Monday, March 21, 2011

Junichiro Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles

Junichiro Tanizaki's novel, The Makioka Sisters, is one of 100 novels critiqued at the end of Jane Smiley's accessible book about novels, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.   I underestimated Smiley's wonderful book at first because her style is so smooth and simple that it's easy to overlook how discerning her analysis is.  You think, oh, I already knew that, and perhaps you did, but it is an excellent resource for the critical history of the novel and recommendations of obscure classics.  I have gone back and dipped into it countless times. And I was very keen on reading the Japanese writer Tanizaki after I read her essay.  Tanizaki (1886 –1965), influenced by Tale of Genji, is, according to Wikipedia,  perhaps "the most popular Japanese novelist after Natsume Soseki."  

Many of Tanizaki's books are in print, but I decided to start with a short novel, Some Prefer Nettles.  I love this book:  it is a slim prose poem of a novel, reminiscent of the novels of Colette.   Set in Tokyo in the 1920s, it examines the mental processes and emotions of Kaname, an introspective man whose open marriage to Misako is causing anguish to both parties.  She is in love with another man, and meets with him openly.  Kaname and Misako talk casually about these meetings, and sometimes talk about divorce.  He is unhappy but  can't make up his mind about the divorce, because it will make their son, Hiroshi, unhappy.  

But this is an excuse:  Kaname isn't sure what he wants.  Is he a fool to throw away a traditional marriage to a compatible woman, even though he is not sexually attracted to her? Must marriage be sexual forever, or can it be an arrangement of convenience eventually?  What is the most modern outlook on marriage?  Is he cheating Misako by staying married?  What will divorce solve for Kaname, who doesn't want a wife or steady girlfriend?

His cousin, Takanatsu, urges him to get the divorce.  Kaname admires his cousin, a man of action, but has more subtle thoughts.

Kaname thinks:

"A separation is always sad.  Regardless of who is involved, there is a certain sadness in the mere fact of a separation, and Takanatsu was of course right that nothing would ever come of their waiting arm in arm for the perfect moment. There had been none of this hesitating when Takanatsu himself had left his wife.  After he made up his mind he simply called her into his room one morning and informed her, and spent the rest of the day explaining his reasons....  Kaname had come to Takanatsu with his problem because the latter had been through the experience and because Kaname had watched with some envy the firmness he had shown."

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Tanizaki's description of the classical puppet theater.  The elaborate plays with life-size puppets are usually about love and consequences.  Kaname's father-in-law, an old man, has a very young mistress, O-hisa, who is very like a puppet herself, and has been traditionally trained to please her lover in every way.  He  insists that they travel to see different puppet plays around Japan, and Kaname accompanies them.  Although Misako despises O-hisa, Kaname isn't sure:  maybe he would prefer a woman like this.  She is a doll or a puppet, unlike Misako, who has rejected the dolls her father has given her for the Festival of Dolls.  No demands.

This beautifully written novel is realistic and shocking.  I had to read the ending twice.  Fortunately, this is something the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, addresses in his introduction.  Tankizaki is deliberately vague:  it is a style he favors.  You are not going insane.  

I loved this book and will certainly be reading more of this writer soon.

1 comment:

citronyella said...

Just yesterday I was looking at the Japanese Literature Challenge 4 site, hoping to remedy my woeful lack of knowledge about Japanese literature (in the wake of the recent disasters I have been feeling guilty at not knowing more than Memoirs of a Geisha (which being written by an American male doesnt really count), and owning a *sadly* unread copy of the Tale of Genji). I found several references to Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters and have determined to read it as soon as my copy arrives. I wiki'd Tanizaki and found out about Some Prefer Nettles and added it to my wishlist. Synchronicity!