RIVALRY, by Nagai Kafu. Translated by Stephen Snyder. Columbia University Press, 2011, 165 pp. $20.00 (paper)

Nagai Kafu’s “Rivalry,” according to the late Edward Seidensticker, is “on the one hand nostalgic, lyrical, and reminiscent, and on the other a modern social novel, purporting to show how life for geisha really is.”

Seidensticker’s description of the novel, newly available as a paperback in English, is accurate. But while he believes that Kafu fails to convince us “to accept the geisha and her quarter as simultaneously an escape from crass reality and the embodiment of crass reality,” in fact, the dance between Kafu’s loving descriptions of a dying but still elegant demimonde, and the geisha’s less elegant struggle for survival, makes the book richer than it would have been if it were limited to either unadulterated nostalgic effusion or gritty social commentary.

The grit that is present keeps the novel from floating off into the ether; the effusions, when they occur, are the high points of the book.

Set in about 1912, “Rivalry” is, in part, a celebration of the world of the Shimbashi geisha, a bit of old Edo that had managed to hang on. An unabashed cultural conservative, Kafu deplored the modernity that threatened what he loved about the capital, and he made it his business to commemorate what was being lost. “Rivalry” is a part of this project.

He tells the story of a geisha called Komayo and in doing so imparts both the sophistication of her world, and the sordidness the sophistication conceals. The sordidness — and also the rivalries that give the novel its title — can be traced to the absolute dependence of geisha on their male patrons, and the ease with which these men’s affections — and money — could shift from one geisha to another.

The biggest mistake a geisha can make, we learn, is to fall in love. When Komayo is unwise — and human — enough to do so, she neglects, and ultimately loses the patronage of, a well-heeled businessman called Yoshioka with whom she is not in love, but who might have provided her with a bit more security than she would otherwise enjoy. We see, however, in her reflections on her situation, that she is anything but uncalculating.

“If she equivocated too long, it would be the same as refusing him. If she refused him, she would be losing more than just a good customer, … she would be losing a great deal indeed. But on the other hand, were she to become a kept woman and then find herself abandoned, she would face the prospect of having to return to the quarter.” She does equivocate too long, and loses both Yoshioka, and the actor with whom she has fallen in love, and who, she believes, loves her.

The intrigues in which Komayo and other geisha engage in order to procure and keep wealthy benefactors are fascinating, and are the source of the novel’s plot, but it is in the digressions from that plot, in the backgrounds against which the machinations take place, that the bulk of the book’s pleasures are to be found.

A whole chapter, for example, is devoted to the reflections of a “writer of frivolous tales” who happens to live next door to a house owned by the actor’s family. The chapter is all but irrelevant to the story, but the writer’s garden is described in such a way that we begin to feel we’d rather spend the rest of the book there than follow the plot back to the Shimbashi geisha quarter.

We want to join the writer in his contemplation of the passing year: “It was in that season one knew the pleasure of winter confinement: a cup of tea brewed in the dead of night or the berries of the nandina or yabukoji, lovelier than flowers against the snow.”

Geisha, we’ve often been told, are not prostitutes, but some of Kafu’s characters engage in prostitute-like behavior considered shocking enough that the unexpurgated novel was not published until 1947, 30 years after it was written.

Snyder’s fluent translation is the first time “Rivalry,” un-bowdlerized, has appeared in English, and the combination of Snyder’s prose with Kafu’s vision leaves one eager to return to the Edo that lives in the scribbler’s fiction.

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