Quentin S. Crisp: The Book I Would Like To Be Buried With…

August 30, 2010 by
Filed under: Bury Me With This Book, Interviews 

The twenty-fifth entry in the Bury Me series features a writer recently returned to the county of his birth, Devon-based Quentin S. Crisp. An author who is, in Mark Samuels’ opinion, “the most important writer of his generation.”

Kafu walking“There are two choices here, essentially because this article serves as a kind of recommendation (and primarily, I suppose, for those reading in English) and my chosen author, Nagai Kafū, is Japanese. Therefore, I’ll have to select one translated volume, and one volume in the original.

On the website Goodreads, I notice that my influences are listed simply as, ‘Nagai Kafū’. His name standing alone like that makes it seem as if he is actually my greatest influence as a writer, and at first I wondered if this might be misleading. I suppose it is, to an extent, but perhaps not such a great extent as I first thought. It does seem curious, though, that Kafū has come to assume such great significance for me.

I was writing from a very young age, and was more interested in simply immersing myself in my own fantasy world than assimilating literary influences. The first influences of which I was conscious, however, were Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft. I wrote a number of truly terrible Lovecraftian stories in my teens, but was eventually saved from this tendency just because of the need to express myself – which cannot be done in the Lovecraftian manner for me – and also through my discovery of Japanese literature. The imagination, I saw, did not have to be overtly supernatural in order to explore its own boundaries. In a way, my emphasis had shifted. Where before I was most intoxicated by fantasy, now I was most intoxicated by beauty. It probably does not need saying that there is considerable overlap between these two things.

My first love in Japanese literature is Mishima Yukio, and his swansong, The Decay of the Angel, is perhaps the strongest influence on my writing after H.P. Lovecraft. Mishima served as the doorway, and Ian Buruma was my immediate guide when I stepped through. In Buruma’s book, A Japanese Mirror, I learned of a strange and intriguing writer called Nagai Kafū, who wrote about the esoteric world of the old Japanese demi-monde. Mishima’s form of beauty is in some ways in the major key. His titles – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Sun and Steel, A Forest in Full Bloom, Beautiful Star, Forbidden Colours – speak of the extravagant, the brilliant, the zenith of things, the flash of a blade, the glitter of gold (with a hint behind this dazzle of the sinister and demonic). His is an extroverted introspective literature. Kafū is almost the opposite of this, but is perhaps too odd and too asymmetrical in his ethos to be quite the opposite of anything. His titles – Flowers in the Shade, Dwarf Bamboo, Quiet Rain, Coming Down with a Cold, A Tale No One Asked For – speak of the creeping grey of shadows in layers of quietude, of world-weary sophistication, of the hour past the zenith, of the rustle of autumn leaves and the sober but rich colours of an Edo komon-style kimono. It is beauty in the minor key, and a literature of introverted extrospection. Where Mishima’s titles blazon their symbolism like a banner flapping in the sun, Kafū’s titles hide their symbolism as in the folds of sombre fabric, like threadbare embroidery in the bed robes of an old and ailing man, quaintly elaborate with wonderfully decrepit allusions. In truth, Kafū is closer to what many hold to be traditional Japanese aesthetics. In the fourteenth century, the monk Kenko wrote, “Are we to admire the moon only when it is full, the flowers only when in full-bloom?” The question suggests he was reacting against the orthodoxy of the time, but his aesthetic of the falling petals and the waning moon has itself come to be something of an orthodoxy in Japan.

Conservative in his nostalgia, and in his love of the traditions of his country, still, it would be wrong to think of Kafū as orthodox. When other Japanese were still wearing kimono in their daily life, Kafū – taller than the average Japanese – cut an eccentric figure in a dark Western suit, carrying a briefcase. (He spent four years in America and almost a year in France at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.) Some of his works (including his collection Tales of France) were banned for many years on grounds of indecency. And during the Second World War, when other writers were lending their words to the propaganda of the war machine, Kafū kept what is seen retrospectively as the respectable silence of integrity.

A Strange Tale from East of the RiverTo the company of writers, Kafū appeared to prefer the company of dancing girls, geisha and prostitutes, and these were his chief muses. Let me select two brief quotes that may give some idea of Kafū’s world. The first of them comes from Seidensticker’s translation of A Strange Tale from East of the River, and describes a prostitute that the protagonist has become ‘accidentally’ acquainted with:

The figure of O-yuki, her hair always in one of the old styles, and the foulness of the canal, and the humming of the mosquitoes – all of these stirred me deeply, and called up visions of a past now dead some thirty or forty years. I must, if it seems at all possible, state my thanks to her who was the agent of these strange, insubstantial visions. More than the actor in the Namboku play, more than the Shinnai singer, Tsuruga somebody or other, who tells of Rancho and his tragic love, O-yuki was the skilful yet inarticulate artist with power to summon the past.

