The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki (1956, trans. from Japanese by Howard Hibbett)
The Key is one of the last works of Junichiro Tanizaki 1886 to 1965). It is the seventh of his works that I have now posted on since I first discovered him when I read his marvelous and amazing work The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.
The format of The Key is extremely inventive and near unique. It is in the form of two diaries, one might almost call them dueling diaries. One is by the 55 year old man and the other is kept by his wife, age 44. It is a very erotically charged book. The long married couple have a strained relationship. The wife says numerous times that she both loves and hates her husband. She is very frank in her description of how she feelings about the declining physical prowess of her husband and about her growing revulsion toward his aging body. The wife has a very powerful sexual hold over the husband, though his love for her has faded away over the years. At age 44 she is still very attractive to the husband. Her body is described in detail in the diary of the husband. Part of the theme of The Key is sexual fetishism, the reduction by men of women to body parts seen apart from a human to which the parts belong. This is one of the themes of the work of Tanizaki. Sexual fetishism can be seen as like a metaphor for the reduction of the human to the mechanical.
As we read the two diaries (we read an entry by the man then one by the wife covering the same same time sequence) we see how each views the other. We are given a deep look at a very flawed marriage with little but habit to hold the partners together. We get to know the 20 year old daughter and a man of that age the parents think would make a good husband for her. There are some very interesting and exciting plot twists here and it is a bit shocking to see how explicit this 55 year old novel is. There are no extremes in the language but it is erotically powerful. The ending came very much as a surprise to me. Taniazki sometimes likes to completely turn us on our heads at the end of a novel and make us see that we got things wrong as we were reading. The Key gives us great insight into its characters and the format is very interesting. It is also a lot of fun to read. Tanizaki is on my read everything they have written list (or in this case translated into English). I am near to completing this goal now. I will read next The Diary of a Mad Old Man, published by Vintage Press in the same volume as The Key.
There is in print (from Vintage) a collection of seven short stories as well as a work of artistic theory. Another one of his novels has been translated into English, Two Women, A Cat and a Man as well as a partial autobiography. Both of these are available for low prices on Amazon.com sometimes and I will read them also. There do appear to be numerous untranslated works also. I am grateful to Vintage Press for the wonderful production quality of this book and for bringing so many works into English.
To me Junichiro Tanizaki should be on any list of great novelists. Many consider him the greatest Japanese novelist (for sure in the top five). His work is a world class cultural treasure. He also translated a number of western classics into Japanese and was widely read in classical Japanese literature, American writers such as Faulkner (The Sanctuary is mentioned as being read by the husband in The Key) and European classics.
I wish to thank Michelle for suggesting this work to me some time ago. I have found her blog su (shu) a consistent source of great insight that has given me lots of good ideas.