Arguably the most accomplished artist in modern Japanese literature, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a literary wildman and no stranger to controversy. Frequently running afoul of government censors, his works include some of the most outrageous renditions of deviant behavior ever put to paper.
Like his friend and mentor Kafu, who was obsessed with whores, and his contemporary Kawabata, who was obsessed with maidens (and unlike Mishima, who was obsessed with himself), Tanizaki was obsessed with a search for the ideal woman. That obsession, and all of its related baggage, inspired him to create a marvelously diverse catalog of works, including his epic novel of manners, The Makioka Sisters; a definitive treatise on Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, In Praise of Shadows; and semi-autobiographical novels like Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi and Diary of a Mad Old Man.
Now, in a beautifully-translated collection of stories appearing in English for the first time, Tanizaki really lets loose, taking us on a wild ride of perverse pleasures. Often outrageously funny and frequently just plain outrageous, the six stories in The Gourmet Club present a cornucopia of nutty behavior, a veritable catalog of kink.
Anthony H. Chambers (who, along with Paul McCarthy, translated the stories in Gourmet) once wrote that Tanizaki's obsessions included "lust, cleptomania, sado-masochism, homosexuality, foot-fetishism, coprophilia, and Eisenbahnkrankheit (railroad phobia)." Add cross-dressing, drunkenness, opium use, physical and emotional obsession, dominance and submission, doll-making and morbid gourmandism, and you've got The Gourmet Club.
In "The Secret" (from 1911), a cross-dressing sybarite meets an old flame in the theater. They resume their affair, which ends when the hero is unable to respect the woman's demand for secrecy.
In "Mr. Bluemound" (from 1926), a film starlet reads her late husband's account of his encounter with an obsessed fan, a drunk with a taste for expertly-crafted rubber dolls.
The beautifully wrought "Two Acolytes" (1918) is less shocking in style and content than the other pieces in this collection, and thus tends to get lost in the copious sauce of the surrounding stories. Nevertheless, it's a nice example of Tanizaki's gentler side, which he displays elsewhere in such works as A Cat, A Man, and Two Women.
The only story here from Tanizaki's later period, "Manganese Dioxide Dreams" (1955), is a rambling, rambunctious account of a trip to Tokyo, where Tanizaki's wife persuades him to see a strip show starring Yukio Mishima and Gypsy Rose Lee; and time home, where he and his wife suffer nightmares from overeating.
Long awaited in English translation, "The Children" (1911) is an audacious exploration of prepubescent pansexual sado-masochism, and a tightly-wound tour de force. "The Children" has enough action (porn, food, knives, animals, candles) and role reversals (the at-school mama's boy is the at-home tormentor, the school bully is the pig bottom, the only girl in the group becomes the ultimate top) to make the switches at the Arizona Power Exchange cry out in delight.
In the title story, first published in 1919, a group of well-to-do layabouts spend their time consuming vast quantities of food, exploring new and exotic culinary possibilities, and planning menus so meticulous that belches and flatulence are an integral part of the experience. After exhausting every possibility to be found in the restaurants and kitchens of Japan, the group's leader stumbles upon a back-alley Chinese eating club. Banished from the premises after witnessing one course of the banquet, the man retires to an adjacent opium den. There, through a well-placed hole in the wall, he jealously spies the rest of the meal, which climaxes with a serving of Deep-Fried Woman, Korean Style.
Among its other eccentricities, The Gourmet Club contains frequent and graphic descriptions of bodily fluids and solids. "Manganese Dioxide Dreams," for example, enunciates Tanizaki's appreciation for Western-style toilets and their contents (at one point, he even sees the face of his beloved Simone Signoret in a turd). This fascination with feces is perhaps one of Tanizaki's most perplexing quirks. Signs of it appear in many of his works, including In Praise of Shadows and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. Even his widely-acknowledged masterpiece, the magnificent and stately Makioka Sisters, ends--after more than 500 pages--with a bout of diarrhea.
It should also be pointed out that, even in the early part of the last century, Tanizaki understood the importance of the money shot. And if his sauce is of a different chemical make-up than that seen in modern Japanese bukkake videos, the effect is just as jarring.
The content of these stories may not be for everyone (with Tanizaki, readers with a strong sense of humor will be well rewarded). But the power of the man's writing is undeniable. Here, the leader of "The Gourmet Club" describes part of what he witnessed:
"... it seemed that one of the bowls contained a soup so thick and heavy that it looked like melted clay, in which rested ... an unborn piglet, boiled whole. It preserved the original form of the animal, but what emerged from beneath the skin was something soft and spongy ... both the skin and its contents had apparently been boiled so long they were as soft as jelly ... spoons were thrust in from every side, and the original form of the piglet disappeared chunk by chunk, from the outside inward, as if by magic."
With The Gourmet Club Tanizaki shows us--once again--that his writing is a lot like that pig: strange, sensual and beautifully rendered.