July 2011

Kevin Frazier


Tanizaki, Murasaki, Proust

Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses one or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.

July Birthdays:

Marcel Proust – July 10, 1871, Paris, France
Junichiro Tanizaki – born July 24, 1886, Tokyo, Japan
Murasaki Shikibu – birthday unknown, circa 973, Kyoto, Japan

This month's authors, Tanizaki, Murasaki, and Proust, grew into their best writing slowly, through false starts and weak beginnings. For each of them, the rise from the mediocre to the exceptional turned on a crucial choice: Tanizaki's decision to abandon Tokyo for Osaka, Murasaki's declaration of her right to criticize her main character, and Proust's recasting of the materials from Jean Santeuil in a far more potent form.   

1 – Tanizaki:  Naomi and Foolish Men

The change was most dramatic with Tanizaki, widely regarded as one of Japan's greatest twentieth century novelists. In 1923 an earthquake destroyed Tokyo, and the thirty-seven-year-old Tanizaki left his roots in the city and moved to Osaka. He then wrote his first important novel, Naomi, which began its magazine serialization in 1924.    

Tanizaki's earlier writing is decadent in the now-quaint way that Wilde or Baudelaire used to be called decadent. Four of the stories from Seven Japanese Tales belong to this youthful period, and the most famous of them is "The Tattooer." Written in 1910, when Tanizaki was in his mid-twenties, it's like a lame Night Gallery episode, and ends with an artist being devoured by the spider tattoo he designs for a beautiful woman. The story's femme fatale clichés reveal that the young Tanizaki wasn't yet able to recognize the sexism of his male characters or imagine the thoughts of his female ones.

Naomi, composed fourteen years later, is a huge jump forward. The material isn't so different from "The Tattooer," but the maturity of the perspective is completely new, a bold sketch for the greater works to come. The narrator, Joji, is a Tokyo businessman who fixates on transforming a young Japanese café waitress, Naomi, into a modern Westernized woman. Joji wants to reinvent Naomi in the style of Mary Pickford and other Hollywood film actresses, and encourages her to take dance lessons and to experiment with Western fads. His idea of independence for Naomi is, however, limited to the tokens he finds sexually appealing: clothes, hair, an overall look of flapper fastness. This is Hugh Hefner feminism, feminism as a subset of male fantasy.      

The surprise for Joji is that Naomi has her own ideas about what being independent means, and those ideas include playing Pygmalion to Joji and tailoring him to her needs. Yet Tanizaki doesn't see Naomi's table-turning as evil or predatory: she's not the mindless force of malevolence that the woman is in "The Tattoer." The reader's gathering awareness of Naomi's intelligence and confidence is richly comic, and Joji is revealed not as her innocent victim but as a foolish aggressor, chastened and improved by the lessons Naomi teaches him. Trying to control Naomi in the name of liberating her, he's undone by his own hypocrisy: he knows he deserves his fate and wonders whether he wanted it to end this way.

Joji's foolishness is played pretty broadly. The men in the later Tanizaki novels are foolish in more subtle and interesting ways, just as the women are presented with increasingly layered and sophisticated desires and personalities. In The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man, the husbands and wives don't live in such exaggerated opposition to each other as Joji and Naomi do. Sexual fantasy is part of all their lives, but it's not the dominant part, and much of the comedy resides in the back-and-forth of how they try to reconcile their private desires with the other things that matter to them. And since for Tanizaki it's Western influence that has stirred up a crisis in the established practices between Japanese men and women, his critique of family relationships always doubles as a critique of cultural tensions. Most of his major novels thrive on an implied contrast between Tokyo's cosmopolitanism and the Kyoto region's ancient customs, between Japan and the West. 

2 – Shadow Plays and The Makioka Sisters

The sex is almost never explicit in Tanizaki, and neither is the sometimes dizzyingly elaborate psychology of the characters. In his celebrated book-length essay In Praise of Shadows, Tanizaki marks his preference for the suggested over the stark. He links this suggestive tradition to the history of the Japanese language and Japanese design. In Japanese homes, he believes, it's the play of shadows that distinguishes them: "our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, gradually came to find beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's ends."

Throughout the novels, the shadows are the places to look, and you can enjoy their darkness once you realize how deeply Tanizaki has thought about them. His two masterpieces, Some Prefer Nettles and The Makioka Sisters, draw on this shadow-play to take exceptional risks. Tanizaki places great faith in us as readers, a conviction that we will, upon reflection, start to fathom the ironies and revelations floating in the quiet depths of his pages.

