A word of advice to people who write copy for back covers of books. Think carefully before you discuss events that occur in the last third or so of the book. I’m not a reader who minds spoilers, and some books, like this 1929 Japanese novel Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, have little plot that can be spoiled. Still, when the back cover copy discusses in some detail a character who doesn’t even turn up in the last third of the book, it affects my reading experience. I don’t feel like I’ve settled in to the book because what is apparently a main piece of the premise hasn’t appeared. The promotional copy should be about premise and significant themes and ideas, not a full run-down of the plot and characters. If I wanted that, I’d read the Wikipedia entry. (And for difficult books that I’m having trouble following, I sometimes do just that.)
Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you about this novel. Reviews (and blog posts) are different from cover copy, so I may discuss late developments in the novel, but I will have the courtesy to indicate if these happenings occur late in the book, so you won’t be left hanging for the first two-thirds of the book, as I was.
Some Prefer Nettles is the story of a marriage that’s over, but not over. Kaname and Misako know they don’t love each other anymore, and they intend to divorce, but they can’t take the first steps. Misako has taken a lover, and she’s open with her husband about their meetings, and he doesn’t appear particularly bothered by the affair. He’s no longer attracted to her, so it’s reasonable for her to seek satisfaction elsewhere. He doesn’t dislike her, and they maintain a genial, if chaste, relationship:
Who looking at them now, could know that they were not really husband and wife? Not even the servants, who saw them every day, seemed to have suspected it. And indeed weren’t they husband and wife? He thought of how she helped him even with his underwear and socks. Marriage was after all not only a matter of the bedroom. He had known women enough in his life who ministered to that particular need. But surely the reality of marriage lay as much in these other small ministrations.
Most of the novel focuses on Kaname’s point of view, although as the story goes on, we get glimpses of Misako’s pain. Sometimes she comes across as merely angry and impatient, as when Kaname talks her into attending the puppet theatre at the invitation of her father. But seeing her tears later on, we get an idea that her impatience rises from years of rejection, along with this seemingly never-ending period of stasis. She is where she doesn’t want to be, and she sees no way out. Or she sees a way out, but it requires going through a period of even greater pain that may not be worth it in the end. (She plans to move in with her lover after the divorce, but there are reasons to wonder whether that relationship will be stable in the long term.)
Kaname, on the other hand, seems like a decent husband, but his darker side becomes more evident as the story goes on. On the surface, the freedom he gives Misako seems generous, but consider what it says about his feelings for her. It could just as easily suggest apathy as generosity, although there is room for both possibilities. The more troubling thing about Kaname, to me, is that his interest in women is in women as objects, rather than as people. He appreciates Misako’s small services to him, but he doesn’t appreciate her. Late in the book, he makes this particularly chilling realization:
A sensitive woman, a woman with ideas, can only get more troublesome and less likable with the years. Surely, then, one does better to fall in love with the sort of woman one can cherish as a doll.
The paralyzed marriage is central to the novel, but Tanizaki also spends a lot of time on cultural issues specific to Japan at the time. There are lengthy descriptions of the puppet theatres that Kaname attends with his father-in-law, with contrasts made between various styles of puppetry. Also important are contrasts made between cultures of Toyko and Osaka, where the novel is set, and between East and West. Tanizaki seems interested in how cultures and people change over time and how they choose which traditions and customs to hang onto, which to discard, and which to adopt. Some of these ideas are, I believe, meant to echo the way Kaname and Misako’s marriage is drifting apart yet hanging together, but I was too unfamiliar with the cultural touchstones mentioned to follow what Tanizaki was saying. Some of the puppet chapters in particular went over my hear.
But when the book returned to the marriage, I was fully absorbed with the characters’ dilemma and how they might resolve it. (Although I really did know too much going in—and I’ve carefully avoided sharing that information with you.)