The second is a quote (trans. Seidensticker) from ‘Unfinished Dream’:

He frequented the pleasure quarters with such enthusiasm that ten years were as a day; for he knew only too well that they were quarters of darkness and unrighteousness. … Indignation at the hypocritical vanity of proper wives and the fraud of the just and open society was the force that sent him speeding in the other direction, toward what was from the start taken for dark and unrighteous. There was more happiness in finding the remains of a beautifully woven pattern among castaway rags than in finding spatters and stains on a wall proclaimed immaculate.

Kafu the ScribblerRecently, I moved from Wales to Devon. I was forced to leave many of my belongings behind, and, more recently again, I returned to Wales to retrieve some of these, and store others of them in the attic of the cottage where they remained. Among the books I retrieved was a jacketed hardback edition of Kafū the Scribbler (The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafū, 1879-1959), a volume that contains something between biography and critical appreciation, by Edward Seidensticker, and translations of a handful of Kafū’s stories (including some excerpted fragments), also by Seidensticker. It is a book that has travelled with me all over the world, to Japan, America and back. It is not in poor condition. I received the book as a Christmas present when I was still quite young (in my early twenties, I would say), and at that age I was so leisurely in my habits that I would coat any new book I acquired with a kind of transparent laminate plastic; I did not want the books to become stained or dog-eared. The jacket of this book has just such a coating. The pages have a soft, matt quality, and a sense of thickness to the fingers. They give off a natural, woody aroma. The print is large and friendly. Inside front and back covers are maps of Tokyo as Kafū supposedly knew it, after the earthquake of 1923, and marked with place names of particular significance in Kafū’s oeuvre. The publisher is Stanford University Press. The jacket cover is a black and white photograph of Kafū with round, black Harold Lloyd glasses, a rather wry – or ‘dyspeptic’, to use a Kafū-esque word – expression on his face, as he holds a cigarette aloft in his right hand. There was no way I could leave this book in Wales, however many times I have read it before.

Back in Devon, I leafed through the volume again, and read the opening of the first of the translated stories, ‘The River Sumida’, which is about the length of a novelette. Even in translation, Kafū’s prose is intoxicating. The tale begins:

Shōfūan Ragetsu, teacher of poetry, had missed his midsummer visit to his sister, who gave samisen lessons across the river at Imado. Every day he told himself he must go. He could not bring himself to venture out into the heat of the day, however, and so he would wait for evening.

How leisurely and how elegant is the flow of Kafū’s writing. How simple and opaque it is, and yet, in the perfection of its selected detail, how endlessly evocative. Whenever I revisit Kafū, I wonder why I have ever been away. It is one of the most prominent peculiarities of my taste in literature that I like writing that stands up to being quoted in excerpt form. Kafū is not quotable because he is epigrammatic, but because he is lyrical. Especially reading his work in the original, I feel that I could break it down to a sentence at a time and still quote it with savour. More than that – a word at a time. Clearly that’s a ridiculous statement, but such are my feelings about Kafū. I should also emphasise that Kafū’s writing is significantly greater in the original. One thing that does not translate is Kafū’s absolutely masterly sense of rhythm, with long, elaborate sentences held in perfect balance over many clauses.

In his Preface, Seidensticker writes:

It might be argued that the rather fragmentary and in-between form I have chosen is more appropriate for introducing a lyric poet than a novelist. I would reply only that Kafū is a very discursive sort of novelist. Excerpt treatment does not damage the dramatic unity of his works, for there is little dramatic unity in the first place.

Seidensticker views Kafū as a deeply flawed writer, largely because of the lack of dramatic unity he describes, and yet he does not stop to admire the fact that Kafū’s work stands up to be excerpted in such a way when the work of so few other writers does. I feel as though I can dip into Kafū’s work anywhere, as if it is, in a sense, all one great work, though Kafū does vary his style considerably. In other words, all Kafū’s pieces are, in a sense, additions, enriching endnotes to a vision that has no particular beginning or end. Kafū, like Lovecraft, like Peake, is one of those writers who gives us new glasses with which to view the world. What he allows us to see is indefinable, but distinct. I begin to see Kafū everywhere, and especially in the works of writers I admire (though not all writers – not, for instance, Mishima). Mark Samuels, Arthur Machen, Denton Welch, Justin Isis – to my knowledge, these people have not been influenced by Kafū, but I see Kafū in them in ways that are sometimes hard to describe.

