“Is there no way we can come to an understanding?” #japaneselitchallenge16 #tanizaki #thekey


So far for the Japanese Literature Challenge I’ve explored an essay on aesthetics and a powerful memoir of nuclear attack; and I said at the end of my post on the latter than I imagined my next Japanese book this month would be a little lighter. Well, it certainly was a slim volume of fiction; however, the subject matter was complex and left me thinking a lot about the relationships between men and women. In my first Japanese post on Jun’ichirō Tanizaki I mentioned that I would have to look on the TBR and see if I had anything else by him; I do, and that’s the book I want to talk about today – “The Key”, published in a translation by Howard Hibbett in 1960. And as you can see from the rather lurid covers of my US Signet Books edition, sexual passion is at the heart of the book…

“The Key” is one of Tanizaki’s later books, and it takes the form of diary entries; these are drawn from the journals kept separately by a husband and wife, a 55 year old Professor, and his 44 year old wife Ikuko. They live with their grown up daughter Toshiko, and the Professor has singled out one of his young teachers, Kimura as a possible husband for Toshiko. However, all is not well with the marriage. The Professor claims to adore his wife but feels that he cannot satisfy her sexually, and is concerned that she is too refined to let him indulge his passion for her, even to see her fully naked.

Ikuko, however, is conflicted; one minute she claims to love her husband, the next to hate him and find him repulsive. It may be the age difference; it may be that she has retained her looks despite having a child, whereas he is an unhealthy, unattractive specimen; or it may be that she is attracted by the virility and youth of Kimura. The reader watches what happens, and the possible development of a menage-a-trois or even a-quatre – all the while realising that what they are reading is filtered through the sensibilities of both parties in the marriage, presenting in their diaries what they want their partner to be secretly reading (all the while denying that they are reading the other’s journal).

And now I hit the dilemma of how much more to discuss the plot; because I came to this book with no knowledge of the story or preconceptions, and I think that’s the best way to read it! Tanizaki very cleverly lets his tale develop from the two separate viewpoints of the married couple and the reader is left to read between the lines and work out what’s *really* going on; much is confirmed at the climax of the book (ahem…) but plenty is left unresolved… There are plot elements I can’t mention specifically, but which are to do with the Professor’s treatment of his wife; however, her diaries reveal that she is more in control of what is happening, and actually stimulated by it, than her husband might think!

As I mentioned above, my mid-20th century addition has a cover which is covered with sensationalist blurb; so you may be wondering whether the book is as torrid as is made out. Frankly, I would say it’s very mild compared with modern media of all kinds but probably *was* quite shocking at the time. There is nothing graphic or particularly gratuitous but the frank discussion of sexual needs (particularly that of a woman) was possibly groundbreaking. The behaviour of the couple towards each other, although again nothing really graphic occurs, is fairly shocking and at the time would have disturbed Western sensibilities – I imagine the traditional American could have been a bit outraged!

Why should he have dropped the key in a place like that? Has he changed his mind and decided he wants me to read it? Perhaps he realises I’d refuse if he asked me to, so he’s telling me: ‘You can read it in private – here’s the key.’ Does that mean he thinks I haven’t found it? No, isn’t he saying rather: From now on I acknowledge that you’re reading it, but I’ll keep on pretending you’re not?’
Well, never mind. Whatever he thinks, I shall never read it.

Putting all that aside, how does the book read to this modern reader? Very well, actually; I can imagine that readers much younger than me would be rather cross about some elements, but I think that’s perhaps a fairly shallow response. Without wanting to give anything much away, both parties to the marriage are guilty – of lack of communication, of not respecting each other’s wishes or needs or feelings, and of manipulating the other. So there are not necessarily any victims – or if there is, it’s not the victim you might expect! As for the key of the title, well that refers to the one the Professor uses to lock his diary in his desk drawer then leaves lying around for his wife to find and open the drawer… Twists abound from the very first page of this novella! 😉

I’m sorry if this is all a bit vague in places but I’m trying desperately not to give anything away. Suffice to say that Tanizaki brilliantly portrays a pair of unreliable narrators, gradually teasing out the story to its dramatic fulfilment and “The Key” is a very clever, very readable and actually very thought-provoking book. If nothing else, it certainly convinces the reader that a good relationship is based on communication

“…we have to come off the loser for having borrowed.” #InPraiseOfShadows #Tanizaki #japaneselitchallenge16


As I mentioned in my 2023 plans post, one event I always try to take part in is the Japanese Literature Challenge run by Dolce Bellezza; and I’ve been planning ahead for this January! I have a number of Japanese classics lurking in the stacks which I haven’t read and you can see from the pile below that I had plenty to choose from.

This year, I was determined to get to some titles which had been waiting for years, and the first book I picked up was a slim volume by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki – “In Praise of Shadows” (translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker).

The quality that we call beauty…must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

This little book, which I’ve had for decades, is an essay by the great Japanese author who’s probably best known for his fictions; these range from portrayals of destructive sexual and erotic obsessions to works which explore the rapid changes in 20th century Japanese society and the conflicts/contrasts between Western and Japanese cultures and ways of life. “In Praise…”, which was originally published in 1933, takes as look at Japanese aesthetics and the effect upon them by the introduction of Western-influenced modernisation; and it makes fascinating reading.

If my complaints are taken for what they are, however, there can be no harm in considering how unlucky we have been, what losses we have suffered, in comparison with the Westerner. The Westerner has been able to move forward in ordered steps, while we have met superior civilization and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we havefollowed for thousands of years. The missteps and inconveniences this has caused have, I think, been many. If we had been left alone we might not be much further now in a material way that we were five hundred years ago. Even now in the Indian and Chinese countryside life no doubt goes on much as it did when Buddha and Confucius were alive. But we would have gone only a
direction that suited us. We would have gone ahead very slowly, and yet it is not impossible that we would one day have discovered our own substitute for the trolley, the radio, the airplane of today. They would have been no borrowed gadgets, they would have been the tools of our own culture, suited to us.

Tanizaki’s argument is in favour of the old ways; contrasting Japanese traditions of shade and shadow against bright electric lights, shining white sanitary fittings, and even clean and shining cutlery, he regrets the loss of the subtlety of traditional Japanese life. He discusses the glowing patina on a piece of aged wood; the use of space in living quarters; even the pleasure of beholding a woman in the shadows as opposed to bright lighting. Instead of being blinded by the glare of the modern world, Tanizaki makes a case for the nuance of candlelight and mourns the loss of the aesthetic he prefers to the bright and sanitised nature of Western culture.

We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.

“In Praise…” is a fascinating read, as much for its beautiful language as for Tanizaki’s lament for his lost world (I’ve quoted at length in this post, but could have pulled out so much more!) Interestingly, he starts his essay with a comparison of toilets, rejecting the hygenic modern bathrooms for old-style lavatories found in Japanese monsteries with wooden fittings – something bound to shock or surprise nowadays. Nevertheless, in our modern world full of bright lights, shining fiercely into every area of life, there’s much to be said for dimming the lanterns and relaxing into a more shadowed world. This was a lovely book, and a wonderful way to start off Japanese Literature Month. I think this is the first Tanizaki I’ve read – and I may have to see if I have any more of his books available on the TBR… 😊📚

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