A preeminent novelist who grew up in fin de siècle Japan and died in 1965, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (probably best known in the West for The Makioka Sisters) created an eroticism in his works that was provocative, often comic, at times even grotesque. One of his great gifts as a writer was to make the reader feel the precise, exquisite libidinal tingle that accompanies a male character’s not-quite-fulfilled, yet not-quite-frustrated relationship with the object of his desire. Today, his fiction continues to draw us in through an intricate, masterly grasp of the psychology of male desire, rather than graphic sexual description. That is not to say the body is absent, but it mainly appears in bits and pieces. Feet (a key Tanizaki fetish), buttocks, hair, nape, breasts—they’re all present, but structured as some sort of Cubist narrative corresponding to the man’s obsession at the moment. Seemingly in command, the typical Tanizaki protagonist in reality is caged and tormented by obsessive desire. In contrast, the woman he’s mad about is freer, less sentimental, and sometimes coldly calculating with regard to love.
Now, in the six stories previously untranslated into English that comprise The Gourmet Club, we have a fairly accurate mini-retrospective of his career. Almost all the tales, written over a period of 45 years, feature characters who are variants on, or prefigure, Naomi and Joji—the main characters in Naomi, his first novel, written in 1924. Under the care of the solidly bourgeois but weak-willed Joji—who promises to fashion her into a lady—the eponymous heroine, a 15-year-old waitress, grows into a beautiful but capricious woman, infatuated with such Western-style fads as ballroom dancing and Hollywood films. She plays a selfish Liza to Joji’s ineffectual Professor Higgins, distributing her sexual favors among a clique of devoted young men that includes a Westerner.
As in the novel, the stories contain, in varying degrees, such trademark Tanizaki themes as erotic obsession, a fascination with games, unbridled hedonism, and the West’s impact on Japan. Two of the earliest stories date from 1911. In “The Children,” a girl delights in having three boys, including her brother, act as her minions in sometimes painful rites of her own devising, while “The Secret” has a beautiful woman rekindle an affair with the cross-dressing narrator, on the condition that he be blindfolded before being brought over to her house. The last story, “Manganese Dioxide Dreams” (written in 1955), is a deliriously weird and hypnotic conflation of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, Chinese classical texts, a visit to a strip show, and the narrator’s meditation on his feces. Throughout, from girl dominatrix to toilet meditator, Tanizaki’s style remains remarkably consistent, though the plots, such as they are, become even more minimalist in the later stories. What’s clear is that pleasure—intense, devilish, startling—is the principle that rules his characters’ lives, but it is pleasure always premised on suspense, suspicion, and guilt.
Its single-minded pursuit can, however, lead to derangement. In “Mr. Bluemound,” the film director and husband of a beautiful movie actress meets a fan of hers who, by compulsively studying her films shot by shot, knows as much about her body as, and possibly even more than, he does. In a late-night boozy conversation with this crazed fan and, later, at the latter’s home, the director realizes that as an auteur, he’s not too different from this maniacal voyeur. As the fellow tells him, “Let’s not forget this, it’s important: your wife may be a reality but the one on film is an independent reality as well. . . . Where, except on film, does the truly beautiful woman you love, I daresay even adore, exist?”
Not surprisingly, the title story—about a Tokyo club made up of five eccentric men in search of the perfect meal—revolves around cuisine as a site for eros, though Tanizaki’s treatment is far from the simple, lyrical carnality that, for instance, attends the characters who eat in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. In Tanizaki’s tale, food is not what gives rise (pun intended) to randiness; it is the act of eating itself that is sexually pleasurable. In the story’s brilliant climax, set in an inky dark dining hall, the head of the club—inspired by witnessing a fantastic Chinese banquet—orchestrates an awe-inspiring feast for his gourmet peers. Each member is served ham with Chinese cabbage by a young woman. In a scene that comes as close as Tanizaki gets to foreplay and penetration, though in gender reversal, she massages the man’s face, stretches his lips, then puts her hand into his mouth and somehow secretes the dish with her slippery fingers.
Drawn on by the wondrous flavor, he bit down on each of the five fingertips, crushing them, and then swallowing. The fingers, however, not only lost nothing of their shape but continued to exude a liquid and to twine the bok choi fibers around his teeth and tongue. Bite down and chew as he might, from the tips of the fingers there spouted endless replacements—just as a long string of little flags might emerge from within the hands of some stage magician.
What made Tanizaki, a real-life gourmet, such a devotee of the voluptuary’s path? Part of the answer may lie in the collection’s atypical story, “The Two Acolytes,” probably written in the early 1920s. Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy (the book’s excellent translators) suggest that it can be read as the young writer engaging himself in debate. Two apprentice monks and friends, studying at a mountaintop Buddhist temple, end up in vastly different ways. One leaves for the pleasures of the ukiyo or floating world, while the other, though tempted by his friend’s descriptions, remains committed to the Buddhist aim of renunciation. Written simply, the tale already has Tanizaki’s peerless faculty of understanding human desire at work. The ex-monk writes his friend, “Believe me, the joy of being just a common layman involved with the passions is infinitely preferable to being an ascetic practicing the ‘Perfect and Sudden Way’ to enlightenment.”
Tanizaki was, of course, no “common layman,” and while it’s difficult to imagine him as a Buddhist monk, still, I’m convinced that he would have been as devout in his obeisance to the spirit as to the body. The appeal of nirvana after all lies in its promise of transcending pleasure—an otherworldly hedonism that is surely the ultimate delight.