The Reed Cutter by Junichiro Tanizaki (1932, 50 pages translated from Japanese by Anthony H. Chambers-1993-Vintage Publishing)
The Reed Cutter is the seventh work by Junichiro Tanizaki which I have read. (It is published jointly by Vintage with Captain Shigemoto's Wife.) The more of his work I read the more impressed I become by the range and versatility of his writing as well as his sheer intelligence and deep wisdom.
The narrator of The Reeder Cutter, a man aged 45 to 60 (my guess) decides one day to go for a walk. Like the narrator in Arrowroot and the father in law in Some Prefer Nettles he is deeply read in classical Japanese literature and often sees the world through the filter of these works. As he goes on his walk he recalls works of literature he read many years ago. He is walking on the banks of a river and he imagines a 9th century poet being inspired to write about the beauty he sees. As the narrator walks further he comes to an area once famous for the quality of courtesans in the area. The narrator begins to recall courtesans celebrated in the poetry of Tan Fu and Po Chu both from the 8th century. In this area of the river it was said all of the females of age were available for sex for hire. From courtesans celebrated in the poems only to the most elite down to ordinary women who went out on the river in small boats to attract clients. Lest we think these women are regarded with contempt consider this
Where have these floating women gone? It is said that they took professional names redolent of Buddhism in the belief that selling sexual pleasure was the act of a bodhisattva. Would it be possible to raise them to the surface of this stream for a time, like bubbles forming on the surface-these women who likened themselves to avatars of Samantabharda and were even revered by a venerable sage?
As our narrator proceeds on he hears a rustling in the reeds, it is the reed cutter. The narrator begins a very extended conversation with the reed cutter, a man he identifies with as they are about the same age. The narrator begins to converse about aging with the reed cutter. The reed cutter begins to talk about walks along the river he used to take with his father. (The reed cutter in fact comes from an aristocratic family and cuts reeds for pleasure and exercise.) The father of the reed cutter wanted to marry a woman (this is a story of 25 years or so in the past of the reed cutter. The woman he wants to marry is promised to another. The father of the reed cutter ends up marrying the sister of the woman he loves, reasoning if he cannot be the husband of his beloved perhaps he can be her sister. One of the themes of the work of Tanizaki is erotic enslavement. We have seen this theme brilliantly treated in Naomi and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. In one of the most striking parts of the book the woman the father loved, his wife, and he go on a trip along the river. They stop at an inn. The sister he loved had recently had a baby. They employed a wet nurse who was left home with the baby. Normally the wet nurse would also drain out the milk produced by the mother of the child. She does not come along on this trip so the mother drains herself the milk, places it in a glass and the father drinks it. The wife of the father of the reed cutter knows he loves her sister and married her only to stay close to her sister. He is also offered the opportunity to nurse from the woman but he finds the power to decline this given his wife is in the room. Like the protagonist in Naomi, we see male characters making women into fetish objects and investing them with great power through their erotic grips. Of course in the dynamics of human relationships this is continually shifting and can easily be lost to the next woman or to the effects of aging. This is one of the deeper themes related to women's issues in Tanizaki's work.
There are lots of interesting literary references, observations about poetry, the aging process, sex and family life in the work. Nothing really happens, just a two men talking next to a river. For sure it is a beautiful story of a man deeply into the reading life whose view of the world has been hugely enriched by the works that are part of his interior life. We may not be able ever to enter deeply into the works that were part of his reading life but we can see a brother of the life in him.
This probably should not be your first Tanizaki (1886 to 1965) but for sure it is a wonderful novella.
I will soon read and post on The Key, Diary of a Man Old Man, and Captain Shigemoto's Mother, also by Tanizaki. Tanizaki is on my "read all they have written list" (or in his case all translated into English-I am grateful to Vintage press for having the courage and I must say class to publish and keep in print so many of his works-12).
As we grow older we come to a sort of resignation, a state of mind that lets us enjoy our decline in accordance with the laws of nature, and we come to wish for a quiet balanced life, do we not?