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among his Western critics that the phrase seems to have affixed itself as a kind of subtitle, it has until now gone unpublished in America.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 …