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”.


Regarding the literary flourish

October 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am myself guilty of the sin.  In my former life, when I wrote frequently for a largish audience, mostly female and with interests considerably more middle-brow than my own, I was often tempted to end an essay on batiks — or Villa Farnesina, or whatnot — with a pretty sounding something on the topic of love.  It worked wonders — my readers ate it up — and I managed somehow to pretend to myself that it was not a sin.

Yet, it is a sin:  human life is a wasting asset, to waste other people’s time pretending that you are telling them something while you are just feeding them drivel is well nigh a criminal offense.  (Yes, if you do not, your readers will find other ways to waste their life, but then the sin is theirs, not yours).

It is also a professional failure:  writers are makers of texts like cobblers are makers of shoes.  For a cobbler to make a useless shoe — i.e. one which cannot be worn — would be a professional crime; for a writer to make a text which cannot be understood — because it means nothing — must also be one.  How can it not disqualify him?

The entire second half of The Island of the Day Before is just that kind of empty flourish:  once Father Caspar has sunk in his hilarious diving bell (“how can it not go wrong?” we think as we read about it), it is apparent that Eco has spent himself; and, drained of all ideas, he is stalling:  he is playing for time.  The “Romance of Ferrante” manages to keep things afloat for a while, but eventually it becomes painfully clear that there is nothing there, only repetition:  take Robert’s inordinately long meditation on possible life forms on other planets — the topic has already been treated in the duel scene, 25 chapters back; Robert’s overlong meditation adds nothing to it — nothing, that is, except words.

Likewise, Pamuk’s My Name Is Red runs out of juice after chapter 11 (when, in a brilliant formal trick, following the story told by a painted leafless tree, the hero sees the love of his life through a naked tree sparkling with sleet).  While in this case the next three-quarters of the book are probably entirely due to the publisher’s insistence that one cannot make money printing a 90-page novella, and therefore he cannot print it; Pamuk’s Black Book is in its entirety his sin alone: no part of it ever needed to be written; certainly, no part of it ever needed to be published.  The publisher — mercenary like the rest of his trade — wanted to make a buck pushing text by a famous writer; but what was the writer’s excuse?  That he had a mortgage to pay?

It isn’t clear why Eco went on and on, once he’s run out of stuff to say.  Surely, since Eco’s stature allows him to force a publisher to print Diario Minimo; he could also have forced him to print an unfinished novel (hint:  market it as “open-ended”), a mere trifling 200 pages long?  Unlike Pamuk, Eco has sold movie rights to his other work:  surely, he has enough dough, if anyone does, to spare us drivel?

Is it possible that Eco wrote the entire second half of The Island of the Day Before not realizing that he had run out of ideas and that he was extemporizing?  Or are authors like certain kinds of birds (cf. Tetrao urogallus) who so love the sound of their own voice that they can not notice when they have gone off?


Surely, Lesser does have a point in her final pages when she says that there is something special about the silence which falls at the end of a Shostakovich string quartet.  In a way, this is true about all well-structured music: each string quartet, having established a key, then modulated away, then gone through all kinds of development, eventually returns to its point of origin — often to its opening bar; the satisfying sensation of completion which this brings about can only be appreciated when the last chord has sounded (obviously); which is why the silence which falls at the end of the quartet seems so rich, so resounding, so pregnant with meaning:  it is filled with reflection; our minds are busy digesting; only now do we appreciate the enormity of what he have just heard; and it takes time to take it all in.  Thus, the ovation always comes too soon and I welcome Borodin Quartet’s innovation to leave the stage silently without taking a bow, thus leaving the audience alone with its task of reflection.

I hope I have just demonstrated above that an OK paragraph can be written on the silence which follows a Shostakovich string quartet.  Clearly, it doesn’t take a genius to think of something to say and — to say it with as few words as possible.  But it is challenging to write eleven paragraphs on the topic, perhaps impossible (music being, after all, about itself alone and nothing else, perhaps all one can do in response to a cycle of string quartets is… to write one’s own?).  Whatever the case, certainly Lesser is not the person to do it:  the last four pages of her book come across as vacuous and repetitive, a kind of…  verbal froth.

Pretty, yes, but signifying not much.  In fact, the same could be sad for the whole Epilogue:  it is too long, it has too many words in it.  Half that length, perhaps a quarter, would have sufficed.

On the [in]credibility of novelists

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

How liberating to live in a spacious, comfortable, well equipped, quiet apartment with a generous view of the sea towards the east. One can retreat to it for weeks and not see a man — and listen to music, as I have, all day long, for weeks.

Yesterday, for instance, a chance hearing of William Kapell’s unusually beautiful rendering of Prokofiev’s otherwise deranged No. 7 (from his rediscovered Australian broadcasts) launched me into a full-blown listening of the 7th:  6 different versions by Richter (repeatedly) and one each by Gilels, Sokolov and Bronfman.

My memory may not serve me right:  is it possible that Kapell’s version was as beautiful as I remember it?  I seem fixated on the way the ending of the first movement trailed off into silence:  it sometimes happens that a small detail in a performance of a familiar work throws the whole thing into new light, makes it all glow in our mind with its novel strangeness. (In a way, everything is like this: a whole love affair may be colored by a chance spotting of morning dew). But there may have been other such details in the performance: I seem to remember, in the third movement, an unusual overemphasis of the rhythmic figure in the left hand.

Obviously, I have to find it and hear it again.

Now, of all the pianists I heard last night, Bronfman was the only one to achieve the great feat of making the 7th…  sound dull.

So, what to make of Roth’s description of a Bronfman performance:

I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew. When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air.

Nothing, apparently.

Roth is a novelist, and a novelist isn’t obliged to know anything about what he writes about. Which leaves a question: why ever read any novel? (Certainly, why ever read Roth?)

There is a deeper doubt here, too: a baffling thought, this: if a man is not in the position to judge Prokofiev’s 7th, is he in position to judge anything?

Perhaps, yes:  maybe Roth knows something about distressed debt analysis. Yet, a man who is not familiar with Prokofiev’s 7th (or Prokofiev in general); or one who is familiar with the music of Chopin but likes Pollinis interpretations (or those of Avdeeva), must have a mind somehow fundamentally different from mine — I mean, different in sensibility, the sole thing that matters for such a broad range of really important things in life as: the meaning of life, the management of relationships, the choice of upholstery for the sofa.

And if so, then his views of these things must also be irrelevant.  And if so, then, well, his novels can’t possibly matter.  Can they?

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