When an aging professor attempts to arouse the repressed passions of his wife, he finds that his own declining sexual vigor may fail him in the endeavor.
In much of Junichiro Tanizaki’s work, sexual deviation takes on colorful and inventive forms, including a good deal of sado-masochism, voyeurism, infatuation and a range of erotic obsessions, such as the foot fetish (apparently shared by Tanizaki himself) that appears in this short novel
Like the Irish poet William Yeats, who did everything in his power to sustain his virility, the protagonist in “The Key” resorts to all available methods to shore up his flagging libido. The explicitness of the narrative here is achieved through a voyeuristic intrigue that draws in the reader, with two main characters relating their feelings through diaries that each assumes the other will read — both revealing differing interpretations of events.
Using the diary entries to surreptitiously prod his wife to commit adultery in order to enhance his own desire may replicate the author’s own unfulfilled first marriage, in which he encouraged his partner to enter into a relationship with one of his friends, a fellow writer.
In other hands, material like this would doubtless have appeared lurid or titillating, but in this late work by Tanizaki, one of the world’s major literary figures, we experience a narrative marked by irony, wit and an observation of the human condition in extremis.
Each week “Essentials” introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.