The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, trans. Stephen Snyder (Picador)
Schools don’t use the term now as they did in the 16th century, but “art” once meant a “science” grounded in Reason. The arts included logic, metaphysics, and mathematics; a student entered the faculty of arts only after a some demanding years, usually four, studying “humane letters,” which included rhetoric, literature, and history. In late Renaissance Europe, classes in the humane letters were held in Latin and sometimes Greek, as were those in the “higher” faculty of arts, all other languages considered grossly inadequate. In such an academy, one wonders what might have been made of a simple novel, translated from the beautifully barbaric (which is to say, foreign) language of Japanese–a novel in which art and science commingle like the brushstrokes of a strange ideogram. Perhaps “deceptively simple” is a better term: The Housekeeper and the Professor exists somewhere between arts and letters, in the old sense of both words.
It’s hard to find anything but superficial information about author Yoko Ogawa. She is a popular writer in her native Japan. She’s won awards named after Asian male literati like Akutagawa and Tanizaki; she’s 47 years old and has one son. She lives in the town of Ashiya, which seems an affluent and nice-enough place, but nothing like either Tokyo, where she attended college, or even Okayama, located half way between Kobe and Hiroshima, where she was born. In America, if her name is recognized at all, she’s known by a modest fraction of the stories she’s written in Japanese. She’s picky about who translates her work into Western tongues. There are more Ogawa books and stories in French translation than in other foreign languages. In English, her fiction has found its way into The New Yorker and Zoetrope. With Stephen Snyder as her translator as in the case of Housekeeper, she has previously published a collection of three novellas under the title of The Diving Pool. We know about Ogawa, but we don’t, really.
In many ways, a New York Times on-line bio, clipped as it is, summarizes what can be said with meaningful certainty about her. It reads:
Gender is all-important, however. (Ogawa’s protagonists tend to be women with secrets. Like poet Maureen Owen’s observation, “Honesty is all right for men, but I don’t/think it does a woman any good at all,” Ogawa’s heroines are far less than open books.) In Housekeeper, attention focuses on the Professor from the first sentence: “We called him the Professor.” But–importantly–we see him only through the Housekeeper’s eyes.
The Professor (we never learn his name) is a mathematician. As a young man, his work at Cambridge University involved the “Queen” of mathematics, “noble and beautiful, like a queen, but cruel as a demon”–that is, his subject matter was “whole numbers [the integers 1, 2, 3, ad inifinitum] . . . and the relationships between them.” On September 23, 1975 somewhere in Japan, driving in his car with his sister-in-law (herself a widow at the time), an oncoming truck crosses the center line because its driver probably fell asleep. There’s a collision, which is reported in a local newspaper. The Professor suffers a serious brain injury. The sister-in-law is crippled in the accident and now walks with a cane; the sleepy truck driver survives unharmed. Seventeen years later, the sister-in-law describes her now-dependent relative to a newly hired housekeeper from the “Akebono Housekeeping Agency.” The Housekeeper is the tenth in a string of nine domestic-help failures for the Professor. The sister-in-law reports about her kin without familial affection or any hint of love:
His memory stops in 1975. He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night. In the simplest terms, it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes–no more and no less.
The sister-in-law lives alone in the “main house,” the Professor in a rear cottage, with its ill-tended garden, within eyeshot of the house. The lock to the cottage door has bird droppings on it. There are many mathematical books and journals in his hut of a place, in dusty disarray. The sister-in-law requests that the Housekeeper do her work–general cleaning and the preparation of his lunch and dinner–without consulting her or visiting the main house for any reason whatsoever.
We naturally think that the focal point of Ogawa’s book is the Professor. Indeed a recent reviewer of Housekeeper observed that a legendary and quite real neurological patient, one Henry Gustav Molaison or “H.M.,” whose short-term memory lasted less than an hour, had died within months of Housekeeper’s appearance on American bookshelves. There was meaning in the happenstance, the reviewer suggested. A man with unique memory sustains interest: what a strange world it must be not to remember an immediate past, such as yesterday.
