Tag Archives: sexuality

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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Mateship With Birds (2012) – Carrie TIFFANY

The inaugural Stella Prize was announced last week. Conveniently, because Mateship With Birds was longlisted for both the Stella and the Miles Franklin, I thought I should probably read it and see what all the fuss as all about. Looking through the archives of this place, it would appear that I have in fact read Carrie Tiffany’s first book, Everyday Rules for Scientific Living, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.

Harry lives next-door to Betty. Betty has two children who, in many ways, see Harry as their surrogate father. Underneath this arrangement, though, is the desire Harry has for Betty, and the desire Betty has for Harry. As time passes, the question of whether they will act on their feelings

The hilariously Australian pun in the title—for those across the seas, ‘bird’ is a very retro, slightly derogatory term for women—highlights the main theme of the novel: the relationship between men and women.

The most obvious, of course, is the relationship between Harry and Betty who, despite living next-door to each other for many years, and despite the fact that both seem to be attracted to the other, they never act on it in anything more than awkward social fumblings. The reasons for this are never explicitly stated, though Tiffany suggests that perhaps it is because of the historical context—Betty has moved to this town because her past as an unmarried woman with two children has proved to be problematic for her family in the past.

Because Harry feels he never had the chance to learn about women, Harry decides to educate Betty’s teenage son, Michael, in the ways of women. The two have already formed a close bond over bird watching, and in many ways, as the only adult male in proximity, Harry acts as a surrogate father to Michael. But like any man, particularly one who actually has little real-world experience with wooing and loving real women, Harry’s advice is tinged with his own past mistakes. Unable to draw on any experiences of his own, the advice given to Michael is littered with well-meaning but ultimately incorrect information. Who knows, perhaps this is Tiffany’s own little dig at the way men talk about sex to the next generation.

At the end of each scene/chapter/section, Tiffany gives us part of a poem about kookaburras, penned by Harry himself. Structurally, it’s really nice—the trials and the tribulations of the kookaburra family are contrasted with Betty’s family to good effect—but it still frustrated me. I have to confess, I’m not a huge fan of poetry in novels, so I found myself zoning out. I know, I know. I’m a terrible person.

It’s easy to fill the voids that Tiffany creates in Mateship With Birds, to fill in the gaps, both thematically and plot-wise, that stretch out between the glimpses of life afforded us on the pages. Questions of love obviously linger above everything that happens—Harry’s unspoken, unacted feelings towards Betty, for example—and in some ways, this is to the detriment of the novel. There’s a lot to be said for allowing the reader to read meaning into a text, but when there is so much blank space on your canvas, it begins to look more unfinished than purposefully unanswered.

I don’t usually say this, but I would have loved for Tiffany to go into more detail, broadening her scope. In just over 200 pages, we cover quite a lot of time, leaving one with the distinct impression of fleetingness that doesn’t quite satisfy. There is no doubt that Mateship With Birds is well written, but it lacks that killer punch that makes good writing great.

And I still think The Burial should have won.

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Confessions of a Mask (1949) – MISHIMA Yukio

I’ve been scouring my uni’s library for hard-to-find books in the last few weeks, since tomorrow, I will no longer live in the same city. I’ve been particularly interested in finding old Japanese stuff that is no longer easily available in English translation. One work in particular that has fascinated me is Mishima Yukio’s Confessions of a Mask, one of his earliest novels, and still the earliest to be found in English translation.

This is the story of Kochan, a young man growing up in war-time Japan, a background that affects everything he does. As he grows up, though, he begins to realise that he is not like the other boys at his school. He is attracted to them. As he tries to hide his secret, he is also drawn to the masculinity and power of the boys he is surrounded by, particularly as they all move toward a war-footing.

Separating the life and the work of authors is not always easy. The work of Mishima Yukio falls into the “impossible” category. So much commentary about him is not about his life and work as an author, but about his politics, his friendship with Ishihara Shintarō, and of course, his rather public suicide in 1970. An entire industry of criticism and journalism has sprung out of these, admittedly rather fertile, distractions—something that makes me wonder if people know him more for this as opposed to his literary work.

Some might find this distracting. Certainly, for many of his works, attempts to link his work with his life is a futile attempt to spice things up. But there are some works, including this one, that do provide an insight into the mind of one of the most enduring literary talents Japan has ever produced. What interests me most about Mishima’s oeuvre are the works that deal with gender and sexuality.

