The Reed Cutter is more of a short story than the novella it’s labelled as. It’s a memory of a memory, bound up in a dreamlike trip to a moon-viewing on a river…"true" reality is far away, and nothing is more tangible than the past and the longing directed at it. The Reed Cutter is about what isn’t seen or felt or known, and at bottom so is Captain Shigemoto’s Mother.
Captain Shigemoto’s Mother is referred to as a novel but it’s one part literary memoir, one part literary criticism, one part novel, and all parts absence. I normally loathe even the notion of books entitled “So and so’s mother/daughter/other anonymous female figure”, but it actually makes sense here. The Ariwara lady’s face – and wants, and thoughts, and needs – are always hidden, being literally effaced by screens, darkness, and modesty while at the same time figuratively erased by the desires of the male characters around her. She is a repository of desire – but what keeps this from being a proto-feminist critic’s easy A is that she is primarily the repository of unfulfilled literary desire. Hers is a story that simply cannot be known; all the digging has been done, and the multitude of classical literary sources Tanizaki cites reveal almost nothing about her. To say she is beautiful is to say less than nothing, for in the courtly literature of medieval Japan, what courtly lady isn’t?
Tanizaki may be engaging in criticism here about the representation of the female in his country’s literary history. But I think, rather, that what this so-called novel is saying about reading is more interesting – what’s not revealed, what isn’t achieved, what isn’t consummated, what isn’t found, what isn’t satisfied – lack is the source of celebration and painful desire; it is not something to be solved. We don’t read to abate our longing – we read to increase it, to confirm it, to make it more real. In Tanizaki's hands, novel-writing and –reading become nothing less than archaeology - an archaeology not only of text but also of subject, in all senses of the word.
Plot spoilers, of a sort
Captain Shigemoto is separated from his mother when he is very young. She is kidnapped out of his father's house and because she is now someone else's "wife", the young Shigemoto is no longer welcome in her world. He spends 40 years yearning for her, idealizing her, and trying to imagine her face - having seen it only once after she leaves, and then in the dark. When he does finally reunite with her, she is an old lady and he a middle-aged man. During this meeting, Tanizaki's literary dissatisfaction with her strange anonymity in the chronicles and Shigemoto's emotional dissatisfaction with her removal from his life become impossible to differentiate. Her looks seem to be described in the kind of detail found in descriptions of 10th-century Japanese court ladies (and English Renaissance literature, for that matter) - but even at this moment of direct contact, what is being blazoned is what can't be known:
"Mother," said Shigemoto again. Kneeling on the ground, he looked up at his mother and rested his head on her lap. Under the white hood her face was blurred by the light of the moon filtering through the cherry blossoms; sweet and small, it looked as though it were framed by a halo. The memory of that spring day forty years before, when he had been held in her arms behind a curtain stand, came vividly to life, and in an instant he felt as though he had become a child of five or six. In a reverie, he brushed aside the kerria branch she held and pressed his face closer to hers. The fragrance of incense in the sleeves of her black robe recalled to him that lingering scent of long ago, and like a child secure in his mother's love, he wiped his tears again and again with her sleeve. (pp. 179-80)Her face is blurred by moonlight? No, it's blurred by memories that are more real than this culmination of 40 years of loss. We're told her face is sweet and small, but this tells us nothing - and then her face is obscured by his face. The impossible distances of literary silence, of social separation, of time - those are reinforced, rather than bridged here, by Shigemoto putting himself so close to her that she, as she currently is, can't be seen. That she is no longer a repository of sexual desire doesn't make her any less a repository of filial desire.
Tanizaki is a strange one. I think he's better known in North America for his tendencies towards literary kink but I find his novelization of what most would consider to be more properly criticism or history to be infinitely more compelling. In his works, the lines between memory, books, and human experience are blurred. One is neither more nor less real than any other. And all are both intensely real and impossible to comprehend in the moment.