Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale Hardcover – Sep 21 2007
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Portraits of Japanese geisha most often present these women either as tragic victims of oppressive institutions catering to male sexual desire or as sexually empowered entrepreneurs navigating a harsh reality. In Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale, Nagai Kafu introduces us to an altogether different geisha. Because Komayo's story is not offered as an allegory for a woman's place in a man's world, she emerges as a vivid, complex character fiercely resistant to narrow-minded moralizing and simplistic glorification. Her tale pulls readers into a far more compelling worldthat of messy, inconsistent, and irreconcilable human attitudes toward love, sex, power, and performance.(James Dorsey, Dartmouth College)
Nagai Kafu's novel is powerfully observed, exposing the tension between the elegant surface of the geisha districts and the sexual hierarchy that unfolds behind closed doors between the geisha and their patrons. Stephen Snyder's sensitive and smooth translation draws the reader into a sometimes outrageous, sometimes alluring world. An important corrective to the romanticized and exoticizing Hollywood versions of the geisha experience.(Ann Sherif, Oberlin College)
Now we have a complete translation of Rivalry, Nagai Kafu's novel about the couplings and calculations in the world of geisha. The inclusion of the sexually explicit scenes left out in the prior translation makes this version funnier and infinitely tougher. Komayo's distress in the final chapters can only be comprehended if we know the full demands she faces as a geisha.(Ken K. Ito, University of Michigan)
An awesomely economical and incisive writer, Nagai packs this short novel with incident and astonishingly thorough characterizations.(Booklist (starred review))
This new translation by Snyder... successfully transforms Nagai's Taisho-era Japanese into flowing modern English.(Library Journal)
Snyder is to be thanked both for translating this half-forgotten novel... and for doing it so compellingly.(Bradley Winterton Taipei Times)
About the Author
Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) was a Japanese novelist whose translated works include Autumn Wind and Other Stories, American Stories, and During the Rains and Flowers in the Shades: Two Novellas.
Stephen Snyder teaches Japanese language and literature at Middlebury College. He is the author of Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu and coeditor of Oe and Beyond: Studies in Contemporary Japanese Literature.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The real reason for reading RIVALRY, however, is for its portrayal of its time and place. The translator Stephen Snyder, in his Introduction, writes that RIVALRY "is perhaps the best depiction of the complex politics and economics of a hanamachi [geisha district] in modern Japanese literature." The novel also is, according to Snyder, "among the franker depictions of the sexual component of the geisha's duties." For a work written in 1916, RIVALRY is remarkably forthright in its accounts of several sexual episodes. (I cannot think of any American fiction from the same period that is as frank.)
Author Nagai Kafū (b. 1879, d. 1959) is an astute student of human psychology and desires, both male and female. He reminds me of Henry James, though somewhat more direct. Also notable about Kafū, at least as represented in RIVALRY, is a certain "Weltschmerz".
With regard to the urge for sexual conquest, portions of the novel seem almost timeless. Would you guess that this passage - concerning Yoshioka, an up-and-coming insurance executive around forty years old and one of Komayo's patrons and rivals for her affections - was written in 1916 and not a century later?: "Yoshioka's need to experience the carnal delights of civilized society was not unlike the urge that in ancient times led men to mount their steeds and chase wild beasts across the plains, to kill them and eat their flesh; the same urge that led medieval warriors to don fine armor and shed their blood on the field of combat. They all were simply manifestations of that pathetic, and yet seemingly limitless, human energy known as desire. With the advance of civilization, this energy was transformed, expressing itself now as the pursuit of luxury and pleasure, or else as the will to dominate in the business world. Fame, wealth, and women--these were the driving forces in the life of the modern man."
As foreign as the setting is, the writing is surprisingly Western. In part that perhaps is due to the fact that Kafū traveled extensively in Europe and America. No doubt it also is due to Stephen Snyder's translation, which is modern and American in tone, and features numerous colloquial expressions. There is one other English translation in print, by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich, but since it is based on an early expurgated Japanese edition, this one by Snyder is the one to get.
This is the story of a geisha who after having been married by one of her customers, returns to the quarter when her husband dies and she cannot survive in the remote country area of his relatives.
She becomes involved in a love triangle where she is ultimately disappointed. The ending is, however, in the context of the book, a happy one.
More important than the plot to the modern reader is the picture of everyday life of a geisha in that period and their vulnerability to the whims of men and the fears that they face. It also dwells on the cultural skills of the geisha and the central role played by kabuki actors at that time.
It is a fascinating and at times, alarming tale. Japan
And that really is the charm of this book. The geisha here are just allowed to be people, and interact in a regular old-fashioned love/rival story, rather than serving as some great symbol of refined and mysterious Japan. There is almost no emphasis put on the job of the geisha, the endless hours of training, the various roles in the geisha house and the extravagance of rare mockingbird-poop make-up that gives them a special sheen. Instead, they are just human beings doing a job, not all of them happy with it, not all of them good at it, but all of them determined to make some go at happiness, by hook or by crook. Author Kafu Nagai has put forth a story that is far more Jane Austen than Kawabata Yasunari, more light-hearted romp than heavy-hitting classic.