To say that sexuality doesn’t define someone seems faintly ridiculous. Though it may not be the defining factor of someone’s personality, the reaction to one’s sexuality from those surrounding will affect how you behave. That is, of course, the point of the title—the eponymous mask is the personality Kochan constructs to deal with mainstream society, so he can pass as a ‘normal’ person. It’s probably not a stretch to suggest, then, that Kochan is an author surrogate, a character designed to act as the author for the purposes of the work.

Confessions of a Mask reads like an autobiography. The story of a young man growing up in wartime Japan, trying to come to terms with the fact that he is sexually attracted to the same sex—it’s easy to see where Mishima got his ideas from. This is the perfect example of the shishōsetsu (私小説), or autobiographical novel, a genre that, in many ways, defines 20th century Japanese literature. Using his own experiences and feelings about his young life, the 24-year-old hijacks a form that, for so long, had been used by the Japanese equivalent of straight white men to break into the literary world. I can only imagine the reaction to a book like this in conservative post-war Japan.

While it is not explicit, it is certainly erotic. Mishima describes with such love, such lust, the form of the young boys he finds himself attracted to. He seems particularly attracted to armpits (no, I don’t get it either, but hey—that’s what fetishes are all about), going out of his way to describe this particular boy part both often and in detail.

At first, he is not attracted per se to the physicality of men, but to the idea of the noble prince, of the man who rides in at the last minute and save the damsel in distress. He finds even more fascinating the noble knight who dies in battle for the person he loves. I don’t want to call this an obsession with chivalry, because I think it mistakes what attracts Kochan to these men. It is not the fact that they are saving a woman, but the fact that they are dying in a glorious manner, that attracts Kochan to these knights. Of course, a violent and bloody sacrifice is what Mishima will eventually be known for, but even if you read his other works (including a blisteringly excellent novella called Patriotism)

Kochan, then, hates himself not just because of these confused feelings he has for his male classmates, but also because he, physically, does not look anything like them, and thinks he never will. He was a sickly child, leading to something of a stunted physical development, and he is often sick from school, his grandmother not letting him out of the house. There is a surprising amount of self-hate though this novel, not perhaps in an overtly stated manner, but in the way he constantly compares himself to the men he finds attractive, and always coming up short.

The misogyny that would come to define Mishima’s later work, including his other major gay novel, Forbidden Colours, is not as present in this early work, but his relationship with women remains problematic. Much of the latter third of the novel is taken up with his relationship with a girl—Sonoko—who he thinks he loves, only to find his sexuality getting in the way of a true relationship. Perhaps, then, he is not so different from every other gay teen in the world, trying to force something that just isn’t there in the hope of overcoming something that can often be seen as deviant or strange.

A 1000-word blog review cannot get into the depths of complexity that present themselves in Mishima’s second novel. Confessions of a Mask really is a key text – if not in understanding Japanese literature, then at the very least, understanding Mishima and the way he approaches so many things. There are three important things I would suggest need to be taken out of this novel: Mishima’s self-hatred at his own sexuality; his obsession with the male body; and his dismissal of women. Understand these, and you might close to understanding a sizeable and complex body of work.

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Gold Rush (1998) – YŪ Miri

I’ve read some of Yū’s work before, though mostly in Japanese, and mostly skimming through it for thesis preparation. So it was nice to find a whole novel in the library translated into English so I didn’t have to think about it. Yū is a third-generation zainichi Korean writer (click the link for an explanation), though most of her work doesn’t really deal with race or ethnicity in any meaningful way. What she does seem more concerned with, though, is gender roles in contemporary Japan, and the ways in which men and women react to one another.

Kazuki is heir to Vegas, a huge chain of pachinko parlours. His father, Hidetomo Yuminaga, runs the company like a mad-man, but dotes on his middle-son, who is the only child capable of taking over the family business. His eldest son is mentally disabled, and his youngest is a girl. But this free reign has meant Kazuki has lost sight of what it means to be normal – for him, rape, drugs, and violent outbursts are the norm. One day, though, he does something so outrageous in his quest to take his father’s job, nothing will ever be the same again.

