Although a brief, uncluttered, and happily accessible novel, Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi arrives from somewhat tangled origins. A reader making Tanizaki’s acquaintance through this book—and there’s probably no better gateway into the dense, haunting world of this man who may have been Japan’s finest modern novelist—might well keep these in mind as a sort of warning. For Naomi’s plot, too, comes with hidden complexities.
The book was serialized in the Osaka Asahi newspaper from March until June of 1924, when it was dropped after eighty-seven installments in response to protests from conservative readers and government censors. When, while working on another novel a few years before, Tanizaki had found it difficult to meet the demands of serialization, he simply abandoned the book altogether. Naomi was different, though, as he explained in a note to his unexpectedly interrupted readers: “This novel is my favorite of recent years, and my inspiration is at its peak. As soon as I can, I shall find another magazine or newspaper in which to publish the remainder.” Tanizaki proved true to his word. Five months later, publication was resumed in a magazine called Josei and—despite the story’s increasingly lurid revelations, far more shocking than those which triggered the original banning—continued without incident to the book’s conclusion. Although Naomi remains in Japan one of Tanizaki’s most popular books, and is so commonly known as his “first important novel” among his Western critics that the phrase seems to have affixed itself as a kind of subtitle, it has until now gone unpublished in America. Readers here may have seen references to it under either of two titles, A Fool’s Love or An Idiot’s Love. Anthony H. Chambers, an associate professor at Wesleyan University, has chosen to resolve this confusion by taking an inspired liberty and calling his clean, flowing translation Naomi. But even this title is less simple than would appear, for the heroine’s name is not pronounced with the long “a” customary in America. She is a Japanese girl whose name is written in ideographic characters and spoken with the soft ah of a Japanese “a”—one of the few softnesses to be found in the person of the book’s beautiful, predatory heroine.
Like so many other Tanizaki novels, Naomi is a tale of deception. Its narrator, Joji Kawai, a provincial farmer’s son whose career as an electrical engineer has landed him in Tokyo, seems in no hurry to explain the “undreamt-of misfortunes” resulting from his marriage to a very young café hostess named Naomi. Only slowly does the reader see the extent to which Kawai has been lied to, and has lied to himself.
A reader well acquainted with Tanizaki’s books—seven of which have now been published by Knopf—will find much that is familiar in Naomi. In this novel, too, one yields immediately to a narrative deftness, a sense of being in the hands of someone who knows a good story when he finds one and delights in its telling. And like so many of Tanizaki’s protagonists, Kawai is a feckless man given to self-mockery—a self-described “country bumpkin,” “idiot,” and “oaf.” Again one encounters a fascination with the trappings of Western civilization, as well as misgivings about their suitability to the Japanese temperament; a love of the movies (not long before writing Naomi, Tanizaki worked for a time as a screenwriter); and a keen eye for furniture, architecture, food, and women’s clothing. Above all, one meets again what Kawai himself calls a “terrifying enchantress”—another manifestation of that cruel yet irresistible woman who seems to have figured as the largest archetype in Tanizaki’s imagination.
This enchantress began to brew her sorcery early in Tanizaki’s career. In 1910, while still a university student, Tanizaki established his reputation with a short story entitled “The Tattooer.” An ugly fable, at once unsatisfying in its construction and unforgettable in its grisliness, it recounts the story of Seikichi, a tattooer who longs to display his art on the body of a flawlessly beautiful woman. When at last he meets the perfect woman, he lures her into his apartment, drugs her, and, working unrelentingly through the day and night, realizes his masterwork: a hideous spider perched indelibly on the milky whiteness of her back. The woman gradually wakes to a double revelation. She discovers not only her frightening new appearance but also, at Seikichi’s prompting, a corresponding internal malevolence. Seikichi unveils for her his secret collection of paintings that depict torture and slaughter, and she (with rather unconvincing rapidity) acknowledges the thrill they bring her. She has found her fate, and will now go forth to enslave and punish men. Although Seikichi has in a sense created her, he proves no less her slave for that; the spider on her back has ensnared him, too. Tanizaki often returned, over the years, to variations on this twisted tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, and one might view Naomi, as well as the later novel The Key, as expansions of “The Tattooer.”
Naomi is only fourteen when Kawai spots her working in a seedy cafe. Quiet and tractable, she would seem to present the perfect clay from which an idealistic young man of twenty-seven might mold a mate. Kawai soon liberates her from her job, sets her up in his house, and marries her, vowing to make her “a diamond,” a lady of such polish that she “won’t even be ashamed to mix with Westerners.” Kawai keeps a diary entitled “Naomi Grows Up,” in which he records her progress and pastes her photographs. This little girl’s appetites prove colossal, however, and Kawai is soon bankrolling an endless line of steak dinners and Western-style dresses, as well as lessons in music, dancing, and English. Eventually, Kawai must lie to his mother in order to stave off bankruptcy with a loan. Meanwhile, it turns out that he is no match, either on or off the dance floor, for an assortment of boorish young men whom Naomi has somehow befriended. A plodding fellow, Kawai proves remarkably slow to reach the truth, and the reader is no doubt meant to chafe with impatience at his bottomless gullibility.
