Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is one of the most highly-regarded authors of modern Japanese literature. Longing and Other Stories collects three works from the first decade of his career, all originally published from 1916 to 1921.
Tanizaki’s career spanned Japan’s era of modernization through the decade after World War II. In these early stories, he takes what the translators identify as “the challenges that a rapidly changing society presents for traditional Confucian concepts of the family.” The tension is most marked in “Sorrows of a Heretic,” translated by Chambers. The protagonist, Shōzaburō, tries to pull away from Meiji Japan’s value system, but he cannot escape:
And so his heart was a prisoner to his parents; but the more aware he was of the depth of their bonds, the more he cursed and feared them. Unable to let go of his parents’ hands, even as he shunned them, he was furious at his own weak will.
Notable in both Tanizaki’s writing and the translations here is the variation in tone. Each of these three stories is highly distinct. “Longing”, translated by McCarthy, is claustrophobic and ethereal. (For example, the narrator describes “a strange, phantasmal sort of light, one that suggests some far, far distant, eternal land quite separate from our human world.”) In comparison, “Sorrows of a Heretic” is cynical and driven by the narrator’s self-loathing. A sense of dread looms in “The Story of an Unhappy Mother”.
A thoughtful and thorough translator’s afterword provides careful analysis of the stories’ shared features. Attributed to both Chambers and McCarthy, it is for an excellent addition—and makes up almost 10% of the volume’s content. The translators identify, for example, the shared theme of sons and their changing relationships with their mothers: in “Longing,” a young boy embarks on a fever dream search for his mother; in “Sorrows of a Heretic,” Shōzaburō continually horrifies his mother with his unfilial and selfish behavior; and in “The Story of an Unhappy Mother”, a tale with Oedipal undertones, the narrator’s older brother blames himself for his mother’s unnecessary death.
The afterword also includes relevant biographical details from Tanizaki’s life. Again, “Sorrows of Heretic” is the clearest example. In a 1917 preface to the story, reprinted in the translators’ afterword, Tanizaki describes the “matters that struck [his] heart as facts” from the childhood he recalls. The afterword goes on to catalogue overlap between Tanizaki’s life and Shōzaburō’s.
A good deal of Tanizaki’s work is already available in English. However, Longing and Other Stories provides not only three thematically-linked stories to the canon, the afterword also adds an excellent resource of accessible scholarship and close-reading.