Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki
Published in 1924, Naomi is one of Junichiro Tanizaki's earliest novels. I picked this book for my first blog post on this group because in my past reading experience, Tanizaki has been a constant winner - I can't recommend enough books such as Quicksand, The Gourmet Club, and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.
Tanizaki's fiction is known for its sensuality and dreaminess, both drawn in terms that evoke simultaneously the sublime and the seedy underbelly of excessive and improper desire. Beautiful and disturbing (but not in the "loud" and sensationalist vein of Ryu Murakami or even, it could be argued, Yukio Mishima), Tanizaki always treads one step away from the complete destruction of the recognizably human. Indeed, even as his characters engage in dissipation of all kinds, they usually remain sympathetic to some degree because they remain comprehensible and familiar-seeming.
I have to say that, unfortunately, the fine edge of Tanizaki's pen was not yet so finely honed when we wrote Naomi. The sensuality and depravity are certainly present in his story of Joji (an upstanding salary man in his late 20s) and his obsession with Naomi (a 15-year old of dubious background whom he meets and rescues from working in a cafe of sorts).
Joji's obsession is intense and masochistic...but somehow neither terrifying, compelling, nor (as the back cover copy suggests) hilarious - at least not to me. I found the characters to be rather more in the realm of caricature and Joji's submission to Naomi just plain pathetic and therefore intensely irritating. This is likely because I found his need for Naomi neither believable nor his reasons for it comprehensible, and so felt that I was wasting my time reading about it.
In spite of all this, I don't believe that my negative response to this book should put anyone off Tanizaki or even Naomi. Rather, I think Tanizaki is an author who really should be read chronologically. Starting with his most brilliant works can only invite negative comparisons to less mature efforts such as this one.