Ogawa’s Professor is certainly a curiosity, a sideshow attraction like an idiot savant. Speaking for myself, however, I like the housekeeper. And “to like” is hardly the right verb; I’d go one step further: Ogawa has written a book about the brain, both damaged and undamaged; the Housekeeper’s brain sustains interest as much as the Professor’s. Ogawa crosses back and forth between the Professor’s brain and the Housekeeper’s to blur any difference between what we can learn by Reason and what we see through Art in a woman’s eyes. All the while, Ogawa sticks obsessively to a good and frankly haunting question: what is it about our human brains that certain things and people fascinate us as much as they do? The lock to the Professor’s cottage door is dirty with droppings, but a clean key still fits: without the Housekeeper, we’d have no clue about the real interest within.
We never learn her name, either. She was an only child, her father nowhere to be found, although she knows that he was handsome and liked opera. The Housekeeper was born for her work:
I suppose I became a housekeeper because I kept house for my mother from the time I was a small child. When I was barely two and not quite potty trained, I would wash out my own panties if I had an accident; and before I was even in elementary school, I was using the knives in the kitchen and cutting up the ingredients to make fried rice. By the time I was ten, I not only took care of the whole apartment, but I was even paying the electric bill and attending meetings of the neighborhood association in my mother’s place.
Clearly, there’s something amiss and curious about her. Whether toddlers in Japan commonly wash their undergarments after a soil, I can’t say. But it seems precocious. Rather, it is precocious in a compulsively Japanese way. If a good child washes out her accidents at the age of less than two, is a sous-chef by approximately six, and is a bill-paying proxy in the neighborhood before she enters middle school, then many of us must be rather bad.
She’s also the youngest of the housekeepers at the Akebono agency (“Akebono” has a double meaning in Japanese of “dawn” and, perhaps, “satellite”). Above all, she considers herself a seasoned veteran who has seen the sun, perhaps, too many times before: “I managed to get along with all sorts of employers, and even when I cleaned for the most difficult clients, the ones no other housekeeper would touch, I never complained. I prided myself on being a true professional.” Later in the book, after she loses her job with the Professor, she observes: “A few of my previous employers had been kind enough to give a me a going-away party when I left, and I’d been quite tearful once or twice when a child had brought me a good-bye present. But just as frequently a job would end without so much as a parting word . . . However a job ends, I had always tried to take it in my stride. There was nothing personal about it, no cause to feel sad or wounded.” One wonders: what shadow in the full light of day crosses between the professional and her professor?
The short answer is that they resemble one another; the supposedly normal brain and the abnormal one look at each other in a peculiar kind of mirror.
(Parenthetically, I have a complaint about Picador’s edition. To include “Discussion Questions” at the end of the book is both dull and leading. For example, question 6 reads in part, “Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending ambiguity in that regard?” I’d say that a simple math observation provides an ambiguous rejoinder: the number “2" is the only prime number that is an even number; the Housekeeper and the Professor amount to a prime number.
I don’t like the freshman-class questions, yet I admit to asking my own. To repeat it: what is really happening between the Housekeeper and her keep?)
Answer: two things. First, she’s not a bad mathematician. She has a genuine math talent–she develops enough of an obsession for numbers that “God’s notebook” of mathematics, about which the Professor can wax so poetical (math is like “copying truths from God’s notebook, though we aren’t always sure where to find this notebook or when it will be open,” he says), becomes poetry to her eyes as well. Early in the novel, the Housekeeper discovers something by herself about the number “28.” She discerns that the divisors of 28 (1, 2, 4, 7, and 14) add up exactly to 28 (1+2+4+7+14=28). “I knew it was an exaggeration to call it a ‘discovery,’” she says, “but for me it was just that. This one line of numbers stretched across the page as if pulled taut by some mysterious intention.” She’s hooked by the mystery of integers.
Regarding “28,” the Professor says that she has happened upon a “perfect number,” whose perfection has to do with parts–the factors or divisors–adding up cosmically to the number itself, like a whole being as precisely composed as a true poem. (Perfect numbers are rare: after 28, the next one is 496, then 8,128, then 33,550,336. “I’ll show you one more thing about perfect numbers,” the Professor says, “. . . You can express them as the sum of consecutive numbers.” That is, 1+2+3+4+5+6+7=28. Add up all the consecutive integers from 1 to 31 and you get 496. And so on.)