Like much of Tanizaki’s other fiction, Naomi induces a sense of claustrophobia. While Tanizaki is hardly unique among novelists in frequently compelling his readers to witness a slow, predictable, and hopeless decline—slowness, predictability, and hopelessness being elements common to most tragedy—he manages to lend disaster an additional, constrictive poignance. Time and again, it is not simple ignorance that makes his characters behave so stupidly. They march knowingly for Hell. By the time Kawai admits to himself that Naomi has been exploiting and cuckolding him, he is so thoroughly her sexual and psychological prisoner that he seeks only to ensure that she will find him worthy of continued mistreatment; the one fate he cannot endure is abandonment. By the book’s close, he has become her slave. The reader has been longing to have Kawai see the truth, but it turns out (as so often for Tanizaki’s characters) that the truth will not set him free.
Tanizaki relieves the book’s suffocating atmosphere in a couple of ways. Here and there he inserts aerating hints of surrealism, of a world lying well removed from Tokyo in the Twenties. Naomi is repeatedly compared to an animal, initially to a bird and mouse, then to a colt, and finally to that creature so rich to the Japanese imagination, a fox. Japan’s folklore abounds in tales wherein foxes are transformed into human beings, and the reader almost comes to believe that this puzzling, protean creature, this Naomi who is both café hostess and enchantress, is not quite human. Such possibilities are subtly invoked, as in Kawai’s reflections when Naomi, who has left him for, among others, an American, returns to the house briefly:
My nose detected a faint but familiar scent. Aah, that scent—it evoked in me thoughts of lands across the sea, of exquisite, exotic flower gardens. It was the scent of the dance teacher, Countess Shlemskaya. Naomi was wearing the same perfume.
Whatever Naomi said, I could only nod in response. Even after her form had vanished again into the darkness of night, my sharp sense of smell pursued her gradually fading fragrance as one pursues a phantom.
Tanizaki also dilutes the book’s confining air in an unsettling way, through hints of some purgative act of violence. Halfway through the novel, Kawai comes home to find Naomi peacefully asleep. The reader is treated to a lovely but disturbing description that suggests the possibility of an eventual murder:
As I sat gazing, her breast, in the shadow thrown by the lampshade, loomed vividly, like an object lying in the depths of pellucid water. Her face, too, radiant and kaleidoscopic by day, now wore a mysterious cast, a melancholy frown, like that of one who’s just swallowed bitter medicine, or of one who’s been strangled. I loved her sleeping face. “You look like a different person when you’re asleep,” I often told her, “as though you’re having a terrible dream.” “Her death-face would be beautiful, too,” I often told myself.
On the following page, Naomi’s limbs “dangle limp as a corpse.” While the reader has good reason to doubt that Kawai, a pathetically timid figure, could ever commit a murder even if he overcame his formidable indecisiveness, these presentiments of violence at least leave the possibility open. And even in the book’s last chapters, when Kawai seems hopelessly subjugated, the reader may feel both queasy and tantalized when Naomi asks Kawai to shave the nape of her neck in preparation for the low-cut gown she plans to wear to a dance that evening:
Spellbound, she seemed to be savoring the pleasurable sensation of the razor’s caress. I could hear her steady, drowsy breathing, and I could see the carotid artery pulsing beneath her chin.
It is a testament to the book’s evocation of entrapment that murder could seem to promise some workable escape. The reader may almost hope to see Kawai trade his psychological prison for a physical one.
Naomi was the first novel Tanizaki published after moving from the cosmopolitan hubbub of Tokyo-Yokohama to the more traditional Osaka-Kyoto region of western Japan. Tanizaki left Tokyo after the great earthquake of 1923. He was thirty-seven. He planned a brief sojourn, just long enough to let Tokyo rebuild itself, but he stayed on in western Japan until his death in 1965. The move appears to have been a happy one for Tanizaki personally, as well as a great boon for his readers: nearly all of Tanizaki’s best work emerged after his resettlement.
Today the differences between Osaka and Tokyo—those two thriving industrial megalopolises that lie only a few hours apart by bullet train—can seem almost negligible. Both were largely razed by bombs in the war, and in either city one can walk the gleaming streets for block upon block without meeting a single structure that looks weathered. But in the Twenties, the disparities in pace and outlook must have been vast. Tanizaki was born in Tokyo, into a merchant family of failing finances, and one might view his move to Osaka as a further repudiation of his parents, who had hoped to see their bright son enter business. Yet one might also regard the move as a pursuit of profound familial loyalties. What seems to have drawn Tanizaki to Osaka were its provincial vestiges of a vanishing world—that of his childhood—and in particular a somewhat outmoded standard of feminine beauty. In western Japan, one still commonly found women who cultivated the delicate refinement and manner Tanizaki had known in the Tokyo women of his mother’s and grandmother’s generations.