Tanizaki — a man transformed by his wife

September 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not liking Tanizaki is not difficult if you read what is available in English.  I didn’t like him myself until I began to read him in Japanese.  The good stuff simply is not being translated.

Tanizaki’s biography in great abbreviation is this:  he came from a very poor, very humble, very uncultured background in Tokyo, and, having received at home no cultural values worth holding onto [scraping for a living leaves little time for cultural pursuits], began his literary career as westernizing, iconoclastic, somewhat pornographic — a typical directionless youth getting his rocks off on the notions of “modernity” and being up to date”.  Some prefer nettles gives us a picture of what young Tanizaki was like:  the hero — devoid if internal life as far as we can tell — divorces largely because to do so is “modern”.  (i.e. He does his bit for the modernization country). (A kind of combed and manicured Henry Miller/Jack Kerouac).

But his third wife — who came from an old, moneyed, cultured Osaka family — changed all that.  She introduced him to a new world, a world he had never suspected existed:  to the beautiful (and sometimes infuriating) ritual complexities of the life of the Osaka merchant upper-class, their elaborate language and customs, and their passion for classical Japanese arts.  Under her tutelage, Tanizaki moved to Kyoto, learned to speak with Western dialect, and to understand and appreciate classical arts.  From his second wife he learned to be a different Japanese, the sort of traditional cultivated man-of-letters he otherwise would never have stood a chance of becoming.  In a sense, he wrote Makioka sisters to celebrate this transformation:  the book is not only about his wife’s family, but also about one branch of it moving (temporarily) to Tokyo — which gives him a way to look back at and comment on his earlier life.

The Tanizaki writings I treasure most are his late essays [he calls them novels] — Yoshinokuzu, Ashikari — many of which are kind of travelogues with an antiquary interest, somewhat standoffishly contain untranslated quotations from the classics, and are full of insightful, often wittily encoded, comments on art, history, culture, and — life.  Reading them is deeply satisfying…  work.  Critics generally consider them a sign of declining literary powers — perhaps because they prefer action, or because they are generally uninterested in the internal life of cultured men (dumbest action beats wisest thought any time of day), or because they themselves find them hard going (who reads bungo well these days?).

Translators follow the critics and give us mostly the youthful Tanizaki, the rather uninteresting, somewhat confused man inclined to titillate or provoke in order to disguise the fact that he has nothing to say. And this is the man you read.

PS.  I’m wrong:  Ashikari at least has been translated into English (and published in 1932).  So don’t fault translators.  Publishers?  Or whoever else is responsible for deciding what stays in print/discussed/public eye?

PPS.  A witness to the profound change brought about in him by his third wife: Tanizaki says somewhere that, were there to be a “complete works” edition of his works, he would not include his early novels in it, since he no longer considered them as “his own”.


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