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Kafu the Scribbler , by Edward Seidensticker

Kafu the Scribbler; the life and writings of Nagai Kafu, 1879-1959 [by] Edward Seidensticker - Edward (1921-2007) Seidensticker

Every English-speaker with the remotest interest in Japanese literature has at least a few books translated by Edward Seidensticker (1921 – 2007) in their library. One could make the case that his supple translations made it possible for Kawabata Yasunari to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Along with Kawabata, Mishima, Tanizaki, and Murasaki, Seidensticker also translated lesser known Japanese authors such as Nagai Kafu, who has been providing me with great pleasure the last few months and is the focus of this book.


Kafu the Scribbler (1965) is an unusual hybrid of critical biography and anthology, with the biography, liberally spiced with often lengthy passages translated from Kafu's writings, filling out the first 180 pages and a selection of translated texts comprising the second half of the book. Seidensticker commences with a quasi-apologia explaining why he would bring such an author as Kafu to the reader's attention. Wasted effort in my case. But for the vacillating I'll mention that Donald Keene writes in his excellent Dawn to the West




that for the Japanese the two most-admired writers of modern Japan are Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki. (Not the received wisdom here in the West.) Supplementing this, his list of the "most popular and important writers" of modern Japan is: "Nagai Kafu, Tanizaki Junichiro, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Kawabata Yasunari and Mishima Yukio." So Kafu is in very good company, according to Keene.


I'll begin with two paragraphs cribbed from my earlier reviews of Kafu's books. 


Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) was in the second generation of Meiji writers behind that of Natsume Soseki. Early in his career he was associated with the Japanese Naturalist movement/school, whose adherents actually adopted only certain relatively superficial characteristics of the French naturalists to their use. Though Kafu initially claimed Zola as his master, he very soon replaced him with Maupassant (and, yet later, with Mori Ogai). Unlike most of the Japanese Naturalists, Kafu learned some French and made a few translations into the Japanese. Of particular note, his father sent his recalcitrant son to the USA to learn how to be a businessman. Not much was learned about business during his four years there, but he did write a book of interesting short stories based on his American experience.




He finally talked his father into sending him to France for a year, where he improved his command of French and had no small number of liaisons with the fairer sex (as he had done in the USA). This sojourn also resulted in a bookful of short stories.

Reluctantly back in Japan, Kafu railed against the evolution of Meiji Japan, accusing his homeland both of abandoning its history and culture and of adopting only the worst aspects of the West. At this stage in his life (around 1910) he loved the pre-Meiji Edo culture (when the capital was transferred from Kyoto to Edo early in the Meiji era, the latter was renamed Tokyo, Eastern Capital). Due to the rapid development in Tokyo, Edo Japan could only still be found in the poorer districts, in the Low City, where the artisans, artists and small merchants lived, and in some of the pleasure districts. Kafu set his Japanese fiction almost exclusively in these districts, as well as spent most of his time there, taking endless walks through the smallest streets trying to forget (then) modern Japan and enjoying the attentions of women from the lofty geisha down to the most miserable "working girls". Under parental pressure, he entered an arranged marriage but divorced shortly after his father's death. He didn't let his brief marriage interfere with his pursuits.


Soon after his return to Japan, Kafu found himself at the center of Japanese literary life. A Tokyo university made him professor and the editor of their "antinaturalist" literary journal, Mita Literature. For a few years, Kafu was a mover and a shaker, as well as quite productive. But in 1916 he resigned from the university, unhappy with the development of the literary scene, among other matters.(*) His literary production gradually fell off until, around 40 years of age, he felt he was finished as a writer. Nonetheless, he had periods of creativity interspersed among the long fallow periods and produced some of his most notable works before the beginning of World War II. 

