A Dark Night’s Passing [暗夜行路], written (1921-1937) by Naoya SHIGA [志賀 直哉], translated (1976) by Edwin McLellan.

Protagonist a gentleman writer in turn-of-the-century Japan.

Tokitō Kensaku had felt a mounting dislike for Sakaguchi for some time now; and this story of his that he had just finished reading proved conclusively that he had been right. Sakaguchi’s story had left a nasty taste in his mouth, true; but at the same time there was some satisfaction, a sense of completion, in being able to feel so definite about the fellow. He threw the magazine toward the foot of his bed — he somehow didn’t want it near his pillow — and put out the light. It was close to three o’clock in the morning.

But he can’t sleep, so he stays up, reading, till dawn, only to be awakened by a visiting friend who’s brought Sakaguchi along. To spare his friend, Kensaku conceals his distaste and agrees to accompany them into town; so begins his descent into turpitude. Debauchery ensues in a succession of teahouses and bars. He stays out for days at a time. Writing and relationships suffer. He revisits his attempted courtship of a childhood friend, an affair that left him shut out and confused. He hits bottom and realizes that the only woman he truly desires is Oei, his grandfather’s mistress — who not only raised Kensaku, but lives with him still.

The pressure of such a forbidden relationship drives him into the country, where he hopes to regain his equilibrium. But the only thing he accomplishes, between sight-seeing trips, is a letter proposing marriage to Oei, which triggers a cascade of revelations. It comes out that his grandfather wasn’t actually his grandfather, but this causes even more problems and throws Kensaku further into self-doubt.

Meanwhile, he’s struck by the similar stories of two fallen women: one who’s turned the shames of her past into a sideshow, re-enacting her confession for anyone willing to pay; and another whose misdeeds are the subject of whispers and gossip when she returns to the public eye as a singer. As he knew the latter in childhood, Kensaku feels he’s uniquely qualified to weave together these contrasting stories — but cannot.

Thus ends the first half of the book. Here, Shiga has a problem, because he has to give Kensaku a way out without (I presume) having found one himself. After a period of silence, the chapters of the second half began to appear serially, but only years later were the final chapters finished and the book published in its entirety.

So Kensaku travels; takes up Zen; tries to do right by Oei; arranges to marry a young woman and to earn her love despite his own ghastly behavior in the face of her “infidelity” (that is, allowing herself to be raped by a cousin). On the whole, this half is less salacious, less miserable, and less characterized by the concerns of an aspiring writer. In my opinion, Shiga is at his best when Kensaku is at his most self-involved; and the book’s more-or-less happy ending is, by necessity, not nearly as interesting as the self-reproach that precedes it.

A Dark Night’s Passing was cited as an alternative to Memoirs of a Geisha vis-a-vis the treatment of women in an increasingly modern Japan. And it’s true, Kensaku witnesses much — in one particularly creepy scene, Oei is joined by a woman dressed like a little girl, carrying a doll, uncommunicative and possibly retarded — but the novel is much less concerned with social ills than with Kensaku himself. On a forced first date:

Her forlornness touched him. But he was too pre-occupied with his own wretched condition to feel more than a fleeting pity for her.

I would read it again, but I’d want to read Shiga’s other work — the short pieces that made his reputation — first.