In Favor of Translator Afterwords
As dumb as the content might be, there’s something to be said for hot takes in the sports world. Or maybe not the takes themselves—again, always dumb, always misguided, always loaded with bad suppositions and overly confident writing—but rather the situation in which you get to dissect and dismantle a hot take. It’s enjoyable to read a nonsense article by Bill Simmons (“My theory, trotted out on last Friday’s B.S. Podcast, was that the younger Garoppolo had won over everyone in the locker room — true, by all accounts, by the way — whereas the notoriously team-first Brady promoted himself in 2017 more than ever before.”) or Gregg Easterbrook (“Tuesday Morning Quarterback aficionados know my compromise with my Baptist upbringing is to be pro-topless but anti-gambling—and it’s a certainty, not a maybe, that the Vegas team will change the league’s relationship with sports betting.”) and know that someone at Deadspin will, within a few days if not hours, goof on all the crazy shit these egocentric old white dudes spew forth on a regular basis.
There’s something gratifying to digging in and unpeeling all the logical fallacies and pretzel-twist arguments that people make about sports on the regular. And because sports is both objective and communal in the sense of having actual games that have actual winners and losers, and open to subjective scrutiny about strategies untried, player motivation, and grit, hot takes will never go away. Which is fun! I love me a good hot-takedown.
I often wish that the book world had a few more of these hot take coots. Sure, there are media people offering up crap takes on Twitter all day, every day, but these rarely ascend to the level of verbosity and manic, laser-focused attack that you find on something like Hot Take. Imagine if there was a Tomi Lahren going off about the NY Times Bestseller list, or the new Grove catalog. How fun would that be? And how fun would it be to break apart that person’s blistering attacks? Oh so very.
I should make it clear that I’m really thinking about fiction here. And not just a scathing bad review—that’s fine, that’s something that might divide opinions, but rarely do these have the sort of unhinged quality of a really juicy hot take. The literary world is far too reasonable (which is shocking, when you pause to think about it) to provide a meaningful platform to someone claiming that Stephen King’s latest shouldn’t be sold in Barnes & Noble because he doesn’t stand for the national anthem at Red Sox games. Or whatever. Something impassioned and nonsensical. But worthy of an 8-minute read on Medium. Something capturing the fire of the old Tanizaki vs. Akutagawa debates, but without that degree of learnedness.
Actually, the perfect example is Franzen’s incredibly awful take on Difficult Books. What a bunch of hot garbage! And what a great job Ben Marcus did of taking apart that hot take. More of that, please!
In Black and White by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, translated from the Japanese by Phyllis I. Lyons (Columbia University Press)
For a few days, I played with the idea of trying to write a blistering hot take about Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Black and White, but I honestly don’t have the right mix of delusion and talent to make that really work.
But, if I was going to write some half-cocked take, I would probably come out swinging:
In the history of publishing, how many times has the translator’s afterword—yes, the translator’s—been a far superior reading experience to the work of some ordained “master” of literature? Once. One time only. With In Black and White by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.
Here’s the thing: As respected as Tanizaki might be for his other works, The Makioka Sisters, Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi, etc., this book has been overlooked for the past eighty years for a number of reasons. It was written on deadline for a newspaper, has a plot so thin you can read the jacket copy and skip the rest, and contains some of the most stilted dialogue this side of an episode of Riverdale.
What’s black and white and read all over? Not this book!
Which is totally unfair! In Black and White is a fine book. It’s fine. Sure, the plot is more interesting in summary than in execution, but still.
Actually, let’s start there. I should probably offer a spoiler warning, but to be honest, if you read the description on Columbia’s website, you’ve already seen it all.
In Black and White is the story of the “diabolist” writer Mizuno, who, along with spending time at brothels and drinking too much, is commissioned to write a story for The People magazine. After turning it in late—like any good writer’s writer worth his writerly nature—he realizes that he slipped up and included the actual name of the man who he used as a model for one of his characters on a few occasions. No big deal, right? Well, in this case that’s not so great, since Mizuno has written a story about how a man, much like Mizuno himself, pulls off the perfect murder and kills Cojima/Codama on a moonless night at the end of November. Given that Cojima’s real life situation—where he lives, his profession, his habits, etc.—is so similar to the character who’s murdered, Mizuno is paranoid that not only will Cojima recognize himself in the story, but that someone will acutally murder the real Cojima in the way described in the story, bringing Mizuno under suspicion.
Two interesting things about the rest of the novel: 1) As you would suspect, Cojima is murdered in the exact way depicted in the story and Mizuno, who, thanks to his time cavorting with a prostitute whose name and address he doesn’t know, has no verifiable alibi, and 2) Mizuno (probably) writes a sequel to this story in which someone reads the original story and decides to take revenge on the author by committing the murder as written in order to frame the original writer.