I want to start this review by briefly mentioning how I read this novel. I know I just said that Yū is not interested in race in her work, but it’s hard to avoid when you have a Korean name written in Korean characters plastered on your books in an otherwise Japan-friendly Japanese bookstore. Everyone who reads Yū in Japan knows she is ethnically Korean. And I came into the novel with that baggage: I know that, on average, Koreans in Japan are poorer, face more discrimination, are more likely to join gangs, more likely to run pachinko parlours etc. So while it is never explicitly stated (except for one passage where someone refers to Kazuki’s father as Chang Yong-chang – a Korean name if ever I’ve seen one), I think we’re all supposed to understand this to be a Korean family. Just something for those not as invested in Japanese cultural history as I am to think about.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read any other novel that explicitly described an under-age gang rape scene less than twenty pages in. And that’s really the base-line for the sex and violence in this novel. If you are faint-hearted, this is not for you. Fortunately, it almost never seems gratuitous, which is good, because I’ve seen Yū compared to Bret Easton Ellis, whose work I have always found to be gratuitously pushing boundaries of good taste. Yū manages to give us a protagonist who watches his friends gang rape a girl, who sells drugs to his friends, who kills his own father, who beats a dog to death with a golf club, and yet still comes off as almost sympathetic. Almost.

His most redeeming feature is the love and care he shows towards his older brother, Koki, who suffers from Williams Syndrome, which for the purposes of this novel comes across as something on the Autism spectrum. Like all 14 year old boys, Kazuki wants to be treated like an adult, and he thinks that acting like one will get him some respect, Unfortunately, the only real role model he has – his father – is less than ideal. This is the angle Yū pushes as an explanation for Kazuki’s abhorrent behaviour, though it takes her almost the entire novel to really make it explicit, leaving me at least to assume that, for most of the novel, Kazuki is actually just a dick.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of poverty and dirtiness that anyone who’s spent more than five minutes outside the tourist traps of Tokyo will instantly recognise. There’s a delightfully seedy history of gambling, prostitution and other well-regarded under-world activities in Japan’s big (and small) cities, and Kogane-chō is one of the best. It’s perhaps an ironic background, considering just much money the Yuminaga family have, but perhaps that’s the irony here – the rich are getting richer by screwing those addicted to the, quite frankly, ridiculous past-time that is pachinko.

I’ve spent some talking about poverty and money in this novel, and while it certainly is important, gender plays at least as important a role here, too.

Most of the female characters are secondary, and (if I remember correctly) all but one are either violently and horribly abused sexually and physically. It’s not a pretty picture, and I suppose that’s the point – Miho, the younger sister, seems to be a prostitute at the tender age of 15; Sugimoto, the second-in-command at Vegas, is having a violent affair with Kazuki’s father; Mai, Kazuki’s mistress, ends up sleeping with Kazuki, even though he’s only 14, and doesn’t seem happy about it. There’s a lot of stuff here about the role women play in Japanese (zainichi?) society, and it’s clear they are nothing but second-class citizens. From the simple fact that Miho, the daughter of the family, cannot take over the business simply because of her sex, to the treatment of almost every other character as a sex toy, it’s hard not to be confronted and angered by the way in which women are treated. It’s more that misogynistic, and to be fair to mainstream Japanese (and zainichi) society, probably a little exaggerated, but if that’s what it takes, maybe that’s the path Yū has to take.

Kazuki’s mother is the one redeeming feature in this onslaught of unpleasantness. She is everything Hidetomo is not – calm, reserved, and most importantly, relentlessly anti-materialistic. She abandoned her family long ago, realising that the lifestyle she was being forced to live was not doing anything for her mental and spiritual well-being. She provides hope, hope that there is a way out of this cycle of violence and madness. It is to her that Kazuki turns for advice and help in the final act, reaching out from the violent and money-hungry life he has known, in order to find some kind of salvation. She is the antithesis of everything to which Kazuki has previously aspired, and the fact that she (kind of) wins the battle for his soul at the end highlights what I can only assume is Yū’s message here.

Very briefly on the translation style: I don’t like macrons, particularly when they’re used in the names of main characters – it looks funny on the page. But other than that, Stephen Snyder, who also translated The Housekeeper and the Professor, does a good job. (And, having finished the rest of the review, I’ve only just realised I’ve done the same bloody thing with Yū’s name. I’m sorry.)

