“A querulous, self-righteous man, whose social criticism rarely rose above the level of personal complaining … .”
Stanford University Press, Nonfiction.
If this is how the writer Nagai Kafu struck his biographer and translator, Edward Seidensticker, what are the rest of us to think?
Two possibilities. One: Here’s a biographer who is not in thrall to his subject — not a bad thing, surely. Two: Character flaws are as apt to enrich a writer’s work as impoverish it, and Kafu’s flaws do rather a lot of both. You read him with mingled admiration and repugnance, the former because he really is a very fine writer, the latter because … well, he is querulous and self-righteous, and there are times when he annoys the hell out of you.
He was a cranky solitary, one of whose major themes is cranky solitude. Another is the erotic demimonde made up of geisha, licensed prostitutes and, later on in his long career, unlicensed prostitutes — a personal degradation reflective, he felt, of the increasing degradation of his times as a grating industrial and military future encroached hatefully on a vanishing, mistily poetic past whose spokesman he appointed himself to be.
“Kafu the Scribbler” is half biography, half anthology; a sort of collaboration between two very fine writers. “I am utterly indifferent to what my family thinks of me,” Kafu wrote. “I am a poet; they are ordinary human beings.”
It’s not a nice thing to say, but he was a poet. That much is undeniable.
Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.