Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Naomi" by Junichiro Tanizaki

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki (1924, 237 pages, translated from the Japanese by Anthony Chambers, Tuttle Publishing) is not a great Japanese novel, it is not a great 20th century novel, it simply is a great novel.  

Naomi was first published as a serial in a Japanese newspaper starting in 1924.  (I do not think there is any newspaper editor in The USA or Europe that could have published this work at that time without risking arrest.)    It is set in Japan in the early 1920s in Tokyo.   It is narrated by a male engineer named Joji.   At the start of the work he is 27.   It details his obsession with Naomi, who is 15 when he first meets her.   (It appears the age difference and the age of Naomi was not contrary to statute and custom in Japan at the time.)   Joji meets her where she works as a waitress in a coffee house.   He is mesmerized by her beauty.    Her family is quite poor and has a less than stellar reputation.   Joji offers to take her off her parents hands and raise her and they readily agree to relieve themselves of a burden.     Joji is very devoid of experience of romantic encounters of any kind but deeply desires Naomi.   He is a very decent man and he knows it is best that they live together as friends only, sort off, to start.   He sends her to school, buys her nice clothes and hires an English tutor for her.    He also loves giving Naomi her bath.   Naomi begins to realize the power she can obtain over Joji.   The bathing ritual goes on for a long time.   There is no sex at this point between Naomi and Joji but the bathing ritual is clearly very erotic for both of them.  We can feel the power of Naomi growing.   Joji begins to develop a fetish like obsession with Naomi's skin.   He begins to keep a log of the development of her body as she matures into a woman.    Naomi who was once an undemanding young woman begins to demand more material goods from Joji.   Joji begins their relationship worshiping her for her purity, as he perceives it.   As the narrative proceeds it is clear he is an unreliable narrator.   (I like to think that maybe Ford Madox Ford might have published Naomi in The English Review).    Naomi decides she wants to have  lessons in Western  style dancing.   Now  the real trouble begins.   The lessons are given by a White Russian woman who may have been a countess in  the old days.  (I notice in novels of the 1920s former Russian noblewomen often play the parts of the bringers of trouble.)    Naomi is about 19 now and she and Joji are married.    Naomi begins to occasionally mock Joji as an old man out touch with the then westernizing Japan.    He begins to compare her to Mary Pickford, something she finds very flattering.   There are young men her age in the dance class and to Joji's great surprise somehow Naomi seems to already know them.   When he asks her how she knows them, she tells him oh I just met them around.  There is also a Western man in the class.   Joji sees him as sinister figure of some sort in Japan as part of criminal enterprise.  Soon some really bad things happen.   I do not want to tell anymore of the plot action as the plot is so much fun and suspenseful as well.   We were really made to care about Joji even if our 21th century sensibilities are offended by his joy in bathing the 15 year old Naomi  which becomes full scale erotic enslavement.   (I admit as his enslavement to Naomi progresses I wanted to tell him go down to the pleasure quarters and get her out of your system before it is too late.).   The work is acutely perceptive in his portrayal of the characters.   We see slowly the dynamics of power change.   Joji thinks he loves Naomi but he actually has altered her into a fetish object.   Naomi is drawn to western culture and completely repelled by her own cultural roots.   In one purely masterful scene Naomi comes to visit Joji dressed in purely western clothes with matching make up and hair.    The revulsion felt by Joji nearly made my skin crawl.

Naomi has numerous thematic mines one could work.    It is a tale of the corruption of a culture by an outside force.   It is a story of the balance of power between a man and a woman.   It is a classic tale of misperception.   In Naomi we have a woman degraded by what she and others think exalts her.  It is also a story of what may be described without being judgmental as  a sexual perversion by which I mean turning in this case a woman, Naomi, from a person to a fetish object.   There are also lots of acute observations along the way.   It is a good look at Japan in the 1920s and the influence of western culture, mainly movies.  (For a time Tanizaki was a screen writer.)   I cannot judge if the translation is good or not but the prose is very well done and there are none of the "howlers" there are in some translated work.    It is a tragedy and a comedy of manners.    Most of all it is a lot of fun to read.   

