It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a reader (single or not) in possession of a number of a writer’s works of fiction will probably be in want of a biography, and I’m no exception to this (completely made-up) rule. Having embarked on a course of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s writing, it makes sense to find out a little more about the writer, and who better to turn to than the great man himself? Luckily, he was kind enough to find the time towards the end of his career to reflect on his life, and (far more importantly) someone also managed to translate it into English. Settle back, and let’s learn all about the formative years of a very famous author…
Childhood Years: A Memoir (translated by Paul McCarthy, digital review copy courtesy of University of Michigan Press) is another of the recent rereleases of Tanizaki’s work, having originally been translated in the early nineties. The work was serialised between 1955 and 1956, at which point the writer was approaching the age of seventy, but the book (as the title suggests) focuses on the other end of his life, covering the period from his birth to the end of his middle school education (the equivalent of high school in the West today).
The first sections explain the origins of the Tanizaki family, whom the writer declares to be true Edokko (Tokyo folk), small business owners with a small printing press and several shops for selling rice. Jun’ichirō’s grandfather was the architect of the Tanizaki success, and it was expected that the family would follow in his footsteps, so it’s perhaps fortunate for literature that the following generations had less of a head for business. A theme running throughout the book is the gradual decline in fortunes of the family businesses, with the early wealth gradually disappearing, leaving the writer’s family to experience a rather less comfortable life.
However, Childhood Years never dwells too long on this slide into poverty, instead providing fascinating insights into little Jun’ichirō’s life in turn-of-the-century Tokyo. There are occasional glimpses of major historical events, with fleeting mentions of the Sino-Japanese War and memories of some frightening earthquakes, but Tanizaki mainly focuses on his personal life. In the first chapters, he rummages through memories of his first homes, the rooms at the back of the businesses and the first real houses his family moved to. In the process, he manages to dredge up vague recollections of oil lamps, old tatami mats, visits from fishmongers and the time spent with his nurse, Granny Miyo.
The background to these memoirs introduces the modern (Western) reader to a very different world. The young boy grew up in an era prior to technology and the world wars, and even before the great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 destroyed much of the capital. In these times, Tokyo itself was a rather different place, less a city than a collection of regions, and Tanizaki often mentions the differences between the more upmarket Yamanote district and the rougher Shitamachi area (his home), which even extended to dialectal variations. Of course, it wouldn’t be Tanizaki without a few nods to the erotic side of life, and he explains how the inspiration for one of his works came from his uncle’s slightly unconventional home life – when he decided to bring his geisha lover into the family home and set up a ménage à trois household…
Another of Tanizaki’s obsessions in later life was with traditional culture, and Childhood Years helps to explain how this passion developed. There are lengthy sections on the kabuki theatre, with the young boy treated to regular visits (at least, until the family finances deteriorated) and looking out for the star actors in the street whenever they were in the neighbourhood. However, a more common occurrence were the kagura sacred dances at the local shrines, several of which were located very close to the young boy’s home:
This was the only form of entertainment for children in the days before there were cinemas or even street storytellers with their illustrated tales. Of course one could not see the dances every day; one had to wait for a fair or festival at some shrine to come around. But near my house were the Meitoku Inari Shrine in the same block, the Junko Inari in Kamejima-chō, the Ichō Hachiman in Kakigara-chō, and the Suitengū in Ningyō-chō, each of which held performances once a month.
p.112 (University of Michigan Press, 2017)
He goes on to recall amateur performances of plays held just for the neighbourhood, vividly evoking the shows he saw six decades back, and it’s clear that his fascination for the traditional tales that form the basis for the plays had an influence on his fictional works.
There are other gradual glimpses of Tanizaki’s development as a writer throughout the book. His first steps are influenced by his high school teacher, a poetry lover who constantly wrote poems out on the blackboard for his students to learn. Young Jun’ichirō learns to save money for his trips to the bookshop, and his later private lessons in classical Chinese help to develop his literary style. His schooldays were useful in other ways, too, with several events providing ideas for his later fiction, one example being the story ‘The Little Kingdom’ (included in the New Directions release a cat, a man & two women), which is based on a charismatic boy in his primary school class, and (as the writer explains) is very close to what really happened during his school days.
Childhood Years is thoroughly entertaining, and an easy read for the most part (although the average reader might struggle a little during the rather lengthy section on kabuki…). Part of the charm comes from the writer’s (and translator’s) voice as the older, wiser author gives his view of his younger self’s emotions, interpreting those feelings in hindsight (although it’s unclear how much we can trust this version of the distant past). The writing is similar in tone to The Maids, another late work, again recalling people he knew with fondness. There’s also the trademark Tanizaki humour, as shown in his musings on his father’s stomach issues and a subsequent spa visit:
Perhaps (though this is pure conjecture on my part) the family felt it would be better for Father to be kept away from his wife until he had recovered his health – she was, after all, a famous beauty; and it might have been that Father’s excessive affection for his young bride was proving injurious to his health. (p.22)
Yes, Childhood Years has the usual interest in affairs of the heart (and the loins), with several mentions of geishas and lewd men hanging around on street corners waiting for good-looking little boys. It’s little wonder that the writer grew up to explore this interest in sexual relations in his fiction.
If you’ve never read any of Tanizaki’s work, his memories may pall after a while, but I enjoyed the insights Childhood Years provides. We get to learn more about the writer himself, as well as receiving fascinating hints as to the inspiration for several of his works. Of course, now that I know more about the writer, the next step is clear. It’s time to return to the fiction, so I’ll see you all next week – same time, same place, and definitely the same writer 🙂