In The Makioka Sisters, the novel's balance is softly shifted on the last page, by using a passing mention of a medical problem to change our attitude to the entire book. We begin to register more profoundly how the marriage of Yukiko, which has seemed necessary for the other characters' fulfillment, actually completes the death of the novel's true paradise, the relationships among Yukiko and her sisters. Marriage here isn't a happy ending; it's a severing of the female bonds that the characters can't protect from the financial and paternalistic forces ranged against them. The Makioka Sisters is often read as Tanizaki's celebration of the vanishing Japanese family, but the novel is at least as critical of tradition as it is of change. Calmly and elegantly, it observes how some of the traditions most damaging to the sisters are enshrined and updated by their merger with modern developments. Still, this defines Tanizaki's accomplishment too narrowly, and coarsens what he has done. His essence is less to argue a point than to defer to the most delicate shades of comparison, shadow upon shadow, arranged so we can make out all their gradations if we look at them with enough care.

3 – Some Prefer Nettles and Reactionary Backlash

Tanizaki anticipated the backlash against feminism that Americans have been living through since the late-1970s: the entire cycle of backlash is already there in his novels. You notice it first with Joji's ludicrous collapse from advocate of women's independence to wounded lover railing against Naomi's supposed cruelty. It's also part of some of the final works: The Key returns to it in 1956, and Diary of a Mad Old Man in 1961. The husband in The Key wants to loosen up his wife with Playboy Philosophy emancipation. Quickly, though, he retreats into distress, aroused yet shaken by the results of encouraging his spouse to express her hidden opinions and tastes. 

Backlash figures most prominently in Some Prefer Nettles. Published in 1929, Some Prefer Nettles features a man who is much less buffoonish than Joji: the intelligent and observant Kaname. Like Tanizaki at the time, Kaname has embraced Western notions of sexual independence and has become bored with his wife. At the start of the novel he is divorcing her (divorce is another faddish Western import), even though she is in many ways a modern, intelligent woman who has made an effort to accommodate his ideas and demands. Indeed, she's exactly what Kaname can't handle: a woman trying to work out her own personality with a certain cautious freedom from the presumptions of her husband and her society. 

Kaname begins to spend time with his father-in-law, an old-fashioned Osaka man. The father-in-law loves the ancient Japanese puppet theater and all its accoutrements, which include his kimono-wearing, doll-like mistress O-hisa. Kaname has no barrier left to carrying out all his Western sexual dreams, and he pursues some of them with a prostitute, who pretends to be Turkish but is actually Korean and Russian. The East-West distinctions that Kaname tries to hold in his mind keep getting gnarled up in his actual experiences, which are far knottier than his theories about them. And despite his determination to modernize himself, he's continually drawn to the father-in-law and the puppet theater. Intimidated and lost when he lives out his fantasies of Westernization, Kaname falls back into the more familiar and comforting fantasies of Japanese classicism. The novel ends with his taking the father's mistress for himself. It's his final act of rejecting the modern and slipping into reactionary conservatism, and he completes the reversal by his acquisition of a submissive lover, the opposite of everything he has said he wanted.

4 – Murasaki:  The Tale of Genji and the Right to Criticize

Tanizaki was a contemporary of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, his American peers in talent and accomplishment, but his novels definitely don't romanticize the husbands and demonize the wives as Tender is the Night and The Garden of Eden do. I've often wondered how much Tanizaki's unusually agile alertness toward male self-indulgence owes to Murasaki Shikibu, who's as important in Japanese literature as Shakespeare is in ours. 

Murasaki was born over a thousand years ago, and most of her personal history is unknown.  Even her actual name and birthday are mysteries. I'm putting her here in the July column, though, because I don't want to pass over her, and because Tanizaki's writing is so bound up with hers that he can't really be discussed without discussing her as well. The Tale of Genji is the massive dominion on which his self-effacingly compact novels are built. 

Tanizaki made three translations of Genji into modern Japanese, and situations from the book pop up constantly in his fiction. His story "The Bridge of Dreams" plays, for instance, with one of the many perverse Genji family entanglements, a father and a son sharing a romantic interest in the same woman. Starting in the 1930s, Tanizaki wrote a series of brief historical fictions, sly parodies of biographical chronicles, all written with a strong Genji tint to them. The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi contemplates a sixteenth-century warrior's fetish for severed heads, and exercises a Murasaki-inflected restraint toward the garish subject matter. Captain Shigemoto's Mother and A Portrait of Shunkin also run very much in the Murasaki vein. The Makioka Sisters, composed immediately after Tanizaki's first published Genji translation from 1941, is suffused with Murasaki's distinguishing moderation and balance.  