The Housekeeper begins to notice numbers like a myopic person viewing the world with a first set of lenses. The characteristics of numbers, like those of a human face in the finer optic, become noticeable to her like revelations, especially the look of prime numbers. The serial number of a refrigerator in a kitchen, she observes, is “2311.” She does calculations to prove the primeness of 2311. Her son at birth weighed 3,217 grams; the number is also a prime. In turn, the Professor notes that the number 2, raised to the 3,217th power, minus 1 is a special prime number, a very rare “Mersenne prime.” He often quotes such mathematical facts from God’s notebook, which is written in nothing but mathematics. The Housekeeper and the Professor start to speak the same language of immutable mathematical truths. A pathologically finite memory seems irrelevant by comparison.
Second, it turns out that the Professor dotes on children, especially the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son. The Professor nicknames the child “Root,” because of the flat top of his head, like the roof over numbers in the square-root symbol. Root never knew his biological father, who left the Housekeeper years ago. “Root was a child who had rarely been embraced,” the Housekeeper notes, in the manner of a sterile clinical observation. The Professor rubs the top of the boy’s flat head; the Housekeeper reminds the Professor over and again (because he forgets every time he sees him) that the boy’s head is flat like the square-root symbol, hence the name “Root.” The Professor observes that under the flat head there’s “a fine brain in there.”
Presumably, Root wasn’t much embraced even by his mother, long before she met the Professor. But the Professor pays him every kind attention, and he teaches him mathematics, time and time again. At the turn of 1.3333333 . . . hours (every 4/3 hours), the Professor rediscovers Root with the freshness of an ever renewing, infinitely recurring affection.
So, a bond quite forms between the Housekeeper and the Professor, and it’s not ambiguously romantic or erotic. The link between a 60-year-old man and a woman less than half his age has to do with mathematics and, touchingly, about the Housekeeper’s Root as well, but mainly it’s about the math.
A few years ago, in Japanese, Ogawa coauthored a book entitled An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics. It is a dialogue between a professional mathematician and the writer Ogawa, who teaches how math is accessible as beauty, even if we’re mathematically illiterate. Likewise, the Housekeeper reminds us that the Professor may speak and think in what seems like Greek to her, but he directs her to an understanding as ancient as earth, literally with a stick: “The Professor picked up a branch and began to scratch something in the dirt. There were numbers, and letters, and some mysterious symbols, all arranged in neat lines. I couldn’t understand a word he had said, but there seemed to be great clarity in his reasoning, as if he were pushing through to a profound truth.”
The Housekeeper entertains a conjecture–it is an interesting concept in mathematics. A conjecture is like a sixth sense about the world, more than a surmise but less than a truth. She thinks that the Professor guides the way to veritas, but she conjectures merely (because she understands nothing about what he says). In turn, he scribbles about a conjecture of one Emil Artin (1898-1962) regarding so-called cubic forms, the subject of his Cambridge thesis. In mathematics, sometimes you can prove conjectures and sometimes you can’t, but they wouldn’t come to any attention if a sense of immanent truth weren’t present. They aren’t what a philosopher would call a priori truths and not what a mathematician would call axioms, but they have inexplicable force, like some push towards the profound.
Why did Ogawa have the Professor refer to E. Artin, of all possible choices? (Her novel in French translation has the title La Formule préférée du Professeur. There’s a lot of math in the book; is one formule, equation, or conjecture so preferentially special?) Yes, I think Artin is noteworthy, more so than other mathematicians quoted in Housekeeper. As a student in Leipzig, Artin studied under a man named Herglotz, who dressed like poet J. W. von Goethe and commanded the same presence. When Artin visited the Orient, he studied Buddhism. Artin played multiple musical instruments, and had Mesmerian power when he lectured to most anyone. He believed that mathematical “art” happens when the logical steps of argument dissolve in the appreciation of what he called “the whole.”
