Transcending cultures? ‘Quicksand’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1928-30)


‘Quicksand’ is on my bookshelf because years ago I read Tanizaki’s ‘Some Prefer Nettles’ and decided it was the best book ever.  Set in 1920s Japan, it was evocative, exotic and wonderfully baffling.  Sadly, it was also a library book which I still haven’t got round to re-borrowing.  It left me however with a haunting memory, and a mental note to always read any novels by Tanizaki that come my way.

Thanks to my pledge to read more diversely in 2016 (organised into a BAEM A-Z back in December), ‘Quicksand’ has been steadily moving up the to-be-read pile.  It was never the first book I reached for though, partly because the name threw up too many confused connotations (I reviewed Nella Larsen’s short story, ‘Quicksand‘ only a few months ago), and partly because the cover seemed very unhelpful.  I was expecting a love triangle, but the two quotations on my Vintage edition seemed somewhat contradictory, according to ‘Kirkus Reviews’ I should expect ‘Fatal Attraction in a 1920s Japanese setting’, while the ‘New York Times Book Review’ told me ‘the story itself transcends culture.’  Was I about to read a thriller, a transcendental tale, an exotic, retro romance or a universal story of love and loss?  Having read the book for myself, I suspect the answer is ‘none of the above.’  Tanizaki’s novel is far too measured and intense to fall into easy patterns and, for an English reader, his determined focus on what it means to be a member of a ‘modern’ 1920s Japanese culture makes for fascinating and complex reading.

Of course, I really should have just ignored the cover and dived straight in, because the very first paragraph is simply sublime.

Do forgive me for bothering you again, but I simple had to see you today – I want you to hear my side of the story, from beginning to end.  Are you sure you don’t mind?  I know how busy you are with your own writing, and if I go into every last detail it might take forever! Really, I only wish I could put it all down on paper, like one of your novels, and ask you to read it … The truth is, the other day I tried to start writing, but what happened is so complicated I didn’t know where to begin.  So I thought I’d just have to talk it out, and that’s why I’m hear.  But then, I hate to let you waste your precious time for my sake.  Are you quite sure it’s all right?  You’ve always been so sweet to me I’m afraid I’m taking advantage of your kindness, and after everything you’ve put up with … I can’t thank you enough.’

The person speaking is ‘the widow Kakiuchi’ and nearly all of the story is told in her own self-centred, affected words.  There are occasional asides from the author though, generally commenting disparagingly on the widow’s unknown ostentation or vulgarity.  Take his first note, on page 8:

The widow Kakuichi seemed unaffected by her recent ordeal.  Her dress and manner were bright, even showy, just as they had been a year before.   Rather than a widow, Mrs. Kakiuchi looked like the typical young married Osaka woman of good family, and she spoke in the mellifluous feminine dialect of her class and region.  She was certainly no great beauty, but as she said the name “Tokumitsu Mitsuko,” her face became suffused with a curious radiance.’

We’ve now been introduced to the three main players in the story, firstly, the narrator, who insists on playing a central role in her own story, though she continually reveals her unreliability and lack of control over events.  Then there is her husband, now dead, presented as irrelevant, but clearly of central importance to the narrator’s story, even down to her name.  Finally, there is the enigmatic presence of Mitsuko, who has the power to transform the everyday into radiance.  There is also the author, a shadowy judgemental presence whose own bitterness seems to seep through the pages.

I found this book hypnotic.  On the one hand, there is the technical brilliance of the prose, wonderfully translated by Howard Hibbett.  On the other hand, there was the alien and illogical Osaka society.  As the affair between Mitsuko and Kakuichi becomes ever more passionate there are lots of references to ‘love between women’ as being either more or less powerful than heterosexual romance.  This is part of conversations about how jealous male lovers should be, after all, the women can’t have children together and this could be an acceptable progression from sisterly affection.  It’s hard to imagine a book from the West, in the 1920s, or today, making quite the same arguments.  Within this novel, I’d be tempted to read this as a symptom of Western decadence, but so much of the relationship seems to be rooted and mired in Japanese traditions.  The two women meet over traditional Japanese painting and myth and this awareness haunts the modern independence required for their love to thrive.

There are other plot elements that suggest the book will be different depending on the reader’s understanding of Japanese culture.  I say ‘different’ rather than ‘better,’ because I’m highly ignorant and I loved ‘Quicksand.’  Still, I’m curious about the presentation of the law, very odd contracts get handed around at different stages in the novel and I don’t know if this is a comment on society at the time, or Tanizaki’s imagination as his characters try to impose reason on emotions that have gone well beyond the bounds of control.  There is also the theme of suicide, which is no less significant than in Western novels of the period, but has a very different status in Japanese culture.

Do I think this is a book that ‘transcends culture’?  Absolutely not.  It is a book that is all about culture and how people find their place within a specific society.  The reason it works in translation is that it is also about story-telling and about emotion.  It is not a text-book for those who want to know about life in Japan in the 1920s.  Though melodramatic, it is also not a thriller in the Western sense of the word.  Oh, and it is absolutely not a realist novel about the trials of finding true love.  It is however, a classic of world literature and one that I highly recommend.

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13 Responses to Transcending cultures? ‘Quicksand’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1928-30)

  1. Oh, you have me intrigued. I read Tanizaki’s Naomi last year and was amazed by how he made me feel sorry for a character I truly disliked.

  2. I have had Tanizaki on my to-read list for a really long time. You have me convinced to bump this up on my list!

  3. JacquiWine says:

    Fascinating review. I have yet to read anything by Tanizaki, but your commentary on this novel reminds me very strongly of a couple of Japanese works: Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, which I read last year, and Yasushi Inoue’s The Hunting Gun (recently reviewed). I must get around to trying this author at some point!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Wonderful review! I have some Tanizaki on my shelves and I really want to read them now!

  5. BookerTalk says:

    My knowledge of Japanese writers is rather limited so I’ve not heard of Tanizaki before but this does sound one I should get to know

    • Now that I’m not so exclusively Russian I’m able to explore more translated Literature – and Japanese writers are emerging as top runners on the list! I’m hoping it will be one of those chain reaction things, where discovering one writer will lead to discovering others…

  6. Pingback: Inspired by Diverse December: an A-Z of BAEM authors for 2016 | Shoshi's Book Blog

  7. Pingback: Secrets and surprises: ‘The Key’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki | Shoshi's Book Blog

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