More importantly, Tanizaki takes from Murasaki her wry, measured skepticism toward her characters, and most of all toward men in positions of authority. By developing his gift for exposing the absurdity of certain strains of male fascism, Tanizaki was following an aesthetic path at least as much as a philosophical one. And this path was opened for him by Murasaki, who made masculine self-absorption one of her great subjects.

She unearthed the subject only gradually. The early chapters of Genji are as unpromising as the pre-Naomi stories of Tanizaki. Genji is part of the imperial family, born through the Emperor's relationship with a concubine. At first Murasaki can't get beyond a flat, generic feel in writing about Genji's childhood and youth. Apart from the famous "rainy night conversation," when Genji and his friends talk with each other about women, the book's opening section is forgettable.

The shift comes about eighty pages in, at the end of chapter four. The chapter details one of Genji's tangled infidelities, and catches him making some dubious decisions. Murasaki then writes that she earlier "passed over Genji's trials and tribulations in silence, out of respect for his determined efforts to conceal them." She has started to discuss his flaws, she says, because she has been criticized for suggesting he was perfect. "No doubt," she concludes, "I must now beg everyone's indulgence for my effrontery in painting so wicked a portrait of him."  (I'm using the Royall Tyler translation.)

In reserving the right to bring out Genji's defects, and in cleverly making it sound as though she's merely responding to the comments of "certain lords and ladies," Murasaki liberates the energies that drive the novel for the next thousand-plus pages. The stiffness that has gripped the book up to this point disappears, and Genji and the other characters step free from their storybook dullness.

5 – The Brutality of Carelessness

Murasaki always seeks "to strike the proper balance." She seldom lets her droll criticisms outweigh her compassion for her characters, and seldom lets her compassion outweigh her tart psychological observations. When Genji talks with the unhappy mother of his best friend, Murasaki writes, "Her prolonged weeping and her quavering voice had a degree of foolishness about them, but Genji well understood why she should feel as she did, and he sympathized with her." Murasaki likes to repeat that everyone is different, with individual strengths and weaknesses. "I am afraid of what I am!" a woman exclaims as she examines her own impulses, and at another point Genji notes that none of us is ever fully understood. Murasaki finds painful comedic truth in the partial misconceptions we bring to our dealings with each other. She compares the gaps in comprehension between court members, and contrasts Genji's irritation at a carriage competition with the deep suffering the event causes one of his lovers. Throughout the novel, one character's thoughts will contradict or modify another's.

Genji has many failings, but his overarching flaw is carelessness. He neglects people, and hurts them through his narcissistic failure to imagine their feelings. When he makes the effort to pay attention to others, he can be generous and caring. But often he can't be bothered. In chapter six he thinks about a princess brooding over him, and imagines "how silent and withdrawn she must be." He barely recognizes this, though, before he decides he "really cannot help it" since he's simply too busy for her. Much later, in chapter thirty-three, he ponders taking up religion and abandoning everyone who depends on him. "It seemed to him," Murasaki remarks dryly, "that he need not really worry about any of them." 

The carelessness extends to his most important relationships. Even with the novel's heroine, a girl he adopts in a casual yet creepy act of pedophilic attraction, he loses track of her for long stretches of time. Far from being worried about neglecting her, the novel explains, Genji "was pleased that while away he at least did not need to wonder what doubts and misgivings she might have about him." But if Genji forgets his obligations to those closest to him, Murasaki keeps careful tabs on his negligence. She also sees through his self-deceptions, such as the way he rationalizes his sleaziness in sexually exploiting the heroine and raising her to his specifications. 

Not incidentally, the heroine's name is Murasaki, a term that has poetic associations and refers to a form of lavender dye from a gromwell. The long-standing attribution of the name to the novel's author underlines the book's calm yet steady dissection of how Genji rapes the heroine and desecrates her childhood, while he continually lies to himself about what he's doing. The abuse, like Humbert's abuse of Lolita, is both physical and psychological. Genji's carelessness sharpens into brutality here, reminding us that we often try to excuse our worst acts of aggression and injustice by saying we didn't mean to hurt anyone. This is Genji's defense for all his sins, and the motor that moves the novel from the comedy of minor mistakes to the tragedy of major disasters. 

6 – "The Flame of It All Had Burned Out"

Genji ages, and the novel darkens. He starts to think of pain as the main truth in life. His regrets swell. Bit by bit, he understands better how he has hurt Murasaki, now a woman and his most valued companion. (I have to wonder, though, if the author is as repulsed by the earlier child abuse and sexual violations as we are. I can't tell if she believes the violations were forgivable, or if she's just being realistic about the heroine's lack of practical options. Maybe a little of both, with each attitude unfortunately reinforcing the other. Still, I don't really know what Murasaki Shikibu was thinking on this. She's a subtle writer, sometimes hard to interpret through the screens of translation and a millennium of historical and cultural changes. Certainly it's reckless to underestimate her, or to presume she's any less sensitive to child abuse than we are.)

