‘The Maids’ by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (Review)

While I’ve read several of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s books during my reviewing ‘career’, they’ve been spread over the years, and I’ve never really focused on his work in the way I have with Natsume Sōseki or Yukio Mishima, for example. Thanks to some recent arrivals, though (and a little project set for early next year), that’s all set to change.  You’ll be seeing a *lot* of Tanizaki around these parts over the next few months, and today’s post is just the beginning…

*****
The Maids (translated by Michael P. Cronin, review copy courtesy of New Directions) is a late Tanizaki work, serialised in 1962 before being published in book form the following year.  In his brief afterword, Cronin explains how the setting of the main house featured in the novel is the same one where the action of The Makioka Sisters takes place, a house (now a museum) where the writer himself lived.  Like the earlier (lengthier…) book, The Maids examines life in the house of a fairly wealthy family, taking us around various locations in the Kansai region before transplanting the action to Atami, a coastal resort closer to Tokyo.

However, The Maids, as the title suggests, provides a rather different focus to Tanizaki’s other work.  While the writer Raikichi and his wife, Sanko, appear throughout the book, the stars of the show are the various live-in maids who care for them and their houses over the course of several decades.  In a chatty style, an anonymous narrator, one who appears to be close to the family, introduces a number of the more prominent domestic helpers.  Each is introduced, with attention given to their background, and their character and appearance is described in great detail, allowing us to get to know them as if we were part of the family too.

Dozens of women work for the family over the years, but the story focuses on several of those who stay longer than most, becoming old friends in the process.  The first is Hatsu, a no-nonsense woman from Kyushu who develops into a matriarch of maids over the next two decades.  While she is often described as plain, some of the other maids are more attractive, leading the master of the house to take an interest in them.  There’s Suzu, the young beauty with little education; Gin, a cunning modern woman with steely determination; and Yuri, a maid with a plan to move up in the world, but with flaws that will drag her back down.  Each starts as a stranger in a foreign environment but ends up as a part of the writer’s family.

Unlike in other Tanizaki books (c.f. Diary of a Mad Old Man, The Key), Raikichi’s interest in the young women comes across as fairly benevolent (although I do wonder whether a Japanese reader, reading between the lines, might see this differently).  With many of the maids coming from poor, rural areas, he laments what might have been, regretting the lack of sparkle in their eyes:

Husband and wife had betrayed similar thoughts regarding Hatsu, and now once again they were made to feel the impossibility of ever knowing at just what a disadvantage these girls were, compared to their counterparts in the city, simply because they’d lacked access to a good education.
p.92 (New Directions, 2017)

Yes, there’s a bit of a creepy element to the employer’s concern in his female employees, but there’s a genuine desire to help them too, always culminating in assistance with finding a suitable husband.

However, these relationships between master and maid change over the three decades the novel describes.  Once the war is over, the young women feel a greater need for independence, and some of the maids want more modern relationships, too.  The writer describes a tradition, a well-meant one, of giving the maid a new name to be used in their new life, but one of the women would prefer not to use it:

“My name is Gin, so that will do. Please call me by my real name.”
Her manner of speech was quite brusque, and at that moment Raikichi and Sanko thought: This Gin has a willful streak. (p.98)

Employing maids is no longer a case of generous rich people helping out the poor, but a strict business relationship intended to propel the young women upwards in life, a mere stepping stone towards greater things.

Next to the changing nature of the role of the maids, the most important feature of the novel is its focus on cultural issues and differences.  Tanizaki, a native of Tokyo, moved to the Kansai area after the earthquake in 1923, and The Maids (like much of his work) initially focuses on the differences between the Kantō and Kansai regions.  In the first few pages, we hear about Raikichi’s reluctant submission in the face of his family’s Osaka habits:

Raikichi is originally from Tokyo but in the twenty-odd years since he married his present wife, he has been living in a house where everyone else prattles on from morning till night in the Osaka dialect until at last, influenced by these surroundings, he has developed a strange manner of speech and forgotten his native tongue.  Talking with people from Tokyo, he’ll inadvertently use the Osaka word hokasu instead of suteru for “throw away”, and be ridiculed for it.  Between husband and wife, too, silly little quarrels sometimes arise over differences in customs and habits, but his wife has her daughter and younger sister to back her up, so if the quarrel escalates, Raikichi just surrenders. (p.10)

The family’s move to Kyoto provides the reader with new insights into life in the west, and the novel looks as if it will tread the same ground as works such as Some Prefer Nettles with its examination of the east-west divide.

