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A Japanese Writer's Bold Early Novella

A CAT, A MAN, AND TWO WOMEN By Jun'ichiro Tanizaki Translated by Paul McCarthy Kodansha International 164 pp., $18.95

WIDELY regarded by his own countrymen as Japan's greatest modern novelist, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) has been hailed as a quintessentially Japanese writer and admired for his sophisticated understanding of European literature. It's a combination of qualities less odd than it first appears: A keen interest in Western literature is one of the hallmarks of many 20th-century Japanese writers, a kind of counterpart to the Western rage for Japanese art that began in the last decade of the 19th century.

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Amusingly enough, the eponymous cat in Tanizaki's novella is described as a European breed, which the hero finds far more rounded, cuddly, and appealing than the Japanese variety. But Tanizaki's mastery of Japanese and European literary techniques goes far beyond a faddish interest in the exotic. His writing attains a level that can only be called world-class.

Much of his oeuvre has already been translated into English and other languages: ``In Praise of Shadows,'' an essay on Japanese aesthetics; ``Childhood Years,'' a memoir; and a good deal of his fiction, including ``Naomi,'' ``The Key,'' ``The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi,'' ``A Portrait of Shunkin,'' ``Diary of a Mad Old Man,'' and, what is perhaps his best-loved work, ``The Makioka Sisters,'' which he wrote during the war years but was not allowed to be published until afterwards. Earlier, in the period from 1935 to 1941, Tanizaki accomplished the huge task of translating the very long, 11th-century Japanese classic, ``The Tale of Genji,'' into modern Japanese.

It was during this period that he wrote no fiction of his own - with the exception of one novella: ``A Cat, a Man, and Two Women,'' appearing now for the first time in English - along with two other Tanizaki stories - in this volume.

Translator Paul McCarthy suggests in his introduction that the down-to-earth, lower-middle-class milieu of this novella may well have provided a welcome contrast to the ceremonious, aristocratic world of ``Genji.'' And, without laying undue emphasis on the matter, McCarthy also points out the parallels between the predicament of Shozo, the feckless man caught between the two women (not to mention the cat and the behind-the-scenes machinations of his own mother) and the situation of the novelist who had just changed wives himself.

Tanizaki's treatment of this peculiar quadrangle is a perfect balance of delightful absurdity and penetrating psychological acuity. The novella opens with a letter from Shozo's ex-wife, Shinako, cunningly persuading his new wife, Fukuko, to allow Shinako custody of Shozo's beloved cat Lily:

``Well, he got rid of nasty old me and has started a new life with you, the girl he loves,'' it reads in part. ``As long as it was me he was with, he needed Lily. But why should he now? ... Or could it be that even now, without her, there'd be something missing? And does that mean that he looks on you, like me, as something a little lower than his cat?''

Tanizaki is utterly clear-eyed about the people he portrays: He paints in minor blemishes, like Shinako's fussiness and Shozo's petulance, as highlights of more serious moral flaws. He has a Henry Jamesian relish for seeking out subtle shades of motivation. But his crisp storytelling is quite unlike James's labyrinthine narrative voice. And his characters, for all their faults, seem bathed in a glow of Chekhovian empathy and humor that is never sugary. Even Lily the cat emerges as a full-fledged persona lity, without being made to seem the least bit humanoid.

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Although Tanizaki's characters - and stories - can surprise us, the surprise is seldom heavy-handed. He gains his effects with a word or a whisper rather than a bang. A certain kind of delicacy is essential to his boldness: it is the fine touch that enables him to venture into dark territory and claim it as his own.

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