Genji's youthful callowness has worn away, but his flaws haven't left him. They simply appear less frequently, and cause him greater guilt. He also develops a new vice, hypocrisy. One woman says to another that Genji "makes so much of the least slip on your part so as to screen his own errant ways." She adds: "To my mind he is like someone who fancies himself wise and yet remains unsure of what he himself is doing."     

His story reaches its climax with Murasaki's death and with the grief that shatters him once she's gone. Genji only fully appreciates Murasaki when she's no longer around, and he agonizes over the past, wondering why he was so unkind to her. Everything in life has lost its savor for him. 

When the next section begins, eight years have passed and Genji is dead. For the final three hundred pages of the book, we're in a world of tragic devastation. The darkness of Genji's widowhood spreads out to blight the lives of one character after another. These are the Kaoru chapters: Kaoru is the Perfumed Prince, born from a relationship between one of Genji's wives and the son of Genji's best friend. But no single character dominates this part of the book. The truly pervasive force here is the lingering phantom of Genji's grief. It shrouds everything, covering the planet in a nuclear winter of the spirit. "Everyone in the realm mourned [Genji]," the novel tells us, "lamenting on every occasion that there was no life in anything anymore, as though the flame of it all had burned out." The procession of loss is endless, with disgraced princes, dead spouses, vanished mistresses. Statements of despair are everywhere: "we may appear to live on, and yet, wandering as we do through a dream from which there is no waking, we shrink from allowing ourselves to look upon the light of day." The sound of the wind is inevitably mournful, and the characters' sorrows are "capable of filling the vast, empty heavens." 

Then in the closing chapters a hint of relief arrives. A young woman is caught cheating on Kaoru with another man, and seems to drown herself in a river. This looks like one more example of the ongoing pattern of despair. It turns out, however, that the woman has lived. Kaoru tries to see her, but she refuses to answer his note. Kaoru is "confounded by this inconclusive outcome." The novel ends there, quietly poised between the oppressiveness of the past and the possibility of a new future for the young.                    

7 – Proust:  Jean Santeuil Rises from the Dead

Like Tanizaki and Murasaki, Proust was a late bloomer. Unlike them, he was able to hide the major false start that occupied him before À la recherche du temps perdu, the unpublished novel Jean Santeuil.

The Painter biography says that Proust began Jean Santeuil in 1895. Proust was twenty-four at the time, and Jean Santeuil is a young writer's book, full of ambitions it doesn't know how to fulfill. 

Yet it stands as a first stab at À la recherche. Almost all the material from the earlier novel ended up being reinvented and used for the later one. And though Jean Santeuil is an artistic failure, it's not small, even in its unfinished form. My Gallimard edition is seven hundred pages long, with another hundred pages of variants and fragments. 

Jean, like the narrator of À la recherche, is largely a stand-in for Proust. After the introduction, Jean Santeuil opens as À la recherche does, with the main character's bedtime rituals and his habit of going to his mother to say goodnight. But in place of the first-person directness of À la recherche, Jean Santeuil holds us at a distance. Jean walks through a garden gate, having just annoyed his mother by saying goodnight to her for the third time in one evening: "La petite porte du jardin se referma lentement sur Jean qui était revenu une troisième fois dire bonsoir à sa mère et qui avait été assez mal reçu." Proust crafts this first sentence in the pseudo-objective style of Flaubert, and you can hear Flaubert's matter-of-fact intonations in much of Jean Santeuil's writing. Les Plaisirs et les jours, Proust's grab-bag collection of stories, sketches, and essays, came out in 1896, while he was working on Jean Santeuil, and it contains two brief parodies of Bouvard et Pécuchet. The parodies show Proust's understanding of some of Flaubert's techniques, yet the writing is appreciative without ever being inspired. In Jean Santeuil, you can feel Proust repeatedly trying Flaubert on, the way you might try on a jacket, and then taking him off again because, though Proust doesn't want to admit it, the jacket is far too tight for him.                 

When Jean Santeuil doesn't sound like Flaubert, it often simply wanders around, searching for a tone to adopt. Here for the first time are many of the elements from À la recherche: the magic lantern, the "little phrase," the tints of asparagus. But they're drab and disconnected, without any special force to them. Jean Santeuil confirms Proust's determination to examine his memories, but it doesn't give us any reason to care about them. One thing happens after another, and none of it means much.