Yet The Maids actually provides a fresh twist on this theme as many of the women the family employs are from Kagoshima, an area you might describe as Japan’s deep south.  The maids bring fresh ideas and customs to the house, and when a group of them sit chatting in their own dialect, language even, Raikichi and wife often struggle to understand them.  At one point, their daughter Mutsuko even draws up a list of common expressions for the couple, a glossary of everyday language that gradually begins to permeate into their own usage.  Cronin suggests that The Maids places the Osaka region as a new centre of Japan, linking the Tokyo region and the far-flung provinces.

It’s all great fun, and the enjoyment of the novel is enhanced by the comfortable narratorial style.  With frequent reminders of ‘back then’ and ‘at that time’, we’re constantly aware that we’re being told a story from a ‘modern’ vantage point.  There’s a palpable feeling of nostalgia, lightly laced with occasional tinges of regret and a sense that times have changed, not always for the better.  Often the narrator (a good-natured fellow who is probably interchangeable with both Raikichi and Tanizaki himself) supplements his tales with laments of how the places he mentions have changed or disappeared completely in the years between the events of the novel and the time of telling the story.

It all makes for an entertaining book, but I’d hesitate to recommend The Maids to readers new to Tanizaki’s work (or to Japanese literature in general). The story drifts along a little with no real central driving plot, a series of sketches of characters tied together by their employment in the same house, and there’s also a little repetition and backtracking.  In part, this is a result of the raconteur style adopted by the narrator, but also a consequence of the book’s origins as a serialised novel.  If you’re waiting for drama, there are a few stand-out scenes (one involving a couple of the maids is a particular highlight), but the story lacks a real narrative drive.

Still, overall it’s a lovely read, and highly recommended for fans of J-Lit in general and Tanizaki in particular.  There are hints in The Maids of a Japanese Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs in a society where the big and little folk lived in rather closer proximity than you might expect, and by the end of the novel, you’ll feel just as close to Hatsu, Suzu and the like as Raikichi himself.  All in all, it makes for an enjoyable addition to Tanizaki’s English-language catalogue of works, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of his books in the months to come.  Feel free to stop by if that sounds like something for you, too 🙂

6 thoughts on “‘The Maids’ by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (Review)

  1. I have yet to sample this writer’s work, so will take your advice, if I ever get time to start it, and begin elsewhere. That point about renaming maids is nagging away at me; where in Eng Lit have I seen that – an upper class house where each maid is given the same name? I don’t mean as in the Handmaid’s Tale, I think it’s novelists like Ivy Compton-Burnett, but that’s probably not right. My memory isn’t what it was.

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  2. It looks like the time when I had read everything by Junichiro in English is over – there seems to be a flurry of newly translated work appearing. All good, but it means I’ve some work to do!

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    1. Grant – Part of my inspiration for this burst of Tanizaki reading (which should culminate in a reflective post published elsewhere) is the realisation that there’ve been so many recent releases from US publishers: three from New Directions, four from University of Michigan Press (with one to be reviewed next week) and another from Columbia University Press – which I’m hoping to get my hands on very soon 🙂

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  3. Tony – I read The Maids earlier this year and really enjoyed it, mainly for the style of the writing. I agree that the story tends to wander, but don’t you find that most novels originally published as serials tend to suffer from sprawl? I also read the other novel of his put out by New Directions – Devils In Daylight – which wasn’t bad, but didn’t particularly stand out to me. I was wondering what would you recommend by Tanizaki?

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    1. Tara – Funnily enough, I’ll be posting on ‘Devils in Daylight’ later this week, and I actually preferred that! Particularly for a novice, it’s a far more accessible work.

      As for recommendations, ‘The Makioka Sisters’, of course, or if you want something shorter, ‘Quicksand’ (very sexually charged) or ‘Some Prefer Nettles’ (more subtle). I also have ‘Naomi’ (and several others) on my shelves, so I might be able to recommend more in the future 🙂

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