Writer, researcher, translator, critic


Kafu Nagai, Rivalry [Tokyo; 1917]

Resuming this project after a seven-month break (during which I went down a few different rabbit trails, some of which pass through this one), I finished reading this Japanese classic of geisha life last night, only dimly recalling the careful chess moves of the first half. I didn't really feel anything missing, though: even picking up right in the middle of the action, with the most erotic sequence in the novel (still not very, by 21st-century standards), there was enough carefully-composed description and psychological insight to keep me abreast all the way to the end.

This is the second Japanese novel I've read for my 1910s project, and the second to center on a geisha and her patron(s). But unlike The Wild Geese, which had a much more delicate and frozen-in-amber quality, Rivalry is (as the title suggests) about the cacophonous social world of the Shimbashi district, with both geishas and patrons competing to come out on top. The centrality of telephones to the geisha's business, as well as frequent references to movies, motorcars, and trains, remind the reader how insistent the twentieth century is, and how rapidly the old Edo culture is fading away.

Kafu Nagai had lived in the United States and studied Western literature, and his early literary work in imitation of French models had been suppressed for indecency. Rivalry was first published in installments in a newspaper, but an unexpurgated edition, which included much frank reference to what patrons and geisha did in private, was only published privately in 1918; it would not be in general circulation in Japan until the 1950s, and the first English translation, in 1963, was based on the expurgated edition. The unexpurgated translation was not published until 2007; that's what I read, and despite the long hiatus, very much enjoyed.

July 30, 2018