Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Quilt and Other Stories by Tayama Katai

The central character of Futon or The Quilt is a man caught in the midst of many contradictory desires, originally appearing in 1907 its mention and discussion of repressed passions may have provoked sharp intakes of breath although from a retrospective viewpoint the story is a fully realized portrait of a man caught with ennui in the emerging realization that his married life is running on empty. Through translator Kenneth G. Henshall's thorough introduction we learn that Futon along with Toson's Hakai/The Broken Commandment, of 1906 is one of the earliest examples of the Shishosetsu. Takenaka Tokio is a man of literature who receives repeated requests to act as a patron for a young woman named Yoshiko whose character is the polar opposite to that of his wife, she in ways represents the new age, unlike Tokio's rather old fashioned wife she has a passion for new literature, under Tokio's tutelage the plan is that she will become a successful writer, which of the time the idea of a female author was more than likely seen as being quite a modern phenomenon. There are many scenes of desperation throughout the beginning of the story, Tokio's sense of entrapment within his marriage reduces him to bouts of drinking out of frustration, and when Yoshiko has moved into the family home he begins to become deeply enraptured by her, but is caught in wondering if she feels the same way, rumours go around and she has to move to a relatives house to avoid the gossip of scandal spreading. The story becomes more fraught for Tokio when it's discovered that Yoshiko had been whisked away one night by a fellow student, Tanaka, and Tokio is left in a state of agonized suspicion as to whether anything happened between the two, has Yoshiko's chastity been preserved?, the rest of the story witnesses the untangling of the predicament. Futon is obviously an important landmark work in Japanese Literature, there is much here that is representative of the changing attitudes of the age, and also of it heralding the changes within literary styles told with a psychological honesty that must has made revelatory reading on its publication. When considering what had been before, the honest and unrestrained voice of Futon and some of the other stories here must have seemed to represent a colossal shift in direction and tone, Kenneth G. Henshall also discusses Tayama's reactions to readings of Guy de Maupassant, Turgenev, Zola, Nietzsche, Sudermann and Hauptmann, and his philosophical outlook and his own vision of the leading writers of Naturalism of the day.
As mentioned The Girl Watcher/Shojobyo, 1907, is very much in the same vein as Futon, it was written slightly before, although everything is much more out of reach and at a distance for the protagonist, Sugita Kojo - also a literary man, although past his prime, he was once a popular writer of 'girl novels', and is ridiculed for his interests in romantic notions. Instead of being in contact with the woman at the centre of his fixation, and aside from returning a hair comb that she drops, he has to make do with watching her amongst the crowds aboard the tightly packed trains. Sugita is a pitiable character, although despite his appearance - 'he had the looks and build of someone about to do battle with the beasts', he believes in pure love, and the power of instinct, seeing the woman he questions himself: 'How could such a pretty girl exist in this vulgar world', his narrative dips into being that of a lament for his chaste youth. Another element of the autobiographical can be seen in the story One Soldier/Ippeisotsu, 1908, which also appears in the anthology - this story comes from the perspective of a wounded soldier on the eve of the Battle of Liaoyang, war and the military was something that Tayama had first hand experiences of in a number of ways, his father was killed in action during the Satsuma Rebellion, 1877, and in 1904 he was sent to Manchuria to report on the Russo-Japan War but was sent back after contracting typhoid and on his return, Kenneth G. Henshall adds, he was treated by the writer/doctor Mori Ogai.

The stories cover the period from 1902 to 1914, I'm not sure of the intention in the way they are presented but there is a linking familiarity in some of the settings of the stories and in the way that some of them thematically merge, The Girl Watcher with its tragic accident on the railway at its ending links to the story The Railway Track, 1912, which begins with an accident on the rail lines, and One Soldier shares perspectives with The Sound of Wheels/Karuma no oto from 1908. One Cold Morning/Samui asa, 1914, and The Photograph/Shashin, 1909, appear as being two brief stories that stand alone in their setting, The Photograph is in ways as literal as it sounds, offering a snapshot portrait into the lives of a group of people assembled for the taking of a photograph, and One Cold Morning witnesses the intrusion of death in an innocently presented domestic scene.

It could be said that in every short story collection there is a stand out story, and Futon is obviously the most widely known perhaps for its notoriety, but for me The End of Juemon/Juemon no saigo, from 1902, is a story that wanders away from the rest in the uniqueness of its narrative and in depicting how the forces of nature surreptitiously intercede on man's fate, it's the earliest story here from 1902, written when Tayama was 30 and influenced by his reading of Hermann Sudermann's Der Katzensteg/The Cat's Bridge, aka Regina or The Sins of the Fathers, from 1890. The narrator recounts meeting in his school days two fellow students, Yamagata and Nemoto, who had come to the city from a remote village in Nagano, they rent lodgings above a bath house, and as they grow closer they exchange stories of characters and families from their hometown. Some years later the narrator tracks out the village of his friends and asks a villager for directions to their family homes, he learns that the village is in a state of turmoil and unrest after recent attacks of arson. After meeting up with one of his old friends the story of the outcast Fujita Juemon begins to emerge, born with a rare deformity which left him with an enlarged scrotum, symbolizing by implication the state of the family legacy he inherits, his childhood was filled with episodes of rejection and ridicule, although eventually he marries and for a time his life appears to stabilize, only again he falls back into previous debaucheries that are a result of the anguish he feels at his deformity, after learning of his extra marital activities his wife too has an affair, Juemon's life disintegrates and he takes up with a feral woman and goes on a rampage of revenge to vent  his bottled up sense of rejection. The story is imbued with an almost mythic quality, and its setting in a remote village near the Chikuma River, overlooking Mt. Kosha adds to this, it's a story that holds a deeply entwined morality to it, Juemon's end is one that ends in murder after the natives can no longer tolerate his arson attacks. His death is made to look like an accident in a rather bungled attempt at a cover up, although set in a remote village and thus seen as a microcosm, The End of Juemon reads very much as a case study in the psychology of communal thinking, of the transferability of moral codes and examines the margins between acceptance and non-acceptance, Juemon appears as the scapegoat that is sacrificed in order to preserve the sense of the 'normal'. The tone of the narrator is one that becomes more affected and more empathetic to Juemon's plight as the story progresses, at the beginning of one of his contemplations of what he is witnessing he considers - "If man is completely natural, then it's bound to end in tragedy. For then nature necessarily comes into conflict with the conventions of the present day. In which case, does not nature itself end up, in this world, as unnatural?", (pg142) . Out of the eight stories The End of Juemon/Juemon no saigo seems to offer the most penetrating insight into Tayama's at times harsh and unrelenting vision of naturalism, written a little over 110 years ago, during reading I had to pause to contemplate at the period of its setting. The collection was originally published by Tokyo University Press and is currently out of print.

For a more in depth look on the shishosetsu - The Rhetoric of Confession by Edward Fowler.

and also Kenneth G. Henshall's book on Tayama Katai  - In Search of Nature, Brill Books, 2012


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