This is the sixth work of Junichiro Tanizaki that I have reviewed for the Japanese Literaure 3 Challenge.    I have him on my "Read all they have written list-or in this case all that has been translated list."   I think he has four other novels translated into English that I have not yet read along with a collection of short stories and a work of artistic theory.

This will be my last review for the Japanese Literature 3 Challenge.   I give my sincerest gratitude to Dolce Bellezza for hosting it.   As The Japanese Challenge 4  begins I plan to do a post called "The Reading Life Guide to Getting Started in the Japanese Novel" where I will give my ideas on the best 3, 6, 9 or 12 Japanese novels to start with and why one should read Japanese novels.   There are still, of course, huge holes in my reading.   One obvious one is that I have read none of the major works of Murakami.   I hope to read his major works in the next few months.    I also have two novels by Kenzaburo Oe waiting to be read soon and he has a brand new one coming out in March!-

Mel u


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

This one does sound especially good.

1924 - let's see if I can change your mind. How about:
The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
Leave It to Psmith by Wodehouse
In Our Time by Hemingway
The Manifesto of Surrealism by Breton

I think your claim is still safe. Hey, how about Some Do Not... by F.M. Ford?

claire said...

A new OE this year??? If only I didn't have to wait for the paperback.. Congratulations on finishing the challenge with probably the most books read! :D

Mel u said...

Amateur Reader-
The King of Elflanda- magical romp through the land of the height challenged

Leave it to Psmith-take tea with 10th rate poets in a castle while dealing with difficult relatives

Hemingway-read him a long time ago-I think Tanizaki was still alive when I first read Hemingway-

Surrelalist Manifesto-ok maybe this I will read-
""Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful."-reminds me of the Fables of Oe-Tanizaki's makes Naomi seem quite marvelous

Some Do Not-Ok I left it out on purpose-I will be reading it for the 1st time this year-

Clarie thanks as already has the new Oe listed-17.95 about 450 pages -I think it is a new book not just a translation of an old one-which I would be grateful for-Oe has said this is his last book

mee said...

I'm 99% sure you'll be the one reading the most books for the challenge :D

I've been meaning to read Naomi for.. um.. years. I probably have mentioned this before, I'd recommend The Key by Tanizaki, which was my first (and definitely not the last!) Tanizaki.

Ana S. said...

Oooh, this does sound like a very fun read - and not just. I must confess I hadn't heard of it before. I need to work on expanding my knowledge of world classics. Thank you for the fantastic review!

Mel u said...

Note-my comments on Western classics were not meant seriously-some were offended by the remarks and thought I was dismissing great literature because I am anti-European!

Sandra said...

Your reviews are wonderful. This is the second one of your for the Japanese Lit challenge that I've read. Funny enough, The Magic Mountain is a lifetime favourite of mine. Your button for the challenge is so beautiful I really want to steal it. So is the one for the Women Unbound challenge, which I'm also doing.

Suko said...

Naomi? Naomi does not sound like a Japanese name to me, but your review makes this book sound quite intriguing. Maybe it is the best book published in 1924. Still, I'd also like to read The Old Maid--which I'd never heard of before!

I like forward to your Reading Life Guide to the Japanese Novel for the JLC-4.

Mel u said...

Suko-yes much is made of her non-Japanese sounding name in the book-it was kind of part of her mystique to have a non-Japanese name

Veens said...

Oh MY! I knew this was a good read, but your review makes it sound really GOOD!
I need to really HUNT this one DOWN!

Thank you for a fantastic review!

@parridhlantern said...

I have Some prefer nettles & have just mooched 7 Japanese tales by this author & now looks like another for the TBR. Thanks. Does this sound a bit, like Nabakov's Lolita or am I wide of the mark in this.

Mel u said...

Parrish Lantern-I think once you read Naomi-which is really good-you will see the main similarity is the youth of th female lead character-I want to read The Seven Tales collection soon and will look forward your reaction to them