Captain Shigemoto's Mother by Junichiro Tanizaki (1949, translated from Japanese by Anthony Chambers)
Captain Shigemoto's Mother is the 8th work I have posted on by Junichiro Tanizaki. Tanizaki's wife Matsuko said it was her favorite of her husband's books. Often by a happy coincidence something read in one book will give more life to your reading of a prior book. This work is set among the middle ranking nobility in the first half of the 10th century in Japan. I was so happy to see one of the lead characters was Heiju, the poet depicted in The Tales of Ise, a collection of 10th century courtly love poems. The short poems and stories in this collection (called "dons") are very formal in structure and all seem pretty much the same to modern readers. We do not get much of a sense of the characters and lives of the people in the dons.
Captain Shigemoto's Mother essentially brings the people in these poems to life. We see Heiju, portrayed as an assistant commander in the military guards of the court, who is a serial seducer of women ranging from wives of high ranking officials to servant girls. Heiju is a seeker of sensation, a lover of beauty whether in a woman or 7th century poems. He also seems a thrill seeker in that he takes a lot of chances in some of his seductions. We see the ends and outs of court life and his use of servants as helpers in his efforts. We also get to know three high ranking officials of 10th century Japan. We get a close up look at the arranged marriage of a 20 year old woman from a noble family to higher ranking man fifty years her senior. Most of the characters are portrayed as skilled poets and full readers of the literary traditions that were dominant in 10th century Japan.
Captain Shigemoto's Mother is told very much in the style of another medieval story by Tanizaki that I really like The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.
Both are written as if they were 17th century biographical narratives about great figures from history. In the real histories, the central characters are all people of flawless character totally devoted to their tradition and leaders. The people in Captain Shigemoto's Mother are real people, far from flawless. I loved seeing that the central character, Heiju, was deeply into the reading life. Sometimes it seems like he was interested in women almost as much as subjects to bring to mind poems he had internalized as much as for the women themselves. As in other works of Tanizaki, there is a focus on sexual fixations and fetishes. There is one scene so flat out twisted I actually laughed out loud reading it which is not something one would expect would happen while reading a work set in medieval Japan. You can tell Tanizaki had a lot of fun writing this novella (123 pages) and with a little bit of patience with all the literary references to works unheard of most readers will have fun reading it. Part of the pleasure of this work is the contrast of the courtly very much of another era style of the narration and the very strange and out of the moral high road events that are narrated.
Obviously I like and admire Tanizaki's work very much. He had an interesting life (1886 to 1965). The Wikipedia article on him is very informative. He is on my read everything they have written (or in this case has been translated) list. I will soon read and post on two more of his works, The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man. Besides this, Vintage Press has in print a collection of seven short stories and a work of aesthetic theory. There appears to be one other novel translated, Two Women and a Cat, available used on Amazon.com sometimes and a another collection of short fiction (which may overlap the Vintage) that are no longer in print. Not all of the translated works have prose of the same quality. I prefer the translations of Anthony Chambers in terms the quality of the writing. I am grateful to Vintage Press for keeping his work in print.
I am including this book for these challenge
Tournament of Reading (Medieval)