Wednesday, 9 January 2013

J-Lit Giants: 4 - Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

It's time to praise another of those J-Lit Giants, and I'm especially happy to introduce today's writer.  He's a man who straddles both sides of the Kanto-Kansai divide and a writer who, while unwilling to write conventional endings, is very interested in what his characters get up to in the bedroom...

Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, born in 1886, is one of the most popular and well-known modern Japanese writers.  He was born in Tokyo and spent most of his young adult life writing for newspapers and magazines, with moderate success.  At this time he had a great interest in all things western, even moving to Yokohama, where there were more foreigners than in Tokyo.

However, it wasn't until he moved to Kyoto, after the 1923 earthquake in the Tokyo region, that his writing became more widely noticed.  His move to the Kansai region brought about a rediscovery of traditional Japanese culture, and this translated into a different style of writing, one in which his characters attempt to return to their cultural roots.  This was a way for Tanizaki to work through his own feelings about the way modern Japan was developing.

Anyone who has read works by Tanizaki will probably agree though that another theme which pervades his work is eroticism - put more bluntly, sex.  Many of his more famous works are relatively explicit and utterly compelling.  Again, there is more than a hint of the writer's own life in these tangled relationships (although his novels are definitely fiction...).  Tanizaki repeatedly attempts to examine the conflict between the need to keep up a show for outsiders while a marriage is falling apart, often because of differing sexual needs.

Tanizaki's work can be quite accessible, but at the same time a little unfamiliar.  Perhaps more so than usual, his works seldom have a conventional ending, leaving the (western) reader stranded and confused.  He believed that if he described his characters well enough, there was no need to spoon-feed the readers with an ending.  This is writing for those who are prepared to draw their own conclusions :)

My three Tanizaki books to start with are:

1) Quicksand - This is a fast-paced psychological, erotic novel, one which twists and turns, amazing the reader both with its unexpectedly risqué storyline and its continual developments.  New readers will enjoy a slightly stronger emphasis on plot than can be the case with Tanizaki.

2) Some Prefer Nettles - The writer's twin obsessions of relationships and the Kanto-Kansai divide are both present here in a short psychological work, detailing the disintegration of a marriage.  This is a work which definitely falls into the ambiguous-ending category ;)

3) The Makioka Sisters - Generally regarded as Tanizaki's classic, The Makioka Sisters is a fairly long novel for J-Lit, running to close to 500 pages.  It follows three sisters living in Osaka as they attempt to balance their family responsibilities with their own wishes and a changing society.

Does this sound like your kind of writer?  If so, why not give him a try soon?  I'm sure that some of you out there will be able to recommend several other Tanizaki works to start with too.  Comments in the usual place, please :)