He wrote in 1953: “We all believe that mathematics is an art. The author of a book, the lecturer in a classroom tries to convey the structural beauty of mathematics to his readers. In this attempt he must always fail.” He fails because there’s a disconnection between formal logics and the attempt to trump chaos in the mind:
Mathematics is logical to be sure; each conclusion is drawn from previously derived statements. . . . Yet the whole of it, the real piece of art, is not linear . . . We have all experienced on some rare occasions the feeling of elation in realizing that we have enabled our listeners to see at a moment’s glance the whole architecture and all its ramifications. How can this be achieved? Clinging stubbornly to the logical sequence inhibits the visualization of the whole, and yet this logical structure must predominate or chaos would result.
Damned if you do, especially damned if you do it right: it is a remarkable insight about math and, frankly, any serious brain work. The sense of the whole is quite rare–rarer still, because our most reliable tools don’t hew in that direction, including the tool of Reason, arguably.
At a glance, the Professor seems like a chaos of a man. He looks far older than 60; his idiosyncrasies abound; his street shoes are so unused that they have mold on them; he doesn’t eat carrots, ever. There’s much said in the book about how he attempts to remember beyond 4/3 of an hour; about his primitive memory keeping–how he clips notes all over a tattered suit of clothes to remind him of this or that (there’s a square root sign to remind him of “Root”); about how, one day, the Housekeeper took him, against his will, in moldy shoes, out into the open public air for a haircut, about how the clipped notes on his suit “fluttered restlessly” in the breeze as if he were a Japanese cherry tree with blossoms soon to be adrift from it. He’s a kind of tree of ephemera, his head elsewhere.
We learn about his interest (dating to 1975) in the mathematically obsessed sport of baseball, though he’s never once seen a game live or watched one on TV or listened to one on any radio. Once upon a time for leisure, before his accident, he read the sports pages in the library everyday in search of baseball statistics. He was interested especially in a Japanese Sandy Koufax of a southpaw named Yutaka Enatsu of the great Hanshin Tigers, the “lofty lefty” whose brilliant career up to 1975 becomes as familiar to the Professor as the work of Emil Artin. Enatsu once threw 401 strikeouts in one season for the Tigers in Japan; Koufax at his best threw 382 in one season for the Dodgers in America. Four hundred and one is a prime number; and Enatsu’s jersey number for the Tigers was 28, the very perfect number “discovered” by the Housekeeper.
The young Root, it turns out, is also an absolute Hanshin Tigers fan, more diehard–and somehow lonelier–than most. He constantly wears a Tigers hat out of self-consciousness about his flat head. After his mother starts to work at the Professor’s, he spends time at the cottage for reasons that are probably obscure to him. A child must never be without his mother, the Professor says. So, every day, Root comes over to the Professor’s hut after school. Mom makes dinner. The three of them become an unlikely family. They even attend a Tigers game together (Tigers v. “the Carp” of Hiroshima); it is the first live game for both Root and the Professor. Sitting in his seat somewhere along a foul line, the Professor looks for his hero Enatsu in the dugout. Root and the Housekeeper play dumb; Enatsu hasn’t played for the Tigers since ‘75. The year is, roughly, 1992.
The above is pleasant enough, one might say, but what does it all have to do with memory? I think one has to know about memory disorders beyond textbook knowledge to appreciate what Ogawa is trying to depict. Consider a Japanese businessman (my grandfather) who lived into his 90's, which was the decade of his Alzheimerian decline. Every day he’d get up and retreat into his study to review the stock market report. He studied it assiduously, for hours. Sometimes he’d emerge from his study with a discovery about a stock of real value, the gem of his day. But his Dow Jones was always the same Dow Jones, from twenty years prior; in fact, it was always the same newspaper, tattered like one of the Professor’s suits with notes hanging from it. What does it all have to do with memory? Everything and nothing. Does the human brain default to the past? In that past, could there be something like truth? Could the default happen even if we think we “live in the moment,” as normal people supposedly do?
