Pearl S Buck, the Nobel Prize-winning author, was on location in Japan, overseeing the shooting of a film based on her book when she received the news that her husband of 25 years, had died. This book is an intimate, candid narration of her journey in crossing the bridge from marriage to widowhood and the changes she had to go through to come to terms with a life without her husband.

Battling fear and grief, making readjustments

“I am not a tourist. I do not enjoy visiting a country merely to see the sights. Nor do I enjoy visiting as a special person. When I return to Japan, I told myself, it will be for a project, a piece of work, something interesting to do, something that will explain why I cannot accept all the dinner invitations, weekends, entertainments which hospitable people offer to friends. But what project?”

In 1960, Buck was in Japan to select locations for the filming of her novel, The Big Wave – a story about two friends whose lives change when a volcano erupts, and a tidal wave destroys their village. At this time, her husband Richard J Walsh, a New York publisher and the founder of John Day Company who was also her editor, was suffering from dementia and was back in the States in the care of his children. Buck had been apprehensive about leaving her husband and traveling overseas, but after encouragement from her family and husband’s physician, she decided to go ahead. While in Japan, she received the news that her husband had passed away. 

“For a long time he had not known he was living and he did not know when he died”

After the funeral, Buck faced a life ahead without her husband – one that is wrought with loneliness. She decided to head back to Japan and continue working on the film. The resulting adventure is one that shows both the struggle and the stoicism of a woman who must cope with an immense loss but does it with a calm poignancy. 

“I do not know whether it is easier to have the end come suddenly or gradually over the years. I think, if I had been given the choice, I would have preferred a sudden end, shock and all. Then memory would not be entangled with the slow and agonizing fading of perception and speech and at last recognition even of those loved and dear”

Her days are filled with managing the many complications of film-making – from having to select a cast from the auditioning actors who hardly speak English (and are expected to speak English dialogues in the film), to having to settle differences between her American and Japanese directors who are locked in a battle of egos. 

“I am, in fact, a quiet woman by nature, unless oppressed by what I consider injustice when I become, I am told, excruciatingly articulate”

A meditation on an inner world of sorrow and serenity

Through her personal crisis, Buck shows us a view of postwar Japan, along with her reflections on love, loss, and faith that is heartrending. Buck is a keen observer of people and her environment. She highlights the side of Japan just after the war – the memories of which are still ripe in the consciousness of the people and the changing attitudes and behavior of the Japanese people, especially the women. It is the unraveling of the traditional and the dawn of modern Japan that she finds herself a witness to.

“In our changing world nothing changes more than geography.”

The bridge Buck must cross to continue life after the death of her husband is not an easy one, and even after days filled with excitement and the bustle of filming, she finds herself alone at nights, wandering through the streets and alleys of Japan to calm an otherwise agonized mind. She finds beauty in the landscape of the country – in the house that is to serve as the location of one of the character’s homes, the seaside village where the tidal wave is supposed to strike and even an active volcano from the precipice of which she stares into the depths of the broiling earth. She finds friendships in people who are there for her to make her laugh and introspect, who help her escape from her misery and help her find meaning. 

“I lay there in my Japanese bed, years later, and mused on the similarity of typhoon energy and energy of human emotion. Uncontrolled, it destroys. But must emotion be destructive? And if not, when is it valuable and why? How can we use emotion as helpful energy, necessary energy for living? What are the uses of emotion and what are the disciplines necessary for its helpful use? These were the questions I longed to answer, first for myself and then for others. I put myself first for I am the lens through which I view others.”

Buck finds it in herself to put aside her personal sorrow and continues work on a project which must surely have been filled with tribulations. 

“Whatever the individual sorrow and however absolute the individual solitude, the mind, trained in use and by use, continues to explore”

Writing this book must have been therapeutic for her, as she often revisits her memories and the times with her husband and their house full of children. 

“And he was a genius of his own sort in coaxing books out of writers who did not know they were writers”

“He was the one who brought Jawaharlal Nehru’s great books to Americans, and through his publishing company to readers all over the world”

Buck opens up her private world (no easy feat) – one that shows a happy (if not a perfect) marriage, the challenges of parenting, and the life of a writer. Mostly though, what Buck shows us, is her love, respect, and the immense security of companionship that men and women find in each other in marriages.  

“It is the highest reward when a writer hears that a book, written in doubt and solitude, has reached a human heart with a deeper meaning than even the writer had been aware of, as she wrote.”

Her words, though filled with sadness, have serenity to them. There is a recognition of finality in Buck, and she understands that there cannot be communication between her and her husband anymore. She tries to fight it, believing that there must be some way her husband can hear her or perhaps watch over her. 

“I fought off the mighty yearning to go in search of him, wherever he was.”

But with time, there comes a calm acceptance, as she crosses over the bridge and knows that she must now lead her life alone.

“When I was here before, where was he? And now when I am here again, where now is he?”


This post is part of our November 2019 Issue

Published by Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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