Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962) – TANIZAKI Jun’ichiro

題名: 瘋癲老人日記
著者: 谷崎 潤一郎
出版年: 1962年

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s place in the pantheon of modern Japanese writers. His Wikipedia (that ever reliable source) page in Japanese calls him “one of the most important writers representing modern Japanese literature”, while the list of writers he has influenced begins by listing Ranpo Edogawa, Mishima Yukio, Kono Taeko, then gives up and says “and many others”. And while Diary of a Mad Old Man is not his most famous work, as one of his last full-length works, it remains important.

Written when Tanizaki himself was 74, it’s hard not to read this as a diary for the author’s own feelings about the divide between his head’s desire to still be attractive and useful to young women, and his body’s inability to do anything other than be maintained by a mountain of drugs and experimental medical treatments. There is no question that this is an horrific situation, and is ripe for dissection by literature.

The problem, though, is that Utsugi is a pitiful character. The very fact that he is lusting after his own son’s wife is bad enough (though out of his control, so completely forgivable), but for him to then actively chase her for intimacy and sexual contact is despicable. More than anything else, his attempts to be intimate with Satsuko are unsubtle. He showers her with extravagantly expensive gifts, including a gaudy ring that she can only wear when she leaves town, that he hides from his ever-suffering wife, who seems to be all too aware of her husband’s faults.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the entire novel is the foot fetish. Tanizaki is renowned for having a weird sex thing for feet (see also Naomi), and the intimate scenes here that contain this seem more like an intrusion on Tanizaki’s own sexual desires more than any kind of character development for Utsugi. It leaves the reader wondering if the titular mad old man is not, in fact, Tanizaki himself.

It is not until the final pages of the novel that one begins to feel any kind of sympathy for Utsugi. As his health deteriorates to the point where he can no longer keep writing in his diary, we move to notes made by his doctor about an unnamed patient. This sudden shift from the deeply personal insight of a diary to the cold medical terms contained in a doctor’s case file is jarring, and serves to highlight the gulf between a patient’s and a doctor’s perception of events.

This final point—that growing old is undignified and unedifying—is perhaps the point Tanizaki was trying to make. Yet it is hard to feel any sympathy for a creepy old dude who makes his daughter-in-law shower him naked, while also forcing her to kiss him and touch his feet. What makes it even worse is the fact that the novel feels less like a novel and more like a confession from Tanizaki himself, leading one to think as one reads whether Tanizaki himself was this creepy, or even more. It’s a big barrier to enjoying (or even appreciating) a piece of literature, and sadly, I wasn’t able to get past it.

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5 thoughts on “Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962) – TANIZAKI Jun’ichiro

  1. Tony says:

    I read this very soon after reading ‘The Key’, and until the final sections, it was a bit of a disappointment. It was too similar in style and tone to ‘The Key’ (they were collected together in my edition), and certainly not up there with ‘Quicksand’ (one of my first Tanizaki reads, and one I loved).

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Yeah, both this and The Key have been reissued as Vintage Classics, and sitting next to each other on the shelf at Dymocks, reading the blurbs, I was struggling to see any difference. I went for the one with the prettiest cover. ;-)

  2. Mel u says:

    This is an interesting work but not up there with his best.

  3. winstonsdad says:

    I’ve just read and enjoyed Naomi so will mark this down as the next one to read by him Matt

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