Already before the war, the military authorities made problems for Kafu, but when the festivities began for real, they banned his works. He wrote 4 or 5 novellas and short stories during the war and put them in his desk drawer. But most of his writing was for his diary, which he had kept since the 1910's and in which, along with lovely extended passages of weather and seasons in his inimitable manner, he writes about his explorations in the red light districts, his failing health, decaying standards in everything and the military dictatorship, who, he writes, made only one correct decision - to prohibit neon signs. When the military authorities tried to force him to "contribute" some gold jewelry to the war effort, Kafu preferred to throw them into the river. The diary doesn't seem to have been translated yet, so the passages Seidensticker gives us in this book are rare glimpses into what many Japanese critics consider to be his most important text. The passages concerning the American bombing raids are particularly gripping; in March, 1945, his house and his ten thousand volume library were destroyed - he escaped only with a briefcase containing his diary and other manuscripts. When the war ended, Kafu re-emerged, publishing the pieces he had written during the hostilities. Because he had been persona non grata for the now vituperated militarists, after the war he was lionized and experienced fame for a time. 


In the second half of this book Seidensticker offers complete translations of 7 short stories and novellas, as well as a chapter or excerpts of 3 longer pieces.(**) I'll say nothing about the excerpts; one of the novellas I have in another translation and have already reviewed ( Sumidagawa - The River Sumida )




So permit me to say a few words about 2 of the short stories and the remaining novella, Ame Shosho - Quiet Rain.


"The Peony Garden" (1909) is a perfect little jewel of a short story which almost bodily transports the reader to Tokyo in a late May of the early 20th century. A man has spent a night in an inn with a geisha, and they emerge in the afternoon into the bustling streets of the city, the sights, sounds and odors sweeping over them. The man is already parting from the woman in his thoughts when she suggests they take a boat on one of the Sumida canals to see a peony garden. He agrees. More sights, sounds and odors. As the boat moves along the canal they discuss their relationship lightly, since they are Japanese and a man and woman of experience. Marriage - maybe some day; take another lover - been there, done that; suicide - no fun there; move to the countryside - very tiresome. They land at the peony garden, where all of their faded ennui is reflected back at them.


The story is much better than my summary.


"Coming Down With a Cold" (1912) is a profoundly sad story about a man and a geisha. This time the man is strongly tied to the woman, emotionally, financially, existentially, but she is not only reaching the end of her career, she is probably coming down with pneumonia, perhaps even tuberculosis, which they silently agree to call a "cold". A poignant story, ending with "They looked at each other in silence, and smiled."


Quiet Rain (1921) is an unusual piece, closer to autobiographical essay than fiction but not really either. The first person narrator muses about his isolation from other people and his fears that it will eternalize itself, though he deeply enjoys the melancholy mood it places him in. But this is just a lead in to a rambling, associative excursion through Chinese poetry, styles of samisen music, memories of his father and a wealthy and very cultured capitalist acquaintance who becomes the center of the piece and an opportunity for Kafu to bewail the decline in taste and education since the Edo period. This text is not for everyone, but Seidensticker calls it a masterpiece, and I am inclined to agree.


Kafu was multi-talented; he painted, and this book is studded with Kafu's drawings; he also wrote essays, some poetry, some Kabuki plays, and he even wrote and acted in a "burlesque skit" for the stage, which was subsequently made into a film. Kafu's accomplishments in these are not on the same niveau as those of, say, Jean Cocteau, but they are not at all embarrassing. 



(*) He, like some of the 19th century Germans I have been reading recently, inherited money and did not need to work for a living. Why, oh why not me?!


(**) These translations were re-published as A Strange Tale from East of the River and Other Stories






In some recent reviews I have been discussing some of the difficulties of translating classic Chinese poetry into modern English. For a change, I'd like to draw your attention to a short and fascinating article by Seidensticker entitled "On Trying to Translate Japanese" (Encounter, 1958):




A literal translation of a Japanese sentence:


The I yesterday to you introduced from Osaka aunt tomorrow afternoon on the Sea Breeze Express is going back.


No relative pronouns; all adjectival clauses precede the modified noun, whatever their length; the verb is last and not conjugated by person or number; often the subject is dropped. "In sum, there is an insubstantial, tentative quality about the language." This is just the beginning of the problems...