Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) falls into the same modern Japanese canon as Natsume Soseki and later writers ranging from Kenzaburo Oe to both Murakamis. An English translation of his novella “A Cat, A Man and Two Women” and two short stories has just been republished. It’s not a particularly exciting occasion, as I’ll explain later, but is still of interest.
Shozo, the hapless husband of the title novella, absolutely loves his cat. Other than his devotion for the tortoiseshell Lily, most of his character can be defined by absence. He lacks a vocation. He lacks will. He lacks love—real love, not just domestic familiarity—for his wife Fukuoka, just as he lacked it for his last one, Shinako.
When Shinako writes asking for Lily, Shozo grudgingly sends her over at the insistence of his Fukuoka. The household—Shozo, Fukuoka, and his mother—speculate over his ex’s motives and adjust to life without Lily, which is not terribly different from life with her.
Other than that, not much happens. Tanizaki retraces Shozo’s aimless or follows his characters’ thought processes in minute detail. Here, Shozo ponders his ex-wife’s intentions:
Was that it? Was Shinako planning to lure him back, with Lily as the bait? If Shozo was found wandering in the vicinity of her house, did Shinako think she could somehow grab hold of him and win him back with her feminine wiles? The very thought filled Shozo with resentment at his ex-wife’s cunning; at the same time, he felt all the more worried about Lily being used as a tool in such a plot. His only hope was that Lily might escape from Shinako’s house in Rokko on the Hankyu line and come back home, as she had from Amagasaki some years before.
Much of “A Cat” runs in this vein, and the result can be soporific. Blocky paragraph after blocky paragraph, Tanizaki catalogs thoughts instead of telling a story.
It doesn’t help that we don’t learn much about these characters other than the types they fall into. Shozo is the ineffectual man, and the women in his life are scheming, jealous manipulators. Petty domestic dramas can rise to the level of literature, and often have, of course, but only when they’re populated with something more than caricatures.
Toward the end of the novella, when Shozo runs to his ex-wife’s house to try to get a glimpse of that beloved cat, some pathos breaks through the two-dimensional characters and workaday prose. We see, that, underneath the comedy of henpecked Shozo, there’s a deep sadness: “Yes, it was true—Shinako and Lily were both to be pitied. But wasn’t he to be pitied even more? He, who had no home to call his own?”
The two short stories in this book also explore thwarted male ambition. “The Little Kingdom” follows Kajima, a poor schoolteacher, as he marvels at the power of a new pupil to control his peers, only to find that that power may have grown out of hand. In “Professor Raddo,” a reporter performs a frustrating interview with a laconic professor, only to meet him years alter and get asked to perform an odd favor.
These pieces, published in their native tongue between 1918 and 1936, say surprisingly little about the changes taking place in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century. (This translation was originally published in 1990.) Nor do they offer many memorable moments, the exception being the end of “The Little Kingdom,” which translator Paul McCarthy in his introduction calls a “double twist”. I am sorry that this classic leaves me with so little.
A Cat, A Man and Two Women by Junichiro Tanizaki. Translated by Paul McCarthy. Published August 27th by New Directions. 180 pages. $14.95