Books: Some Prefer Nettles

I recently finished an exasperating read: an unhappy couple can’t bring themselves to divorce. If they part during the spring, it will color every spring. If they tell her father…if they tell their son….

The book is “Some Prefer Nettles”, by Junichiro Tanizaki, Vintage International, $13.95, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker.

51pqrc339nlI loved it. The book brings an old world to life, the story is thoughtful and unpredictable. Best of all: it made me think.

Written and set in the late 1920’s, the story is a confessional: its author offered his wife to a friend, who accepted. He didn’t dislike her; she didn’t interest him sexually.

Or does she? When the story opens, husband Kaname catches the scent of his wife’s perfume, the care and attention she takes with her dress, the feeling of her hand against his neck as she helps him dress. He professes a steadfast belief in their “modern marriage”, but it bothers him that Misako sees her lover more often and for many days in a row.

As the story unfolds, it’s clear that no woman can fulfill him: Kaname is attracted — and repelled — by every woman. The prostitute he frequents is too modern, his father in-law’s young mistress is luscious but schooled in Old World arts and manners.

Kaname and his travels are the bulk of the story, but my heart went out to Misako. If her father finds out about her affair, he could disown her. When she leaves, she’ll lose her son. And if she waits too long to leave, her lover’s family could decide her unworthy of their son.

She is the property of men.

When her father learns of the affair, the couple finally act. They go to Kyoto to meet with him, even though Misako protests. After all, her fate is to be decided by her father and her husband. Once there, her father takes her to dinner; Kaname is left with the mistress.

The ending is so provocative, it took me several re-readings and days to figure it out. Too, it sent me to the translator’s notes. There he writes that Tanizaki is purposely vague. “Do not try to be too clear; leave gaps in the meaning.”

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