There’s a kind of mystery to Kafū’s writing, which consists partly in the fact that he does not present mystery. On questions of metaphysics (in which I have great interest), he is almost entirely silent (though it would be impossible, I believe, to remove all hints of the metaphysical from literature). Yet he cannot have been a shallow man. I say this because, if he were, he would have been unable to write works of such profound consoling power. It is as if, where others (a very few) perhaps found the Fountain of Youth, Kafū, who continued to age, found something else, just as rare, that made his aging unimportant – the Fountain of Understated Beauty. Those who drink from the fountain are able to see anything in life from an aesthetic point of view, to gain a sense of beauty through distance. The Fountain of Understated Beauty frees you from the body. Kafū, freed thus, recreated the places he loved and haunted and loved to haunt, through his prose. To immerse oneself in that prose is therefore to be similarly freed. As with metaphysics, also with psychology, Kafū is unusually (for a modern novelist) lacking in interest. The layers of depth in Kafū’s work are not layers of human psychology (at least not as understood by a psychiatrist); they are layers simply of the aesthetic – of atmosphere. In this sense, he is the perfect writer, though an unusual one, since he approaches more nearly to the idea of writing for writing’s sake than anyone else I can immediately think of. It’s not that he has no opinions – these he expresses quite freely when he feels like it – it is simply that, whatever point he might be making is somehow contained within a greater aestheticism that is beyond all pontification. Other writers may affirm or deny there is a meaning to existence, and I am far from being immune to such questions. When I read Kafū, it does not matter whether or not there is a point. The struggles of other writers to make this or that point seem faintly ridiculous. Indeed, nothing matters, because I have once more sipped from the waters of the Fountain of Understated Beauty. If this sounds nihilistic, the experience of it, though tinged strongly with resignation, is for me far from nihilistic. It is no more nihilistic, in fact, than friendship, or that notion that Kafū in so many ways embodies – art for art’s sake.

It is perhaps fitting that Kafū’s first western biographer, Seidensticker, should take such a cranky view of his work, given the eccentric nature of that work, and of Kafū’s life, but even Seidensticker, through his deprecation, has this to say of Kafū:

[He is] the writer of whom I was probably fondest [though] affection and admiration are not the same thing. … Though he was not such a good novelist, he has come to seem better and better at what he was good at. … As I try to keep alive memories of how things were [in Tokyo], Kafū is a dearer companion than ever.

I do not agree with Seidensticker’s assessment that Kafū was a bad novelist. Kafū was a great writer, and whether he was a ‘novelist’ or not, as judged from a hidebound Western point of view, is irrelevant. Nonetheless, reading these words, I forgive Seidensticker, and feel disposed to take his cantankerous biography and really not bad translations to the grave with me.

Kafu Japanese volumeSince it would be wrong to take only a translation to the grave, when I love the original texts so much more, I would also like to take volume 5 in the Shinchō Japanese literature series – a hardback of selected Kafū in a creamy bamboo-beige box, with an ‘N’ motif on both box and jacket. A wraparound slip that comes with the box sports my favourite photograph of Kafū, in which he is giving a gap-toothed grin. The stories contained inside are, Udekurabe (Geisha in Rivalry), Bokuto Kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River), Sumidagawa (The River Sumida), Hikage no Hana (Flowers in the Shade) and others. Many of my favourites are missing, but Kafū wrote a great deal (I have his collected works in 29 volumes), and I must face the agony of choice.

What will they bring me in my grave? That, I hope, which they have brought me in life. I quote again, this time from the story ‘Coming Down with a Cold’:

… it brought the supremely soft consolation of knowing that he was at home.”


QuentinAbout Quentin S. Crisp:

Quentin S. Crisp was born in 1972 in North Devon, England. After a period of five years working with Wolf and Water Arts Company, he attended Durham University where his degree was Japanese Studies. He graduated in 2000.

He has had a number of books published – mainly short fiction – including Morbid Tales (2004), Rule Dementia! (2005), Shrike (2009) and All God’s Angels, Beware! (2009).

His latest book is the novel Remember You’re a One-Ball! from Chomu Press.


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