What's missing, of course, is the key Proustian theme: our experience of time, and how everything changes in the motions of the years. It's always hard to gauge the importance of a book's subject. Melville insisted no great tale could ever be written about a flea, but since Kafka was able to write a great tale about a beetle, I'm pretty sure even fleas can offer up something terrific for the right author. Time is a giant subject, a Moby Dick of a subject, so huge it's a little ridiculous. Yet Proust's revelation about time, the final realization that he stylizes for us in Le temps retrouvé, matters mainly because it gives him a series of specific inspirations on how to present time artistically.

From the first page of À la recherche, Proust knows what he's doing and where he's going. He makes changes along the way, but there's no fumbling for what his voice will be, and no uncertainty over why he thinks we should bother to read him. All the dead scraps of Jean Santeuil, all the limbs of that novel's stitched-together corpse, are returned to the operating table and galvanized by the high-voltage charge of Proust's new certainty. A Frankenstein-monster of a book, À la recherche possesses and transforms Jean Santeuil's cadaver: it rises up as a far more imposing creature than the sum of its borrowed bones and vitals ever suggested.  

8 – The Running of the Long-Distance Sentence

The transformation is most apparent in the Proustian sentence. Instead of settling for imitation Flaubert, À la recherche uses the long-distance-runner duration of each line to embody the changes that time conducts. Yet even in his partial rejection of his master, Proust has learned from Flaubert the importance of every word, the need to eliminate the florid and the imprecise:  we can be grateful that Flaubert's example always countered the later example of Ruskin. 

Proust wants it to take time for us to go from the start of each sentence to the end. He wants us to be as conscious as he is of the distance traveled, the seconds consumed passing from one detail to the next. We see time in action when reading one of his sentences, feel the changes time is working inside us as we pick out each new set of words and relate it to the earlier words, stretching our minds, enlarging our ability to compare future to past, thought to image, person to place. Late in the novel, Marcel considers the different selves he has become, in three sentences that have to be traversed patiently and determinedly, as if you're matching your stride to the changes of terrain in a cross-country marathon:

But one is no more distressed at having become another person, after a lapse of years and in the natural sequence of time, than one is at any given moment by the fact of being, one after another, the incompatible persons, malicious, sensitive, refined, caddish, disinterested, ambitious, which one can be, in turn, every day of one's life. And the reason why one is not distressed is the same, namely that the self which has been eclipsed -- momentarily in this latter case and when it is a question of character, permanently in the former case and when the passions are involved -- is not to deplore the other, the other which is for the moment, or from then onwards, one's whole self; the caddish self laughs at its caddishness because it is the cad, and the forgetful self does not grieve about its forgetfulness precisely because it has forgotten... Life, in accordance with its habit which is, by incessant, infinitesimal labours, to change the face of the world, had not said to me on the morrow of Albertine's death: "Become another person," but, by changes too imperceptible for me to be conscious even that I was changing, had altered almost everything in me, with the result that my mind was already accustomed to its new master -- my new self -- when it became aware that it had changed; it was to this new master that it was attached. 

That's from the old C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation. Scott Moncrieff is terrific, but he's no match for the original, which makes a fitting end for this month's column:

Mais on ne s'afflige pas plus d'être devenu un autre, les années ayant passé et dans l'ordre de la succession des temps, qu'on ne s'afflige à une même époque d'être tour à tour les êtres contradictoires, le méchant, le sensible, le délicat, le mufle, le désintéressé, l'ambitieux qu'on est tour à tour chaque journée. Et la raison pour laquelle on ne s'en afflige pas est la même, c'est que le moi éclipsé -- momentanément dans le dernier cas et quand il s'agit du caractère, pour toujours dans le premier cas et quand il s'agit des passions -- n'est pas là pour déplorer l'autre, l'autre qui est à ce moment-là, ou désormais, tout vous ; le mufle sourit de sa muflerie car il est le mufle, et l'oublieux ne s'attriste pas de son manque de mémoire, précisément parce qu'il a oublié… La vie, selon son habitude qui est, par des travaux incessants d'infiniment petits, de changer la face du monde, ne m'avait pas dit au lendemain de la mort d'Albertine: « Sois un autre », mais, par des changements trop imperceptibles pour me permettre de me rendre compte du fait même du changement, avait presque tout renouvelé en moi, de sorte que ma pensée était déjà habituée à son nouveau maître -- mon nouveau moi -- quand elle s'aperçut qu'il était changé; c'était à celui-ci qu'elle tenait.