Friday, 16 March 2018

Book Review: Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō earth under our feet usually feels solid and safe to carry us on our way through life. Sometimes, however, events may raise quite some dust and we can no longer see clearly where we’re heading. At other times, the earth may also turn into mud that makes it difficult for us to advance at all… or if we’re particularly unlucky we don’t just get stuck, but even sink in up to the neck unable to move. The latter is how the young widow in Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō feels about the love affair in which she gets caught in Osaka of the 1920s. Wicked gossip spreading at the Art School about her relations to another student whom they believe the real model for her picture stand at the beginning of a passionate lesbian affair with the cunning girl that soon involves also the girl’s fiancé and the woman’s husband.

Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (谷崎 潤一郎) was born in Nihonbashi, Tōkyo, Japan, in July 1886. As from 1908 he studied at the Literature Department of Tōkyo Imperial University until financial issues forced him to drop out without graduation. It was during his student years that he began his career as a writer publishing a one-act play in a literary magazine in 1909 and short stories like The Tatooer (刺青: 1910) that is one of the Seven Japanese Tales combined in a single English edition in 1963. One of his first novels was Devils in Daylight (白昼鬼語: 1918), but true success didn’t come until Naomi (痴人の愛: 1924/25) that was followed among others by Quicksand (: 1928-30), Some Prefer Nettles (蓼喰う蟲: 1928/29), A Cat, a Man and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人の女: 1936), The Makioka Sisters (細雪: 1943-48), The Key (: 1956), In Black and White (黒白: 1957) and Diary of a Mad Old Man (瘋癲老人日記: 1961/62). Among the writer’s most notable non-fiction works are the essay In Praise of Shadows (陰翳礼讃: 1933) and the memoir Childhood Years (幼少時代: 1957). Tanizaki Jun’ichirō died in Yugawara, Kanagawa, Japan, in July 1965.

Sonoko is a young widow in Osaka of the 1920s, when she confides to the author the story of a love that swallowed her like Quicksand. It all began with her being unhappy and bored in the (arranged) marriage to Kotaro, a promising lawyer slightly below her station and too dispassionate in her opinion. After a troubled affair with a man, she takes classes in Japanese painting not suspecting that her version of the Willow Kannon bodhisattva will provoke rumours about herself and a beautiful young girl from the oil painting class whom it – allegedly – resembles more than the model.

“[…] They said I’d made indecent advances to Mitsuko, that Mitsuko and I were altogether too close…. As I told you, at that time I’d hardly said a word to her, so the whole thing was nonsense, just an out-and-out lie. Of course I was aware that people were talking behind my back, though I never dreamed they were making such a fuss. But I had nothing on my conscience, so I didn’t care what they said. It was all perfectly ridiculous.”
Mitsuko comes up to Sonoko to apologise for the gossip that is really aimed at her and after this the two young women become friends. When Sonoko asks Mitsuko over to her house one day to pose for her so she can really finish the Willow Kannon after her model, the session takes a different turn because Sonoko is overcome with passion seeing Mitsuko undressed. They begin a love affair, but pretend to be just best friends to everybody around. Nonetheless, Kotaro learns from their maid what is going on under his roof and eventually calls his wife to account.
“After that outburst I wasn’t afraid of anything. Why should I care? I longed all the more to be with Mitsuko. But when I hurried to school the next morning she was nowhere in sight. I called her home, only to be told she had gone to visit a relative in Kyoto. Eager to see her, and with the emotions of last night’s quarrel surging in me, I dashed off that letter, but after I sent it I asked myself what she would think of a frantic letter like that. Suddenly I felt anxious again, […]”
When Mitsuko phones late one night because in a love hotel someone stole her and her secret fiancé’s clothes, Sonoko realises that her lover only plays with her. Sonoko is determined to stop seeing the cunning girl for good, but after a while Mitsuko gets back in touch pretending to be pregnant and their affair begins anew. Moreover, Sonoko helps Mitsuko to conceal her relationship to her fiancé from her unsuspecting family. Afraid that he might lose Mitsuko, the fiancé forces Sonoko to sign with her blood a secret pact that before long drags her husband too into the affair.

The novel titled Quicksand in English translation and referring to the Buddhist swastika as symbol of four lovers in the Japanese original is a first-person narrative from the perspective of the infatuated protagonist that has all qualities of a confession or statement. Consequently, the story gives a very personal, sometimes emotional and therefore not entirely reliable account of events that the author skilfully supplements with some notes. The plot is marvellously dense, complex and intertwined with many unexpected, often very original twists and turns, but just the right number of them not to lose the thread of the lesbian affair or the romantic triangle, later quadrangle against the backdrop of traditional Japanese society on the verge of modernity. All protagonists, especially the two women, are depicted as true to life as they can be. There are several vague hints at what the two women are doing behind closed screens, no explicit sex scenes, though, and yet, the novel has an altogether rather erotic touch, something that I consider the proof of true mastery in story-telling. The English translation by Howard Hibbett at my hand uses simple language and has an agreeable flow which makes it a great pleasure to read.

As usual, I had little idea what I was in for when I decided to put Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō on my list for the 2018 Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge. In the end, it turned out to be a really good choice although I would never ever dream of calling romance, even less lesbian romance written by men, my favourite genre. I definitely enjoyed this one thanks to its setting in pre-war Japan and above all thanks to the narrative skill of the author that makes me long to read more of his works. Certain aspects of the plot reminded me of other – later – novels from the pens of Japanese writers, notably of Confessions of Love by Uno Chiyo (»»» read my review) from 1935 and Kinshu. Autumn Brocade by Miyamoto Teru (»»» read my review) from 1982. All things considered, it’s a book that definitely deserves my unreserved recommendation.


  1. I have read The Makioka Sisters. I really liked it.

  2. I read Quicksand in the Howard Hibbett translation many years ago and can still hear the insinuating voice of Sonoko. Quicksand reminded me of Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier -- probably because of the unreliable narrator, the deceit, and the complicated personal relationships. The Makioko Sisters is also a wonderful novel but gentler than Quicksand.


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