Much of Nagai Kafu’s work unfortunately has yet to be translated into English. After reading his collection of short stories, titled American Stories, I had much hope for this book, yet at the same time I’d been warned by a Kafu fan that Rivalry, while a good read, is nowhere near his best work. I find myself surprised that I agree with said assessment, for often what I am told by others I discover to be the opposite. I approach this review as not a fan, but as someone who knew little to nothing about Kafu before reading his work, save for the influence he had upon other Japanese writers.
American Stories is a great collection that is economical, spare and inventive in form. Rivalry, while a fairly short read (under 200 pages), is in itself not particularly inventive or much of a major work, comparatively. This does not mean the book is without merit, but Rivalry is a fairly standard novel that reminds me of what most Westerners who have not read any Japanese literature would think a Japanese novel is like. The novel precedes both Kawabta’s Snow Country and Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles — two titles Rivalry put me in mind of and also perhaps influenced. However, both said works are not only better books than Rivalry, but also more complex. In other words, Kawabata and Tanizaki seem to have taken what they learned from Kafu in this instance, and went beyond him.
To make another comparison, Rivalry would be equivalent to a Hollywood film — standard shots, nice costumes but low on complex characters and ideas. While the novel is better than the crap that gets published today, it pales beside his much better work, American Stories. Rivalry involves the story of a woman who, after suffering personal loss, returns to her earlier profession of geisha. Some pettiness occurs between the geishas when a client chooses one over another, and so there’s lots of bickering behind one’s back, revenge, jealousy, etc. Even the title — Rivalry — yeah, that’s basically it. Much of the story is told in a fairly plot-driven manner and thus lacks some of the higher symbolism found in Snow Country, for example. Even after finishing Rivalry, I have a hard time remembering the characters, since they are not presented in the intricate way as that of Kawabata or Tanizaki.
There are also moments of description that are fairly standard and not overly interesting. But that does not mean there aren’t moments of psychological insight: