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Nagai Kafu’s geisha: expurgated, revised, then finally fully exposed

by Donald Richie

Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale, translated by Stephen Snyder. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 166 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Komayo, widowed young, resumes her life as a geisha, taking up with a former patron who wants to redeem her. She, however, falls in love with a young actor specializing in female roles, and at the same time (for financial reasons) has to take on an unattractive older man. In the end three lovers prove disastrous.

There has long been much confusion about just how far geisha go, and this has proved titillating — as in some recent novels, films and TV dramas. In this Nagai Kafu novel we learn that, given proper motivation, they go the whole way. What the late Edward Seidensticker has called “the carnal part of the business” is here fully exposed.

Consequently, this novel (“Udekurabe,” 1916-17) by one of Japan’s finest writers has had a singular publishing history. Originally serialized, it was later revised by the author. Much was taken out and three new chapters added. This version was published privately in 1917, and was followed by a commercial edition a year later that was expurgated and shorn of its carnal descriptions. It was not until 1949 that a somewhat restored edition appeared. Though some passages were thought too strong for 1918 were included, still much was left out and it was not until 1956 that the complete 1917 text appeared in a commercial edition.

The complications of publishing in Japan are mirrored in the novel’s career abroad. It was originally translated in 1963 by Kurt Meissner, with the collaboration of Ralph Fiedrich, but the edition used was the expurgated one of 1918. Then parts of the original edition were translated in Edward Seidensticker’s magisterial “Kafu the Scribbler” (1965), but only parts — he never translated the entire novel. So this new Stephen Snyder translation is the first to appear complete. The qualities of the translations vary:

“Picking their way along the stepping stones, the two were at length in the far shrubbery. O-chiyo shielded the lantern with her sleeve and held her breath, but the Sonohachi [music] had stopped, and there was only a faint shadow on the paper door. The old villa was silent.” (Seidensticker)

“Following the stepping-stones, they made their way into the underbrush. O-Chiyo shielded the lantern with her sleeve and held her breath, but the Sonohachi music died away, leaving only the faint light shining through the paper doors of the veranda. They could hear nothing, no voices, no laughter, only the desolate silence.” (Snyder)

“Picking their way from one stepping-stone to another, the two of them shortly entered the thick shrubbery. Ochiyo, concealing the lantern behind one of her kimono sleeves, held her breath. Just then, the Sonohachi music came suddenly to an end, and after that there was nothing but the faint light shining through the paper doors of the veranda. A lonely silence had come over the villa, and there was neither the sound of talk nor of laughter nor of anything else.” (Meissner/Friedrich)

The novel was something of a best-seller when it appeared, with passages such as “when she finally escaped from his embrace, she was breathing great gasps, she could scarcely speak, and she had no will to get up” (Seidensticker’s translation). This was considered really hot stuff in 1918, tame as it appears now.

But whether the book was ever a “masterpiece,” which is what this edition calls itself, is open to some doubt. Seidensticker says that “the highly contrived plot, relying heavily on coincidence, could have been lifted bodily from a 19th-century erotic novel,” and Snyder, in his very perceptive “Fic- tions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu,” indicates how much the ear- ly Kafu was influenced. The opening scene of “Rivalry,” for ex- ample, was borrowed from Zola’s “Nana,” a novel Kafu had earlier adapted in 1903 as “Joyu Nana.”

Though anything by Kafu is worth reading and any new translations are welcome, the full importance of the writer is to be more directly experienced in such later works as “A Strange Tale from East of the River” (“Bokuto Kidan,” 1936-37), in Seidensticker’s splendid translation — included in both “Kafu the Scribbler” (University of Hawaii Press) and Tuttle’s 1965 reprint of translations from that volume.

This full version of “Udekurabe” comes with a full-color image of a geisha on the cover and it is not perhaps too much to wonder if the present pub- lication of the much-trans- lated novel does not owe something to the current popularity in the U.S. of the geisha theme. At any rate, the publishers would seem to target this audience when they add, to Kafu’s one word title: “Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale.” In the meantime, much late Kafu (including the “Diaries”) awaits translation.