Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) has become one of my favorite authors during the past few months, but I must honestly signal that the two pieces translated in this book are not among my favorites.
Tsuyu no Atosaki (1931) (translated here as During the Rains but by Donald Keene as Before and After the Rains) was written during a sudden spurt of creativity after a lengthy fallow period. But the wonderful lyricism of Kafu's earlier prose had faded into relative colorlessness in the intervening time, as Kafu personally sank into a dyspeptic bitterness and alienation from most of his surroundings. After the Great Earthquake of 1923, whose attendant fires destroyed much of the city, the Ginza began to be re-built in Western fashion,(*) including many cafés, which were actually bars whose unpaid waitresses made their living through unlicensed prostitution. After Kafu dismissed his regular mistresses, he began to frequent these cafés to satisfy his sexual needs. This is the unpromising setting (unpromising at least for a writer with Kafu's particular gifts) of During the Rains, which focuses on one of these waitresses, Kimie, who, sloppy, amiable, manipulative and lascivious, reduces all of the other characters into mere shades.
In Kafu the Scribbler,
Edward Seidensticker translated an extended passage of an essay by Tanizaki Junichiro about Kafu's During the Rain. Because of Tanizaki's own significance as a novelist and the interest of his remarks, I'll quote most of the passage.
The old-fashioned is fairly conspicuous in Kafu's recent During the Rains. Indeed in its style and the shifting of its scenes, it might be called the oldest of his novels yet. There are chance meetings scattered all through the book, which are used to further the plot, in a manner common enough in plays and novels of another era. The oldness of the form stands in subtle contrast to the modern colors of the material...
Such things as psychological description or the expression of emotions and states of consciousness, the attempt to penetrate deep inside a character, have come into fashion only recently. Our old writers of fiction were more concerned with plot. All sorts of characters were brought on stage and made to go through all sorts of scenes in all sorts of postures, but they were for the most part no more than stage properties to make the plot more interesting. The element of inevitability in characterization was ignored if need be...
I do not think these facts are to be explained entirely by immaturity of technique. We Orientals have a tendency to ignore humanity and treat people like natural objects, like so many sticks and stones...
Japanese writings have lacked the highly colored quality of Chinese. They show a sensitive feeling for nature, however, and one notes in them a certain warmth and gentleness; and yet in their depiction of human life, it is the exterior and not the interior that is emphasized... During the Rains is not, of course, a gigantic fantasy like such Chinese novels as The Dream of the Red Chamber... But the nihilistic coldness of the writer is strong as it has not been in earlier Japanese literature... Kafu's writing these last years seems to have dried up, to have lost its bloom... His prose, so rich and sensuous twenty years ago, has undergone a profound change, and has become so cold and unfriendly as to recall that of Masamune Hakucho. The fact that the styles of these two masters, who ought to be poles from each other, should thus have come together makes me feel keenly the passage of time.
Seidensticker finds During the Rains unsatisfactory as a novel; Donald Keene and many Japanese critics praise it. Granting that Seidensticker's criticisms (lack of rounded characterization, too much coincidence, secondary characters who do not contribute to the main flow) are valid, I must point out that these are criticisms made from the point of view of a modern and Western understanding of the novel. I, too, have internalized the conventions and assumptions from whose perspective those observations are telling criticisms, but I find them to be less compelling the more I read fiction written outside of that relatively narrow geographic and temporal enclosure. In other words, my answer to Seidensticker is "Yes, and so what?"
Keene sees this text and its companion to be a return to the Naturalism of the beginning of Kafu's career. Perhaps. He says it is "absorbing throughout, even though it lacks the beauty of Kafu's early work, and even though it reveals little of what twentieth-century writers had been striving to achieve in new forms of expression." Agreed in all three points. But I seem to weigh the absence of the beauty I have come to anticipate in Kafu's texts more heavily than does Keene. Other readers will weigh more heavily the text's utter disregard for modern prose modes. Nonetheless, Kimie's story, supplemented by those around her, is absorbing.
The novella Hikage no Hana (Flowers in the Shade) appeared in 1934, signaling its content with its title, for it echoes the word hikagemono - a person in the shade, an outcast. The characters of this story are all prostitutes, procuresses, gigolos and parasites living off of prostitutes. Their stories are told through multiple flashbacks and unlikely coincidences; the tone is dry and matter-of-fact. These are cold, harsh and sad stories. Surely, this is a kind of Naturalism revisited.
How I lament the absence of Kafu's earlier lyricism! Fortunately, Kafu's fiction soon took another direction and tone, closer to those of The River Sumida
and others. For the destruction of Meiji Tokyo in 1923 and the subsequent construction of an unrecognizable city led Kafu to develop a nostalgia for the same Meiji era city he once execrated. It is this mood of nostalgia which inspired Kafu to his best works. I have already reviewed one of these texts, written in 1937
and it is excellent. Now I have to find some of the others from this period, but I am coming to the end of the available translations...
(*) It is now the very embodiment of the steel, glass and garish neon I dislike so much about modern Tokyo.