It’s always seemed strange to me that we don’t apply age ratings to books like we do with films – both contain a wide range of themes and images that can be disturbing to people who might not be ready for them. Gold Rush should come with a warning. It contains intense scenes of rape, drug use and violence. But unlike so many other novels, they all serve a purpose. Yū paints a world where money has corrupted men (and I use that word intentionally here) to such an extent, they have forgotten what it means to be human. Disturbing, confronting, terrifying.

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The Collector (1963) – John FOWLES

The French Lieutenant’s Woman was one of my HSC texts – all those years ago – and though I enjoyed it, I have not gone back to Fowles since. Fun fact for the day – Fowles died four days after my last high school exam (It wasn’t English. It was Ancient History.) But look! Vintage Classics have reissued his list in pretty covers! And they’re so cheap! How can I say no?! And how can I stop using exclamation marks?!

When Frederick Clegg decides to kidnap the girl of his dreams, Miranda Grey, neither of them knows what the end game is. As Miranda tries to come to grips with her new way of life, having been stolen by a man she barely knows, Frederick, too, is having to struggle with some important life questions. Now that he has her, what will he do with her? What does he want out of this? What does she need? And will he ever let her go?

We rattle along the first twenty pages or so, patiently waiting for Frederick to do something of any interest. He seems to be a perfectly gentle young man, if a little odd. It’s amazing just how easily this is conveyed by Fowles by internal monologue alone. It’s not the situations in which he finds himself, but the tone and vocabulary of his monologue are calm and somehow detached from the rest of the world. It is clear he doesn’t fit in, but there’s no real sense of what he is about to do. There are about a billion young men like him lusting after a girl far, far out of their reach.

So when the deed does indeed occur, it is something of a shock. Once again, the matter of fact tone of his retelling of his kidnapping of Miranda is laid out like a recipe. Or perhaps more aptly, recalling a surgery. In many ways, it is his refusal to acknowledge the possible consequences of his actions that make him so weird. I didn’t find him terrifying – this isn’t some Scandinavian slasher novel. So no, not terrifying. But creepy? Yes. Unnerving? Yes. Do I want to share a beer with him? Nope. But he is fascinating, and you can’t help but feel unclean at the fact that you want to find out more about him.

The shift into Miranda’s point of view is, therefore, a pleasant change. She is very, very human, and in many ways, kind of an annoying toff. She is completely oblivious to this fact, though, and she does mean well. That, and she’s been kidnapped by a crazy man, so you can forgive a young lady a few foibles. They’re not even bad faults – she wants everyone to be better. As an art student, she is caught up in the 1960s art scene, when theory and practice were rapidly changing, and people were asking more questions about their paintings. Miranda, so caught up in this, cannot see that other people might not have any interest or desire in the minutiae of this world, and she just wants everyone to be a bit nicer, a bit more educated, a bit better.

Sexuality is at the heart of this novel. We all know people like Frederick, and it’s not entirely surprising to find out that he has absolutely no idea what to do with Miranda once he has her. We never really discover what it is about him that has made him quite so repressed. I suppose, in a way, it’s gentlemanly not to rape the girl you’ve kidnapped? I’m not really sure. Miranda herself veers wildly between making her own advances, in an attempt to try and bribe her way out of the situation, and being repulsed at the thought of bedding him.

Her running hot and cold with him sexually is almost directly related to her own feelings about her predicament. She is, at first, and quite understandably, angry, scared and petrified. She tries to escape, but with inevitable failure, she becomes resigned to her fate, and is willing to play the model prisoner for a while. Inevitably, this never lasts, and she tries again and again to escape, the cycle of anger, horror and sympathy for Frederick doomed to repeat itself ad infinitum. There are echoes of Stockholm Syndrome, but Miranda sees Frederick more of a kind of project, a puzzle to work out and solve, rather than a man she would like to date.

Miranda’s fate seems inevitable when you read it, but for a long time, I was hoping she would get out of her imprisonment unscathed. Alas, it was not to be. What is more terrifying, though, is what Frederick decides to do next. I won’t spoil it for you, but it really drives home his mental instability.

The Collector betrays only a few hints of the intellectually heavy work for which Fowles would later become famous. It is, however, a deeply unnerving book that explores a short, intense relationship that inadvertently bares naked two people to each other, and allows us inside.

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The Valley of Masks (2011) – Tarun J TEJPAL

After a brief break, I’m back on track with the Shadow Man Asian Prize project. After some initial trouble in sourcing this novel, I ended up with two copies on my doorstep last week. More than any other novel on the longlist, The Valley of Masks has fascinated me – a high-concept dystopian novel not especially concerning itself with Indian identity. Truly, this is the black sheep of the list.

