Earlier this year, I read Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s Kansai classic The Makioka Sisters after recommendations from several bloggers, and while it was an interesting read (especially for someone like me who lived in that region), I found it hard to see what the big deal about Tanizaki was. It turns out that first impressions can be seriously misleading; I finished reading Quicksand (translated by Howard Hibbett) a few days ago, and it’s still buzzing around in my head. This is a very, very good book. Before I continue though, I have something to say: while I am not one who shies away from discussing the plot in order to write a review, today’s post will discuss more aspects of the plot than is good for people who are planning to read the book soon. Therefore, if you are one of those people, I would advise you to go away and come back when you’ve read the book yourself. Alright? If you’re still here, let’s continue.
Quicksand is written in the form of a narration of a chain of events by one of the people involved, young widow Sonoko Kakiuchi, to an author friend (presumably Tanizaki himself). It begins with a description of how Sonoko becomes friends with a beautiful young woman, Mitsuko Tokumitsu, before going on to relate how Sonoko gradually falls under Mitsuko’s spell, falling madly in love with her and plunging into a passionate affair. Almost before she realises, she is lying to her husband, sneaking off to clandestine rendez-vous and spending hours drinking in Mitsuko’s body. And from there, things get even more complicated.
You see, Mitsuko is the hunter, not the hunted, a cruel Goddess of beauty, and she’s not content with just the one prey. Anyone who gets too close to her becomes fatally attracted to her, moths to a flame, unable (and unwilling) to break free from her spell, to the extent that they are willing to give up their time, their bodies and, eventually, even their free will. Sonoko gets sucked deeper and deeper into the quicksand of adultery, deception and lust, eventually dragging her poor husband down with her. In her desperation to cling to Mitsuko’s affections, she is prepared to degrade herself, to seek alliances with people she despises, to betray her husband, to prove, beyond doubt, her passion and commitment…
The overriding sensation one has when reading this book is of a highly-charged atmosphere of suspense and sexual tension, a stifling, suffocating, lust-filled embrace, which satisfies while slowly squeezing the air from your lungs. The more innocent scenes take place in the open air, giving them a sense of freedom and fun; however, many of the more sexually-charged episodes take place indoors, heightening the claustrophobic feeling and slowly turning up the pressure cooker on the characters, forcing them to act in ways they would not normally behave.
It’s astounding writing, and although there is nothing in the book which is at all graphic (in fact, very little which is explicitly, not implicitly, stated), Tanizaki pours more eroticism into it than a whole bookshelf of pornographic literature. There is really only one scene where the reader is allowed a glimpse of the uncontrollable passion which has gripped Sonoko, one in which she tears a sheet away from Mitsuko, unwilling to allow her lover to deny her a view of her naked body. Another, later, skilfully-drawn scene of seduction, involving a sensual massage, would remind anyone who has read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood of a certain bedroom section, where a younger woman seduces her older teacher – I would hazard a guess that Murakami had Tanizaki’s novel in mind when writing this scene.
Quicksand was serialised in a magazine from 1928 to 1930, a time when (just to put things into perspective) Virginia Woolf had just written Orlando, a fabulous fictional biography which secretly paid homage to her lesbian lover, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been completed – and banned. Of course, Tanizaki’s work does not compare to Lawrence’s in terms of graphic detail, but it must still have been shocking for people to read at the time.
For me though, the genius of this book lies in the way it is constructed around a tangled web of hearsay and reported opinions. Sonoko is relating the tale to the author, and she quite often reports what other people told her (or what other people told other people who told her). At the very start of the book, we are made aware that Sonoko lied to her husband, keeping the secret of an affair from her hapless partner, and this, along with the way the story is constructed, gradually led me to an idea, unsupported by anything I’ve read about about this book elsewhere.
Is it just me, or is there a sense of The Usual Suspects here: is the whole thing a fabrication? While conventional wisdom states that Mitsuko is a classic femme fatale, and that she was really in love with Sonoko’s husband Kotaro, Sonoko is the only one who survives, so why should we trust her? Is it not possible that she is the one who has been manipulating the lives of the four main characters and that she poisoned Mitsuko and Kotaro? I realise that I’m really going out on a limb here, but as we are basically told at the start of the novel that Sonoko is a liar, is it stretching the imagination too far to think that the whole novel may be a fabrication of Sonoko’s making?
Whether my hare-brained ideas are right or not, one thing is certain: this is a fantastic book. I can tell you all right now that Quicksand will be there or there abouts when I choose my favourite book at my end-of-year awards post, and there’s a fair chance that it may even claim the number one spot. It is a seriously good book. Read it.