You know what I call a plot like this? Lazy. Self-indulgent. Self-indulgent and lazy. A novel that posits a world in which a fiction writer’s work is so important that a magazine lets its copyeditor rent a room in the writer’s same boarding house so that he can ensure the writer actually finishes his oh, so important pages? FANTASYLAND! Bring on the satyrs, dragons, and Tom Brady Concussion Sauce, because we’ve just left the real world behind!
I have no idea what the writing life was like in Japan in the 1920s, but given that Tanizaki played a big role in it (he’s considered to be one of the best Japanese writers of the past century), I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s talking about.
One of the most ludicrous aspects of this minor work is the number of times Mizuno refers to himself—or is referred to—as a “diabolist writer” or someone practicing “diabolism.” These terms are repeated fourteen times within five pages! It’s just like when you repeat a word over and over until it becomes syllables and noise and the meaning dissolves. What does “diabolism” even mean? Is Mizuno worshipping the devil? No, there’s no evidence of that. Sure, he drinks too much and wants to get with prostitutes, but that’s dissolute or or debauched, but diabolic? And again, Tanizaki creates a world in which people gossip openly about this writer’s diabolism. Even the cops! When they bring him into the station, they have a long philosophical conversation with Mizuno about his “diabolism” and the aesthetic principles behind his writing. Sound like any cops you know? Me neither. Here come the satyrs again . . .
OK. I don’t really have a response to that one. The “diabolist” thing got to me a bit as well. It’s funny, in our local translation workshop, every translator tries to avoid repetition like the plague. That’s not always the right approach though, and sometimes using the same word or phrase over and over can accrue meaning (or become incredibly funny), especially if used correctly. So maybe Tanizaki’s endless repetition of “diabolism” isn’t the worst . . . I mean, it’s not as distracting as the stiff dialogue or the strange misogynist stuff.
It would take a whole post to break down all of the odd stuff about women in this book, but here’s one bit of dialogue between Mizuno and the woman he hires to be his mistress for a month (on Tuesdays and Fridays) when they’re having lunch and finalizing their “arrangement”:
“Everyone says that, that my arms are great—”
“They are great! It’s a pleasure just to swing them like this. I’d like to make them into a toy and swing them forever.”
“If you want, make me into a toy.”
Yeah, that’s a bit weird. In a few different ways.
But let me reiterate—my reaction to the actual novel was mostly just a shrug. It was fine. I had no problem at all putting this book down, and a lot of the dialogue—and the ideas expressed within—made me groan, but this wasn’t awful. It just seemed a bit meh, a bit flat, a bit of a toss off . . . until I read the afterword.
Once you slog your way through 200+ pages of this tripe, this, I’ll say it again, self-indulgent book, that even includes a scene in which Mizuno invents a sex tale that he shares with his copyeditor, who he then catches masturbating to his memory of this tale, which, if you follow me here, is just a metaphor for how much jacking off Tanizaki is doing in this book, writing about his own writing and its power, if you get through that, you reach the end of the rainbow and find Phyllis Lyons’s afterword that injects a much needed historical context and sense of balance into this off-kilter text.
This part of the book is brilliant! The reading she offers—involving Tanizaki’s arguments with Akutagawa about “pure art,” “plottedness,” and “stories with no story”—imbues this book with a sense of purpose that it’s otherwise lacking. Even if her reading in which she postulates that the “Shadow Man” and Cojima are both stand-ins for Akutagawa, that Akutagawa traps Tanizaki by killing himself, shows a level of invention and attention to actual plot that that hack Tanizaki, yeah, I said it, hack, could’ve learned from.
Here’s some advice for you, Columbia University Press: Cut the first two hundred and eighteen pages of this book and publish just the afterword. Boom. That’s what I call maximizing profits. Economics 101, Mr. University Man.
Obviously, that’s too far, but I do wish that there was a way to get at least some of this afterword before the book to help guide one’s reading. No disrespect to Tanizaki, but the novel is a bit thin without the historical and personal context. And given that the plot is maybe the least compelling part of this reading experience, it would be useful to have some other tools in your mind before diving in. Reading Lyons’s afterword was the first time I really sat up and engaged with this book.
That said, if you’re a completist and a fan of Tanizaki’s other works, you’ll likely enjoy this quite a bit. And it’s a great example for translators of what you can add to a classic work to help it reach as wide and audience as possible. I know this isn’t going to make any best-seller lists, but if someone were to use Lyons’s afterword as the basis for an article about literary feuds, hot takes, contextual reading, and whatnot, it might really connect with those literary readers out there.