Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Quicksand by Junichiro Tanizaki

I've finally finished my third Junichiro Tanizaki novel (The Makioka Sisters and Naomi were the other two). Mel u over at The Reading Life actually recommended it to me last summer and I completely agree with her review, especially the part about reading everything written by Tanizaki because his writing style is amazing. In fact, one of my goals for 2012 is to read all of his books in the order they were written.

In Quicksand, after her affair with another man, a young married woman, Sonoko, enrolls at "a third-rate private school, with departments for painting, music, sewing, embroidery, and all." He husband, who had studied German law and wanted to be a professor, has just opened a law practice. His reasons for doing this are unclear, though Sonoko suggests that he was ashamed of depending on her parents' support.

At school, Sonoko notices Mitsuko, a very beautiful classmate, and unconsciously models her painting of the Kannon Bodhisattva after Mitsuko, drawing the attention of the school's director and creating rumors about the relationship between the two women, despite the fact that they hadn't met. Mitsuko approaches Sonoko and, after explaining that the rumors are the result of an attempt to discredit her to a potential husband, encourages Sonoko to spend time with her publicly in an effort to "make fun of everyone."

Their friendship quickly becomes a romantic relationship and Sonoko eventually meets Watanuki, the man Mitsuko plans to marry, and Sonoko and Watanuki become both rivals and uneasy allies, which produces, in my opinion, one of the more disturbing scenes in the book. Eventually, Sonoko's husband becomes entangled in the relationship.

Looking back over my reading notes, it's obvious nearly from the beginning that Mitsuko isn't being completely honest. Part of this might come from the summary of the book, which refers to Mitsuko as "a femme fatale as seductive and corrupt as any in the history of fiction, and a deceiver so heartlessly accomplished that she can turn even Sonoko's husband into her accomplice." At first, I was annoyed when I realized that by revealing the Mitsuko's involvement with Sonoko's husband, it spoiled almost 90% of the novel, but since the plot as advancing until the last paragraph, it's not as much of a spoiler as it would seem. Of course, the reader also knows from the beginning that, whatever happens between the three of them, Sonoko's husband is dead by the end of the book.

Sonoko, unlike the narrator of Naomi, is aware of what's happening. In of my favorite quotes, she says:

So I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand, and although I said to myself I had to escape, by this time, I was helpless. I knew I was being used by Mitsuko and that all the while she was calling me her dear sister she was actually making a fool of me.

I suppose it would be more accurate to say she's somewhat aware, much the same as the reader is. Like Sonoko, I started doubting everything Mitsuko said or did fairly early on, assuming that there was a hidden motivation or goal in all her actions. There generally was, but, like Sonoko, I was unprepared for the end of the story. It takes a talented writer to create a situation where the reader questions everything in the narrative, yet is still shocked by the ending.

The book has a lot of the themes I've come to expect from Tanizaki. First, there was the eroticism and obsession, as well as self-destructive love. There was also the feeling of a society on the brink of change and a battle between the traditional and modern. For instance, while Sonoko studies traditional Japanese painting, Mitsuko studies Western painting. A book on Western birth control also plays an important part in the story.

Family also plays a significant role, or, more specifically, the issues springing up from an unequal match and the feeling of obligation to a family. Sonoko's husband's family is apparently below Sonoko's family. Her family supports him, even considering him a good catch because of his academic record, going as far as to take him into the family "like an adopted son" and ensuring that the couple are supported while her husband is studying, but also allowing them to go abroad for two or three years. This apparently leads to friction, with Sonoko saying that her husband found her "too willful" because of her family's position. This leads indirectly to Sonoko's relationship with Mitsuko.

Tanizaki is one of my favorite authors, but while I love reading his books, I hate writing about them because I never feel like I'm doing his work justice. I absolutely loved Quicksand though and wholeheartedly recommend it.


  1. I know how you feel, when writing about this writer, when I was writing about "The secret history of the lord of Musashi & Arrowroot" after writing my post I headed any readers in the direction of Mels post on the same book. I have also read his fantastic essay on Japanese aesthetics "In Praise of Shadows" and hope to read (on my TBR Shelf) "Some Prefer nettles" & "7 Japanese Tales".

  2. OH dear, I feel bad knowing I've never read or even heard about this author. Thanks for bringing him to my notice, I look up this and his other books as well.

  3. @Parrish Lantern: Mel definitely does an amazing job with Tanizaki. I'm not familiar with "In Praise of Shadows," but I'll have to check it out. The man's writing is amazing.

    @violetcrush: Don't feel bad, I hadn't heard of him until about a year and a half ago when I picked up The Makioka Sisters because it looked interesting. I absolutely recommend him, though. The Makioka Sisters was one of his last works and seems to get the most attention. It's more sedate, longer, and took a little more for me to get into it, but when I finally did, it was worth it. A lot of his other works are shorter and more erotic. Everything I've read by him has been enjoyable, though.