Our narrator – a man with many names – is living in hiding in an unnamed Indian city. He fears for his life – the terrifying Wafaders are coming for him. His previous life – born into a cult hiding in a valley in the Himalayan mountains – is catching up with him, and his last act is to tell his tale. This is the story of a child born into love, a boy educated with religious fervour, a young man taught to kill, and an old man who must make a terrible choice.

This is the third book on the longlist to deal with cults, but while Murakami and Yoshimoto did so indirectly, Tejpal gives us the whole kit and kaboodle. In sheer terms of world-building, he has given us an entirely alien society – in an attempt to ensure a lack of selfish, personal attachment, children are raised by a group of women – they never know who their true parents are. They are given one of six names as a child, but in order to become an adult, they must give it up and receive a collection of letters and numbers. In the ultimate sacrifice of personhood and individuality, each member of the society wears the same mask, perfectly moulded to one’s face.

Just as the framing device is our narrator explaining to us his way of life, we get snippets and suggestions about the history of the cult. At the core of every religion, of every system of belief, are myths and legends from history that shape values and world views, and there is no difference here. Its figurehead – Aum, or the first sound in the universe – is he chosen one, and his uprising against the heathens, and his ability to bring clarity and salvation to people is exulted in these tales. His two sidekicks, Ali and Alaiya, also feature heavily. Stories and rumours, too, of people who did not do the right thing, people who broke the rules, are taught to our narrator, who laps them up in his fervour. Attempting to unravel these stories is half the fun – Karna himself admits that his own story has holes in it, because it’s easier for him to tell it this way.

The path of our main character, however, is that of the Wafader – a group of elite warriors, trained to protect the valley from outsiders, from non-believers, and ultimately, from the menace within. These cult symbols are taught to be living killing machines, and their education in the ways of death are exquisitely detailed by Tejpal. Their use of wooden needles to make their victims bleed slowly, but not to death, is covered extensively. There is a definite physicality and masculinity that pervades this novel, and there is only one scene in which this is more apparent than in these training sequences.

As with all good religious orders, the Aum supporting nutjobs here are not what we would describe as enlightened when it comes to the rights of women. They tend to fall into two main categories: the ever present Madonna/whore dichotomy. Madonna in the sense that many of them are given over to raising children in a commune environment, no one ever knowing who is biologically whose; and whore, in the sense that many nubile young girls are sent off to what are essentially brothels (the Serai of Fleeting Happiness, and the Kiln of Inevitable Impulses, for those playing at home) to service the young, and old, men of the community. Rather than reject sexuality as base and degrading, Aum recognises that this is necessary, and so allows men to simply have their way with women in these rooms. Charming.

There is a definite gear shift in the last third of the novel, as things in paradise begin to take a turn for the worse. It’s not until it’s too late that you realise just how truly brainwashed everyone here is. It’s perhaps a long bow to pull, but there are echoes of North Korea here – a personality cult taken to extreme levels, with people willing to do anything for their Gentle Father. I hesitate to use the word brainwashed, but in both situations, the ability of those in charge to manipulate their followers into thinking they are doing the right thing is terrifying.

I’m not going to spoil it for you – it would rather ruin the entire thing – but Tejpal pushes his already disturbing tale into almost horrific territory. Actually – and I’m worried this is going to make me sound like a monster – I thought he was going to push the envolope even further, and was slightly disappointed he didn’t. After a litany of events and decisions that would leave any sane and rational person quivering at the knees, Karna is sent . And at the final hurdle, he fails. Of course he fails – and perhaps this is Tejpal’s point. There is a line in all of us where some kind of inherent morality or sensibility takes over from any kind of religious indoctrination, even if said indoctrination has the weight of 45 years behind it.

There’s so much more I want to talk about, but I’m going to leave it there, because I rather think I’m beginning to ramble. I loved The Valley of Masks. Purely as a world-building exercise, Tejpal proves himself a master – his cult is perfectly formed, and while perhaps pushes the boundaries of believability, it does it in a recognisable setting, making you forget your questions. But his insights into belief, into faith, and the boundaries of those things that make us who we are, probe deep into an uncomfortable question we must constantly ask ourselves.

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