‘Naomi’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

Having read most of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s major works several years ago, over the past couple of months I’ve mainly looked at minor novels, short stories and the odd spot of non-fiction.  However, there was one well-known novel I’d never got around to for some reason, and my new-found enthusiasm for the writer’s work was the perfect excuse to finally get myself a copy and try it.  Luckily, it turned out to be deserving of its popularity, an absorbing story blending several of Tanizaki’s favourite themes 🙂

Naomi (translated by Anthony H. Chambers) was serialised and then published in novel form in 1924.  The story is narrated by Jōji Kawai, a businessman in his mid-twenties who isn’t tempted by the ties of a traditional marriage, preferring instead to enjoy his life and work.  That is until he spots a teenage girl at a café one day, and after some careful enquiries, and a lot of consideration, he decides to take her in and raise her to be his wife (as creepy as that may sound).

His hope is for a modern marriage where the two people are happy together away from the formal ties of society, and he attempts to exert his influence on the young woman in the hope of creating his ideal wife.  The reality, however, is rather different.  Naomi is a modern woman, and while she can’t always live up to his expectations, she certainly has a mind of her own – something poor Jōji will find out the hard way.

Naomi, Tanziaki’s first big success, is an excellent work, the story of a man who bites off more than he can chew and now has to live with the consequences (and suffer as a result).  There’s more than a hint of Lolita to the book, and many readers might initially be a little put off by Jōji’s behaviour.  However, it’s soon clear that Naomi can take care of herself, with little need for our concern.  In truth, it’s the husband we need to worry about.

Naomi herself is a character developing from the moment we first see her as a skinny young girl.  Jōji is delighted to see how she changes as she grows older, but when some of his plans go awry, he is given pause for thought:

Whether it had been there from the beginning or was a result of my spoiling her, her insolent, willful nature was clearly getting worse as the days went by.  Or perhaps I’d let it pass as girlish charm when she was still fifteen or sixteen, and now that she was older it was proving more than I could handle.
p.47 (Vintage International, 2001)

The husband is on a voyage of discovery, but he must be careful his ship doesn’t sink underneath him.  He’s forced to reflect on what he really expects from his marriage, and on how he should act if it all turns out differently.

Of course, while it’s Jōji’s voice telling the story, the focus  is very much on his young wife.  As her confidence grows, she comes to discover her appeal to men, and the effect this has on her husband.  Jōji’s money allows her to indulge herself, enabling her spending sprees on clothes and make up, with the eventual step up to dancing lessons and nights out at dance halls.  As much as she might protest innocence when her husband becomes concerned about the men she surrounds herself with, there’s no denying her pleasure at being the centre of attention.

No prizes for guessing what happens next, but the interest in Naomi lies in how Jōji reacts to his wife’s betrayal.  I suspect most readers will sympathise with the poor man, despite the unsavoury start to the marriage, and Tanizaki manages to create a superb image of a man obsessed, doing his best to please his wife and degrading himself in the process.  At times, his behaviour verges on pathetic as he mopes around, deluding himself into believing all will be well:

It’s often said that “women deceive men”.  But from my experience, I’d say that it doesn’t start with the woman deceiving the man.  Rather, the man, without any prompting, rejoices in being deceived; when he falls in love with a woman, everything she says, whether true or not, sounds adorable to his ears.  When she puts her head on his shoulder and weeps false tears, he takes the generous view: “Ah, you’re trying to put something over on me.  But you’re a funny adorable creature.  I know what you’re up to, but I’ll let you tempt me.  Go ahead, make a fool out of me.”  He plays along, like someone trying to make a small child happy.  He has no intention of being misled by her.  On the contrary, he laughs to himself that he’s deceiving her. (p.51)

In truth, Jōji knows he’s deluding himself, and he continually allows himself to be deceived and humiliated.

The book is written as Jōji’s confession, and initially we suspect a twist, wondering how reliable a narrator he is.  He’s actually wearing his heart on his sleeve, but provides a drip-feed of information, told chronologically, keeping information he didn’t know at the time until the right moment.  When put together with the short chapters, this makes for a compelling tale, one that keeps us turning the page.

While Naomi may sound like just another of Tanizaki’s stories of sexual obsession, there’s also an allegorical nature to the story.  There are frequent mentions of Jōji’s inferiority complex, and the first dance the couple attend forces him to face up to the contrast between his rather poor appearance and that of the westerners on the dance floor:

I could distinctly feel their gaze falling not only on Naomi, but also on me, as I made myself small behind her.  The music echoed noisily in my ears, and I saw that the dancers – every one of them more skillful than I – had formed a large ring and were circling round and round.  Meanwhile I was reminding myself that I’m only five feet two inches tall, dark as a savage, snaggle-toothed, and wearing a two-year-old blue suit that was far beyond its prime.  I flushed hot and trembled.  I’ll never come to a place like this again, I said to myself. (p.82)

By contrast, Naomi (whose name, while Japanese, sounds Western) blends in with the foreigners, her skin whiter than most Japanese, her dress sense marking her out.  Jōji is clearly suffering for desiring something that he isn’t really ready for, and Tanizaki’s veiled commentary on the headlong rush for Western ideas prevalent in Japan at the time indicates that his country should be careful before attempting to throw itself into the arms of glamorous foreigners.

All in all, Naomi is an enthralling tale, leaving the reader desperate to know how, or if, poor Jōji will ever manage to disentangle himself from his fate.  A classic femme fatale, Naomi certainly has the upper hand, but if you want the other side of this story, the title piece from Red Roofs & Other Stories might make you reconsider.  It’s a similar story, this time told from the woman’s point of view, showing that it’s not always easy being the deceiver.  However, having read the novel, I’m not sure the enigmatic Naomi has any of those doubts or reservations…

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