After spending most of my first #JanuaryInJapan excursion stuck down a well, I was in the mood for something a little lighter, so it was fortunate that I had a short book that promised to make for a far easier literary outing. This time around, we’re heading back to Tokyo, albeit at an earlier time, to hear some stories about the joys of the mother-son bond. Alas, it’s not quite as harmonious as it sounds – you see, for one reason or another, each of the men featured here has reasons to regret how he has treated his mum. Let’s find out why…
There isn’t exactly a dearth of books by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki in English, but it appears there’s still work remaining to be translated, and some of that is being released this month in the form of Longing and Other Stories (translated by Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press). The book collects three works from his early years, each of which looks at a son’s relationship with his mother to some extent. However, the three pieces are all very different, both in terms of content and style.
First up is the title story ‘Longing’ (tr. McCarthy). Running to around thirty pages, it’s a poetic piece with a dreamlike air. The story follows a young boy walking alone along a dark coastal road, accompanied only by the sound of wind and waves. As he makes his way down the road, he’s beset by eerie shadows, his path punctuated by the occasional discovery of lights, only to plunge into the darkness once more.
It’s all beautifully done, and while the tale is following a child, the first-person narrator is obviously far older, recalling the events, or perhaps imagining them. Tanizaki manages to use contrasts of darkness and light, wind and calm, and noise and silence to move the story along:
Then the wind ceased utterly, and the branches of the pine trees, which had been sighing so audibly, fell silent. Even the waves that had been surging against the shore now made only a light, restrained, whispering sound, as if fearful of breaking the silence of this moonlit night.
‘Longing’, p.14 (Columbia University Press, 2022)
The long walk culminates in an encounter along the road, with the truth behind the strange journey only revealed at the very end of the tale.
The final piece in the collection, ‘The Story of an Unhappy Mother’ (tr. McCarthy), is a rather different affair. This time it’s very clearly a story, as the narrator sets out to tell us his tale, one we know from the start to be a tragedy:
In that respect, it can’t be denied that Mother had within her the proverbial mother-in-law’s temperament. She died some four or five years ago, and my brother died shortly after – exactly one year after, to be precise. It seems clear to me now that there was a frightening connection between these two deaths. In a sense, one might say that it was my brother who killed my mother, and that it was my mother who killed my brother. His manner of death, in particular, was not of an ordinary sort.
‘The Story of an Unhappy Mother’, p.98
From this startling beginning, the surviving son spins his tale, gradually building up to the moment when everything went horribly wrong.
Surprisingly, ‘The Story of an Unhappy Mother’ is actually quite a lively story for the most part. It’s skilfully told, with the narrator acting like a storyteller, artfully weaving his story from anecdotes and humorous asides in a rather oral manner. In just thirty pages, Tanizaki (or his fictional representative) manages to create the character of the mother, explaining all her flaws and foibles, so that when the climax comes, we can appreciate an ending that might have seemed exaggerated and overdone (poor Mother…) if we’d come to it unprepared.
Still, even if the sons in ‘The Story of an Unhappy Mother’ were possibly unfilial at some point, that’s nothing compared to the slobbish brute who’s the focus of the longest piece in the book, ‘Sorrows of a Heretic’ (tr. Chambers). This novella-length piece explores a few weeks in the life of a rather unpleasant young man, a university student from a poor family who thinks that the world owes him a living thanks to his (unproven) superior artistic qualities. With a father slaving away, and a sister at death’s door, all Shōzaburo can do is sleep half the day away and then go out to see who he can con out of a few yen to fund his dissipations.
‘Sorrows of a Heretic’ is a fun story exploring the depths to which Shōzaburo can plunge. Tanizaki’s creation is a blend of an indecisive Natsume Sōseki protagonist and a manipulative man from the pen of Osamu Dazai. He spends much of his time swindling his acquaintances out of money and then swanning back into their lives as if nothing had happened, with barely a hint of remorse:
When he baldly and audaciously stated what he wanted from a friend, his underlying attitude was, in a nutshell, “I have a self-centred, untrustworthy nature, and people who dislike it shouldn’t associate with me. But in exchange for my negligence, I’m a good talker and I have a certain childlike appeal, and people who find this amusing should take my unreliability into account when they associate with me.”
‘Sorrows of a Heretic’, pp.78/9
I suspect that the young rogue’s high opinion of himself is unlikely to be shared by the reader…
‘Sorrows of a Heretic’ is an excellent story, guiding the reader around parts of Tokyo of more than a century ago. We get to join the students in their parties and check out the seedier part of town, tenements and all, where Shōzaburo and his family struggle to survive. Tanizaki mercilessly rips into his ‘hero’, following him through his adventures with drink and prostitutes until he reaches the climax of his depravity.
Of course, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear (or read), especially in the case of Shōzaburo. You see, a welcome addition to Longing and Other Stories is the Translators’ Afterword, where we learn more about the background of the stories. They’re all taken from the first decade of the writer’s career, comprising some of his first steps in literature, and you’ll be intrigued to hear that there are several autobiographical elements to the stories. For one thing, Shōzaburo is apparently a distorted figure of Tanizaki himself!
While Longing and Other Stories is unlikely to become your favourite Tanizaki book, it brings three entertaining tales into English and will take its place proudly in my collection of his books. In fact, those readers who have yet to sample the writer’s work could do far worse than choosing this one as their starting point. It’s a collection you can knock off in a couple of hours, providing an interesting introduction to Tanizaki’s style and themes, and it’s probably more instantly accessible than some of his more famous works. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and I thoroughly enjoyed it on both occasions – and I’m sure most of you will do the same.