The basic story has Komayo arriving on the Tokyo Shimbashi geisha scene, returning after a short break when she was married are taken to the countryside. Her husband dead and her marriage over, she returns to the only work she knows. Unknowingly stealing a client from another geisha, the established and imperious Rikiji, she sets herself in a position of retaliation, and the gears start slowly working against her. Others move about the scene, like Hanasuke, the second-place girl content to be in the background but still looking after her own interests, or the slutty Ranka about whom it is gossiped that she is little more than a prostitute painted like a geisha but is still very popular with the male customers. The prize for all involved is the handsome and popular actor Segawa, a somewhat fickle man who is content to watch the game unfold and see who emerges the winner.
A short book at a little over 200 pages, it is still a great read and a refreshing perspective for anyone wanting to read about geisha, or just get involved in a fun catty story of a couple of pretty gals maneuvering for the top guy.
Kafu's Rivalry (Udekurabe) was first serialized in the literary magazine Bunmei in 1916-1917. Following serial publication, the manuscript was published as a book in a private and then a commercial edition. Stephen Snyder's translation is based on the first private edition restored in Iwanami Shoten's Complete Works of 1956: "I decided to retranslate Udekurabe partly because the 1963 translation by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich is based on the 1918 commercial edition and thus lacks passages, some harrowing and others hilarious, that are vital to our understanding the geisha's experience and Kafu's views of the exploitation and suffering that haunted the lives of women in this profession."
The "harrowing" part is that being a geisha involved sex for money. As Snyder notes in his Introduction, while the geisha called to entertain at a machiai or teahouse were not usually expected to sleep with their customers, those who accepted a sponsor or danna certainly were. In the third chapter of the novel, the heroine Komayo is summoned to meet her former patron Yoshioka after an interval of seven years. The obligatory romantic part of the exchange is rather short:
"'Komayo. It's been seven years.'
`I'd die if you left me again,' she sighed. Then knowing what was in store, she quickly closed her eyes to hide her discomfort.
They said nothing more. The man's face grew bright red as if he were drunk, and the veins in his arms and his neck stood out."
What is peculiar about Kafu's writing, and what sets him apart from most of his contemporaries, is the mix of styles. While much of Rivalry is nineteenth century in both treatment and tone, the narrative is peppered with rather frank, even brutal, assessments of character and scene (namagusai in Japanese) that give it a modernist feel. In the chapter "Welcoming Fires", we meet what at first appear to be two very sympathetic characters of the quarter, Gozan, the rakugo storyteller and proprietor of the Obanaya, and Kurayama, the novelist. Kafu writes of their histories and of their professions in unsparing detail. We soon learn, however, what the author really thinks of them: "The reactionary old storyteller and the outdated novelist wet their throats with cold, bitter tea and were about to go on with their flights of fancy when the reed screen parted, and Jukichi, the mistress of the Obanaya, entered the room."
The "rivalry" of the title comes from the machinations of intrigue and plot associated with securing, maintaining, or furthering one's standing in the world of the pleasure quarter. For the geisha of Rivalry, the contest is about enticing the most desirable patrons or lovers - rich businessmen like Yoshioka or handsome actors like Segawa. For the men, it is about being with the most desirable and accomplished geisha. Loss of standing for either women or men in the eyes of the community is not suffered lightly and revenge is both calculating and fierce.
Aside from the thorough rendering of the geisha Komayo and her plight, the novel's principal strength is in its description of the vanishing Edo demimonde. It was almost as if Kafu wanted to get it down on paper before it disappeared. In Chapter 12: "Rain on an Autumn Night," (also translated by the late Edward Seidensticker in his Kafu, the Scribbler), the writer Kurayama Nanso, muses: "No matter how Westernized customs and manners might have become, as long as one could hear the bells on a brief summer night or see the stream of the Milky Way on an evening in autumn, as long as the trees and plants specific to each region remained, then, he was sure, sorrow would remain at the heart of relations between men and women, just as the old ballads said."
Stephen Snyder's new translation is significant in that it restores the missing passages from Kafu's commercial edition of 1918. This means that we can now finally read the version that the Japanese have been reading since 1956. But there is something lost and something gained, whichever way you turn. Because the trysts in the Meissner and Friedrich translation are suggested rather than minutely described, there is a certain lyricism to the whole business that somehow manages to preserve the myth that geishas are purveyors of culture and not flesh. In Snyder's translation of Kafu's Rivalry, however, this illusion is shattered. The lovemaking is predatory and salacious and the demimonde is a mean little show peopled with vulgar men and women. And in this world, the beautiful Komayo is a fish in a barrel swimming around and around trying to find the stream.
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