I double back to the Housekeeper’s brain. One day, she happens upon a picture of Root’s father in a newspaper (he has won an award in engineering). She crumples the picture. Then she smooths it out and places it in a box where she stores mementos, including a mummified piece of Root’s umbilical cord. She’s quite haunted by the past, as Ogawa’s characters are often haunted, eerily. In a story from The Diving Pool entitled “Pregnancy Diary,” the protagonist willfully poisons her pregnant sister with a fruit jam that she cooks for her everyday. The baby is born deformed: “I set off toward the nursery to meet my sister’s ruined child,” the story ends. Secrets and the past are the province of Ogawa’s very conflicted women.
It seems to me that Ogawa’s idea of “the present,” whether 80 minutes of it or arbitrarily more, is a complicated notion. When we consider the Housekeeper’s life, what do we know? We know that men in her past have vanished from sight. Maybe there’s a dim memory of them (one liked opera and was handsome; one was an engineer), but memory fades to erasure. In the Professor, the Housekeeper finds a précis of her past with fathers and men. She’s fascinated by him, because he is her past–in fact, a specific aspect of her past, that men forget her. In taking her job, she attached herself to a man who she knew, full well, would forget her and any intimacy between them. His memory tape rewinds to a new start, and although she will be there for him, she will be forgotten again. It all sounds very sad, but she prefers to remain in his employ. And she cannot forget him.
I disagree with anyone who thinks that an 80-minute memory is the interest in Housekeeper. The book not about the evanescence or brevity of memory. On the contrary, one could speculate that Ogawa’s book is all about the recurrence of the past. A brain doesn’t let the past go (it isn’t built to do any such thing). If we can’t lay down new memory because of brain damage, the brain’s natural tendency becomes all the more apparent. It reverts to its habit–that being, to clutch at the past, to revisit it in the manner of an inevitable obsession. Do brains work that way, in truth? Proof is not available. But Ogawa seems to offer such a conjecture. The 80-minute memory is a sideshow; the spectacle is the power of the past, if not its tyranny, in everyday life.
The Housekeeper, I said, loses her job. The circumstances are worth a comment or two. On the night of the evening baseball game, which was Hanshin Tigers v. Hiroshima Carp, the Professor, the Housekeeper, and Root stay out late. By the time they get back to the cottage, the Professor is running a high fever. So the Housekeeper and Root stay the night; the Housekeeper nurses her Professor with ice-packs. There is an unexpected fallout: the sister-in-law in the main house has noticed that the Housekeeper stayed the night. She lodges a complaint to the Akebono agency. To behave in such a way is not only unprofessional, but also unseemly, she complains. A supervisor at Akebono, in knee-jerk fashion, dismisses the Housekeeper, and, in her next job, she works for a tax accountant who has her wash his fancy imported cars.
Not to worry, however: the Housekeeper returns to the Professor, although we never learn why the reconciliation happens. “I could not say whether the widow had a change of heart, or had simply never liked the new housekeeper,” says the Housekeeper.
Only late in book do we really learn about the sister-in-law. She is the only character in Housekeeper with a name–but it is just the simple letter, “N,” like some variable “X” in an equation. By accident (although we know it’s no accident), the Housekeeper finds a copy of the Professor’s thesis from Cambridge. A photo falls out of its pages:
It showed the Professor seated on a clover-covered riverbank. He was young and handsome, and he looked completely relaxed with his legs stretched out in front of him . . . A woman was seated next to the Professor. She leaned timidly toward him, the toes of her shoes poking out from under her flared skirt. Their bodies did not touch . . . And in spite of the years that had passed since the picture was taken, I had no doubt that the woman was the Professor’s sister-in-law.
At the top of the manuscript’s cover page, there is a neatly inscribed dedication. It reads: “For N, with my eternal love. Never forget.” The Housekeeper muses on that eternity.
I won’t reveal too much of the book. Suffice it to say that the Professor was bound to leave the story for good. He does.
It turns out Root plans to be a middle-school math teacher, still in possession of a fine brain inside his cubic head. “Our last visit to the Professor was in the autumn of the year Root turned twenty-two,” the Housekeeper says. At the time, she’s probably around 41, which is prime.
~Edison Miyawaki, MD
For more about Dr. Miyawaki, check out this article on his book on what to read about love not sex & Freud.