In last week’s review of The Maids, I promised that plenty more of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s work would be reviewed here over the next couple of months, so it should come as little surprise to see another post on the Japanese writer today. I’m working my way through some of the more recent releases in English, but this one is actually a rerelease of a collection of short stories, all of which have that familiar Tanizaki touch for anyone who enjoys his work. Let’s see what he’s been cooking up this time…
The Gourmet Club: A Sextet (translated by Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy, electronic review copy courtesy of University of Michigan Press) brings together six of Tanizaki’s stories in an original collection. In their introduction, the translators briefly introduce the selected pieces, with two from around 1911, the very start of his career, three from the following decade, and one from 1955. The selection provides an interesting contrast of themes and styles, allowing the reader to experience different facets of Tanizaki’s writing.
The least typical of the pieces included here is probably ‘The Two Acolytes’, a story focusing on two young novice priests living on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. With neither having ever seen the outside world, they fear and shun it; until, that is, the elder boy is haunted by dreams of the creature known as woman. When he decides to go and see the wide world for himself, the younger boy must decide whether his place really is on top of the secluded mountain, or whether the secular world is where he truly belongs.
More Tanizaki-like is ‘The Children’, an appropriate choice for the first story. In this one, a young boy invited to a quiet classmate’s house to play is surprised by the boy’s dominant nature in his own environment. Along with the boy’s sister and another schoolmate, the protagonist finds himself part of a group falling under the boy’s sway. Even at this early stage of his career, Tanizaki’s interest in power games and sexual tension is clear:
Growing more and more excited, the spaniels lay on their backs pawing the air, and tugged at the hem of his kimono with their teeth. Delighted, Shin’ichi stroked their faces with his feet and rubbed their bellies. When I imitated them and tugged at his hem, the soles of Shin’ichi’s feet touched my cheeks and stroked my forehead, just as he’d done with the spaniels, but when he pressed a heel against my eye or covered my mouth with the arch of his foot it wasn’t as much fun.
‘The Children’, pp.25/6 (University of Michigan Press, 2017)
There’s a whole lot of role-playing and a hint of sadomasochism here, but the tables will eventually turn, altering the relationship between the four children.
‘The Secret’ follows these ideas into adulthood, as a jaded man of the world takes sanctuary in a Buddhist monastery by day, before prowling the streets at night, dressed in rather unusual clothes. Amazingly, he runs into a former lover at a cinema, and she invites him to a rendez-vous, one involving a blindfold and a lengthy journey in a closed carriage. This chance meeting plunges the protagonist into an exciting, erotic adventure, but will his curiosity, his desire to uncover the truth behind the games, ruin the affair for both of them?
These themes of jaded natures and secrets of the night are even more skilfully exploited in ‘The Gourmet Club’, a forty-page story describing five idle rich men desperate to sate their ever more particular appetites. The Count, the de facto leader of the group, is walking the streets of the capital one night when his senses become aware of the aromas drifting from a nearby building. It turns out to be an eating club for expatriate Chinese, and while he is refused permission to join in with the banquet, a kindly soul allows him to watch from inside a secret room. What he sees on this extraordinary night allows him to take his own culinary experiments to the next level. You see, in Tanizaki’s world, true gourmets must use all of their senses if they are to fully appreciate their food.
That’s all well and good, but as much as he might enjoy eating, Tanizaki’s true obsession is sex and the darker side of human nature, and this is most clearly laid out in ‘Mr. Bluemound’. In the frame of the story, a beautiful young actress finds a mixture of a diary and will left behind by her late husband. A famous director, he has recently succumbed to what everyone believes to be tuberculosis, but this new discovery suggests a rather different fate:
But it’s time to tell you what happened, to tell you why I’m not really dying of tuberculosis but of something else. It was “what happened” that brought on this illness and robbed me of the will to live, and “what happened” will be the death of me. Reading about it won’t be a pleasant experience for you, which is why I would still like to keep it from you. But I would feel too miserable dying without at least being honest with you. Some people might think it a peculiar reason for someone’s death. Anyway, please take a look, since you’re intimately involved in it all, as you will see when you read on.
‘Mr. Bluemound’, p.127
The story goes on to describe a meeting the director has in a bar one night with a strange old man. He’s a big fan of the director’s work, and in particular of the way the director uses his wife (and muse) in his films. Mr. Bluemound (as he introduces himself) appears to know the actress better than her husband, and it’s only at the end of the story that the horrified director realises just how obsessed the old man is with his wife. It’s a chilling reminder for the couple of the true meaning of the word ‘exposure’…
After all this darkness, the final contribution, ‘Manganese Dioxide Dreams’, is rather tame by comparison. In a similar manner to The Maids, it’s a gentle piece narrated by a Tanizaki alter-ego, a diary extract describing a trip to Tokyo with the writer’s wife and sister-in-law. In a strange, drifting text, he complains about the heat, comments on a visit to a burlesque show, and discusses a murder-mystery thriller he sees at the cinema. The story eventually winds up with a strange dream of bloody stools and ancient Chinese empresses – very much the work of a writer at the end of his life, with the earlier erotic madness behind him.
Overall, The Gourmet Club: A Sextet is perhaps slightly uneven as a collection. I’m not sure it quite comes together, and it may have been better to focus on one period of Tanizaki’s career rather than selecting stories from a variety of periods (of course, with other collections out there, the choice might have been a little more limited than we realise). However, there are some excellent selections here, with ‘The Gourmet Club’, ‘Mr. Bluemound’ and ‘The Children’ my favourites, and there’s definitely enough here to persuade me to continue on my Tanizaki journey. That’s all for today – let’s see where I end up next time 🙂