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In Session: Lyric and Motion in the Age of Realism
3: "Lyric and Motion Pictures in Nagai Kafu's 'A Strange Tale from the East River'"
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Florida State University, United States
Nagai Kafū’s (1879-1959) novella A Strange Tale from the East River (Bokutō kidan; 1937) begins with the narrator stating that he almost never has seen a “moving picture” (katsudō shashin). As the novella unfolds, it becomes a moving picture through its insertion of different genres of lyric poetry: haiku, kanshi and shintaishi. The novella is a first-person narrative that subverts the conventions of realist fiction, including the nineteenth century confessional novel and the 1920s Japanese “I-novel” (shishōsetsu). The narrator (watakushi) recalls the experiences of the nineteenth century demimonde culture, which declined in the Meiji period (1867-1912), and was nearly lost after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. Through his narrator, Kafū captures the past, the present and the future by employing a narrative technique similar to mise en abyme, and by inserting multiple genres of poetry into the prose, which disrupts the linear narrative and establishes an “affective present.” In Antinomies of Realism, Frederic Jameson identifies the affective present, following Alexander Kluge, as the “insurrection of the present against other temporalities.” As Kafū’s flaneur-narrator wanders through the Tokyo demimonde in search of what is lost, the lyric poems he quotes and composes evoke images of the present and the past. As the mise en abyme structure and the incorporation of poetry set different temporalities into a state of simultaneity, by the end the novel does not reach toward wholeness or narrative fulfillment; rather, it leaves the reader with broken images and feelings of fragmentation.