstrate using short examples, because it depends upon how all the parts of the text sit in relation to each other. But I can try to explain what Ogawa does, and what it’s like to read: She simply and straightforwardly lets every passage take as much time and space as it needs. It’s okay if a math explanation fills up several pages. It’s okay if some of the most beautiful and revealing character moments for the Professor — like his ability, every afternoon, to see the evening star before anyone else can (page 79) — take less than a page. There’s a way in which the weight of any one part of this book has nothing to do with its length. All the different needs of the text are balanced in their significance.
How does a short description manage to carry as much weight as a many-paged scene? I think it’s partly because of what this book is telling us — its themes. Browning toast is, in fact, as important as the Pythagorean theorem. The housekeeper tells us so. A child is as important as a mathematician. A moment when a man with a brain injury is sad and confused is as important as the most fundamental mathematical discovery. Everything is connected, everything matters, and everything gets to take up space.
One thing I took away from the pacing of this book is that I want to try to worry less about the moments when my text feels uneven. I’ll always listen to feedback from my readers when it comes to my pacing — but ultimately, there are other aspects of a text, particularly its style, mood, and themes, that can bind seemingly disparate parts of a book together. Maybe that’s something I can talk about more sometime using one of my own books. It comes down to a book being a web, and that’s a really complicated thing to try to talk about!
Here’s another interesting thing Ogawa does with pacing: While it becomes pretty easy, pretty quickly, for the reader to know who the Professor is, this makes a fascinating contrast with the other characters in the book, who come into focus much more slowly. Especially the housekeeper herself, who’s the narrator, but who’s always talking about everyone else, hiding herself in the background (much like a housekeeper). Honestly, it took me a while to even notice the housekeeper as a character. And then I began to care about her experience deeply.
A lot of our revelations about the housekeeper’s character relate to math. With a quiet, patient kind of wonder, the housekeeper absorbs every math lesson the Professor gives, and we see what that’s like for her. We watch it touch her daily life—and reshape her entire outlook.
“There was something profound in his love for math,” the housekeeper says. “And it helped that he forgot what he’d taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it” (23).
Just as the Professor explains math to the housekeeper, Ogawa explains it to the reader, and explains it well; we understand it because we’re sharing the housekeeper’s growing understanding of it. Consequently, we can understand the way it’s changing the housekeeper. One day, while cleaning the kitchen, she finds a serial number engraved on the back of the refrigerator door: 2311. Unable to help herself, she pulls out a notepad and gets to work trying to figure out whether this is a prime number. “Once I’d proved that 2,311 was prime, I put the notepad back in my pocket and went back to my cleaning, though now with a new affection for this refrigerator, which had a prime serial number. It suddenly seemed so noble, divisible by only one and itself” (113).
Later, she reflects on the relationship between math and meaning: “In my imagination, I saw the creator of the universe sitting in some distant corner of the sky, weaving a pattern of delicate lace so fine that even the faintest light would shine through it. The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth” (124).
(It’s worth mentioning that this book’s sense of spaciousness is also aided by descriptions of actually spacious things. It’s hard to imagine something more spacious than infinite lace!)
Slowly, we watch the housekeeper’s relationship with the Professor—and with math—change her entire concept of herself. Here, the Professor has just watched her cook dinner with utter fascination and respect: “I looked at the food I had just finished preparing and then at my hands. Sautéed pork garnished with lemon, a salad, and a soft, yellow omelet. I studied the dishes, one by one. They were all perfectly ordinary, but they looked delicious—satisfying food at the end of a long day. I looked at my palms again, filled suddenly with an absurd sense of satisfaction, as though I had just solved Fermat’s Last Theorem” (135).
Honestly, the mathematics in The Housekeeper and the Professor is one reason it’s tricky to use this book as a craft lesson. It’s clear Ogawa has enormous mathematical expertise, which breathes life and meaning into this story — but not many writers are going to have that expertise at their disposal, and not all stories can be about math. I also wonder what it’s like to read this book if you’re indifferent to math, or even hate it? Baseball, which is extremely math-based, plays another huge part in this book — I wonder how the book reads to people untouched by both math and baseball? I happen to adore both; I lap up baseball movies and math plays like Arcadia or Proof with the purest joy; so it’s impossible for me to imagine reading this book from the perspective of a baseball-hater or a math-hater. It’s hard to imagine that reader having the same experience I’m having.
Nonetheless, the point remains that Ogawa is harnessing the essence of other disciplines, math and baseball, and using them to expand her story — and it works for a lot of readers. It creates a kind of magic similar to Victor LaValle’s use of fairytales in The Changeling. Things that we understand in a different context, like math or fairytales, can expand the meaning of realities that otherwise don’t make sense, or hurt too much. Like a person who’s lost a part of their brain that they need in order to make new, sustained relationships. Or a housekeeper who’s been alone, unsupported, and unappreciated for most of her life.
And here again, Ogawa makes spacious choices. Is anything more spacious than math? Math defines space, and the infinity of space. And one of the complaints most often brandished at baseball is that there’s way too much empty space in the game :o). Math and baseball serve as themes helping to create the book’s spaciousness.
So. I’m not convinced that this post is the most useful entry in my craft series, especially for any of you looking for nitty-gritty writing advice. But I do hope you’ll read Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, and maybe my thoughts will combine with your own to help you come to some conclusions. I’ll end this post with a spacious image:
“As we reached the top of the stairs that led to the seats above third base, all three of us let out a cry. The diamond in all its grandeur was laid out before us — the soft, dark earth of the infield, the spotless bases, the straight white lines, and the manicured grass. The evening sky seemed so close you could touch it, and at that moment, as if they had been awaiting our arrival, the lights came on. The stadium looked like a spaceship descended from the heavens” (88).
|Reading like a writer.|