Longing and Other Stories by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

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Translated by Anthony H Chambers and Paul McCarthy

Review by Anna Hollingsworth

In the UK, readers know their Murakamis and convenience store women. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is much less known to the wider audience — The Makioka Sisters and The Key don’t ring a bell quite as loudly as Norwegian Wood does. Yet in Japan, he is one of most eminent authors of the literary canon; he made his literary debut in 1910, and by time of his death in 1965, he had been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Longing and Other Stories is a brilliantly efficient introduction to his work.

I say efficient because these three short stories, all from Tanizaki’s early writing career, come in very different genres. Longing is the dreamlike telling of a young boy’s journey through an eerie, deserted landscape in search of his home. There are layers of supernatural throughout the story: “It is a strange, phantasmal sort of light, one that suggests some far, far distant, eternal land quite separate from our human world.”  In terms of events, very little happens, and this puts the emotional intensity centre-stage: there is a sense of suffocating fear as the vast darkness grows, and the boy’s longing for his mother with it. In the same way, the beacons of hope and comfort are almost physically tangible to the reader.

Sorrows of a Heretic is much the opposite in its gritty realism. In it, a narcissistic university student lives in degrading poverty, watching his sister slowly dying. He treats everyone around him with appalling contempt: his parents, sister and friends are commodities at best, objects of abuse at worst. We follow as the narrator berates himself for his behaviour, and then see how hatred takes over nevertheless. The story has a kind of psychological stronghold over the reader: I found myself wanting to hate narrator, but at the same his emotions are painfully recognisable and human. There is a distinct unease in the question of how common his actions and thoughts are to all of us.

The Story of an Unhappy Mother starts off as an almost humorous description of a self-centered mother and her three children and how the former is desperately needy of attention. But when the oldest son marries, the mother’s character takes on darker tones. As a freak accident wreaks havoc through the family, different accounts of what happened come to the surface, and the characters are left struggling with moral ambiguity and guilt.

The three stories are distinct in style, but they all centre on family dynamics, and in particular on the relationship between mother and son (I’m sure they’d be a goldmine for Freudian analysis).

Tanizaki veers away from clichés: in Longing, the young boy’s all-encompassing yearning takes on new meanings in the final twist. In The Story of an Unhappy Mother, it is the mother that clings onto her children, and the children provide that security, driven by a mixture affection and guilt. But perhaps the most interesting is the middle story where the relationships are loaded with loathing; somehow the family unit stays together despite the at times extreme psychological cruelty.

If you’re one to skip over fore- and afterwords — don’t. The translators’ note — by Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy — sets the stories against a wider historical backdrop that brings out aspects that would go unnoticed by a reader who, like me, isn’t fully versed in Japanese social history. The translators present a very accessible analysis of how changing social structures in early 20th century Japan challenged traditional Confucian concepts of family, and contrast that with modern Western assumptions. For example, in The Story of an Unhappy Mother, conflicting ideals crystallise when the eldest son has to choose whether to save his wife or mother first from the wreckage of the accident. Knowing the historical background brings an invaluable extra layer to the stories.

The stories come from a period that some critics have called a slump in Tanizaki’s career. These short stories are anything but: they present an early-career writer who can mould his words into very different styles. If this is a slump, then the rest of Tanizaki’s work must be pure genius.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Longing and Other Stories (Columbia University Press, 2022) 978-0231202152, 160pp., paperback original.

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