“Some Prefer Nettles”: Drifting Toward Divorce

Some Prefer Nettles is a slim 1928 novel by Junichiro Tanizaki about the opening of Japan to the West; and, also, about a couple who can’t quite seem to pull themselves together enough to divorce. They have a strange existential lassitude about it, even as everyone around them urges them to make some kind of resolution.

Should they divorce? They’re not happy but then again their unhappiness is just normal unhappiness, as Kaname’s father-in-law finally points out to him. They have a son who is clearly miserable and confused about what’s happening between his parents; Kaname hopes that divorce will clarify matters for the child. Kaname is a “woman-worshiper” (his thoughts about women provoked the person who owned this copy before I did to scrawl some indignant little marginalia) who wants to be overwhelmed by art and by womanhood, wants them to crash over him like a wave and bring him to his knees. Obviously his wife is not interested in being this wave. She has her own lover, but he hasn’t promised that he’ll marry her if she sheds her husband: They’re too rationalist to demand such promises from one another.

The novel is shaped by the replacement of the old forms of unhappiness with the new. Kaname’s house itself is marked by that clash; he has a Western wing and a Japanese wing. His father-in-law is living out a nostalgic, self-conscious traditionalism with his mistress, teaching her old songs and making her wear old out-of-date fashions. Kaname and Misako lack the old forms, and perhaps this lack of ritual and rule is part of why they can’t quite figure out how to divorce. They’re also hindered by their own self-indulgence: They want to escape the pain of their marriage, but they also want to escape the pain of divorcing. (…Which, really, who wouldn’t?) Meanwhile Takanatsu, Kaname’s cousin, prods them to get it over with and divorce already–the lesson he took from his own divorce. But they just… don’t. They drift.

I don’t really have conclusions about this novel or anything too forceful to say about it. It creates a powerful mood of transition and uncertainty, and it firmly rejects progressivism or the cult of “solutions” to human problems. The puppets are great, eerie and subtle images, evoking Kaname’s “woman-worship” (which he views as typically European rather than Japanese) but also the Japanese past, and the images he and Misako (and his father-in-law and his mistress) have created of one another. Basically, I think most people who read my blog would get a lot out of this book. I read it in Edward G. Seidensticker’s translation.

About Eve Tushnet

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