The Arts of Japan

Fictions of Desire

Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu

Snyder, StephenUniversity of Hawai'i Press · 2000

Cover of Fictions of Desire


The literary career of Nagai Kafū (1879-1959) is generally seen as an act of nostalgia, the quintessential return to Japan (Nihon kaiki) in the form of a long search for the traditional past in a rapidly modernizing Tokyo. Kafū is best known as a lyrical writer of elegies to a vanished Tokyo (the Edo-period pleasure quarters in particular), whose work is stylistically rich yet lacks intellectual depth. Rather than focus on the writer's lyricism and imagery as other critics have done before him, Stephen Snyder examines Kafū's fiction in terms of narrative strategy, placing him squarely within some of the most important currents of literary modernism–at the nexus of Naturalism and the largely antithetical development of the modernist reflexive novel. Snyder argues persuasively that Kafū both learned from and ultimately parodied the Naturalists, thus creating a kind of self-conscious fiction, which, rather than attempting the Naturalist strategy of presenting "real life," draws attention to its very fictionality and the central place of language in narrative.

Fictions of Desire uses readings in French nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and critical theory to situate Kafū as a modernist writer playfully aware of the self-referentiality of writing. His extensive, if largely ignored, encounter with avant-garde French literature is read against the grain of his ostensibly reactionary bunjin (literature) persona. Close studies of the fiction are informed by comparisons with works of writers vital to the development of Kafū's literary aesthetic, including Ogai, Loti, Maupassant, and Gide. At the heart of the study is an extended consideration of the intersection of Kafū's themes of prostitution and narrative. Kafū's women are revealed to be a deft combination of French and Japanese demimonde traditions, while the act of prostitution is seen as a metaphor for the male writer's literary practice of manufacturing textual desire. The study reconciles Kafū's self-conscious manipulation of narrative form and his thematic obsession with the demimonde in a new reading that confirms not only his genius but his essential modernity. Here at last is an interpretation of Kafū for our times.


Fictions of Desire
Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu
Publication Date
Page Count
Snyder, Stephen
University of Hawai'i Press