Juushika's Reviews > Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
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Dec 04, 13

Read in February, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha is an American novel, and as such the attempt at West does East, especially on the complex and delicate subject of the geisha, is compelling, interesting, but also heavy-handed and ultimately ineffective (even more so in the case of the film). It is a wonderful introduction to geisha, Japanese culture, and the East for the uninitiated Western reader, and I can see why the book is popular, but I found it disappointing. For the reader already familiar with the culture, western influences are all too clear and the book comes off as a bit clunky and imperfect. I also had some problems with the general perception of the characters by readers versus the way the characters were actually portrayed in the book--Memoirs is far from the good-willed fairy tale that people assume it is. By all means, read it, but leave it open for critique and remember that a more authentic representation of eastern culture, especially in the details, will come from the east itself.

A lot of my critique stems from the fact that this movie has attained such wide-spread fame and been made into a movie, to be sure. I feel like it is being perpetuated as something it is not. Even the introduction to the book (a faux translator's note) perpetuates the myth that Memoirs is an accurate, beautiful, in-depth reflection of the life of a geisha, when in truth it is no more that historical fiction and is written by an outsider. Golden has done his research and is well-educated on his subjects, and I have no problem with people reading from, taking interest in, and even learning from this book; I do, however, think it is important that readers don't conflate the American novel with Japanese reality. They aren't the same thing, no matter how much research Golden did, and if we take the book as an accurate representation we're actually underestimating and undervaluing geisha, Japan, and Japanese culture.

Because Golden attempts to write from within the geisha culture, as a Japanese woman, he must do more than report the "facts" of that life--he must also pretend to be a part of it. Pretend he does, acting out a role as if he has studied inflection, script, and motivation. He certainly knows what makes writing "Japanese" but his attempt to mimic it is not entirely successful. The emphasis on elements, the independent sentences, the visual details are too prevalent and too obvious, as if Golden is trying to call our attention to them and thus to the Japanese style of the text. He does manage to draw attention, but to me, at least, what I came away with was the sense that Golden was an American trying really hard to sound Japanese--that is, the effect betrayed the attempt and the obvious attempt ruined the sincerity of the novel, for me. I felt like I was being smacked over the head with beauty! wood! water! kimono! haiku! and I felt insulted and disappointed.

The problems that I saw in the text were certainly secondary to the purpose of the text: to entertain, to introduce Western readers to Japanese culture, and to sell books (and eventually a film). They may not be obvious to all readers and they aren't so sever that the book isn't worth reading. I just think readers need to keep in mind that what Golden writes is fiction. Historical fiction, yes, but still fiction, therefore we should look for a true representation of Japanese culture within Japanese culture itself and take Memoirs with a grain of salt.

I also had problems with the rushed end of the book, the belief that Sayuri is a honest, good, modest, generous person when she really acts for herself and at harm to others throughout much of the book, the perpetuation of Hatsumomo as unjustified and cruel when she has all the reason in the world, and in general the public belief that Memoirs is some sort of fairy tale when in fact it is heavy-handed, biased, and takes a biased or unrelatistic view toward situations, characters, and love. However, all of those complains are secondary, in my view, to the major complain above, and should be come obvious to the reader.

Memoirs goes quickly, is compelling, and makes a good read, and I don't want to sound too unreasonably harsh on it. However, I believe the book has a lot of faults that aren't widely acknowledged and I think we as readers need to keep them in mind. This is an imperfect Western book, and while it may be a fun or good book it is not Japanese, authentic, or entirely well done.
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Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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Alisa Thank you for taking time to write the comments I could intuitively feel but do not have the background in Japanese culture to voice. I also agree with your comments about characters and the fact that even though the book is entertaining it is fiction.


message 2: by lowdown (new) - added it

lowdown I really enjoyed your commentary on the book. I think I was one of the people you speak of who made the mistake of taking fiction for fact with this book, that is, in the first 200 pages. Once I read the author bio and realized that it was a white guy from Massachusetts writing as if he was a geisha in WWII Japan, I was suspicious from the next word on. I really don't know why he even bothered to try and write the story in the first person.

I have notoriously heard that the movie is a pile of crap, so I have chosen not to watch it.

With that said, it was a very entertaining book until around page 400 and then again for the last 2 pages. Somewhere in between there he gets very caught up with her love affair and he really lost it for me. However, the last two pages made me weep. I thought they were heart felt and beautiful.

If you have time, can you please recommend some books that you feel accurately represent the culture?
I would also be interested to hear read your thoughts/reviews on any of Murakami's books.
Thanks again
Lowdown



John Conrad Excellent review. It's nice to hear an insiders perspective and I especially found the word "clunky" to be apt for Golden's awkward tale.


Melissa Duh. Of course it's fiction. If I wanted a history lesson or a biography from an actual geisha, I would have picked something up from the non-fiction section of the library.

Anyone who reads this book and takes it for a historically accurate representation has bigger problems than just misinterpreting the intention of this book. The purpose of a novel is to enlighten the human condition, not teach history.

I feel the main point of this novel was the sweeping and bittersweet love story between Sayuri and the Chairman, the tragic notion that life is full of compromise, but that some amount of good can be hoped for in spite of all the disappointments.

And of course the author is entitled to write the story from whatever viewpoint he or she wishes. To vilify Golden for having the audacity to write from the point of view of an imagined Japanese geisha in a time-gone-by is an insult to every author who has ventured beyond the limits of their own experience and explored a view on life from someone else's perspective. (Hello, Harriet Beecher Stowe??) And naturally an author is almost duty-bound to seek a perspective other than his or her own - otherwise, we'd just be reading the person's memoirs.

It's FICTION, people. ENJOY IT.


Melissa I like the detailed background about the flaws in what is posed as historical accuracy. I have wondered about many of these elements for some time. I will however take the story at face value because I did like the story but move on from there.


message 6: by Ivy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ivy Like Melissa said...it is fiction...and I enjoyed it as such, however I would be interested in some historically accurate representations of the japanese/geisha culture and would appreciate it Juushika if you could suggest some.


De Ana I really like your review of this book, it explains all the problems I had with the book but didn't know how to voice. Thank you!


Kellyna You have a great review, and point of view on the book I never even thought of. But then again, the book IS fiction.


Maia what a great review! Thank you! I'm one of those readers who'd put off reading this book for ages, even as most of my friends and acquaintances fell to reading it--essentially, I put it off because when i read fiction, I'm looking for 'truth': not specifically historical or non-historical truth but, rather, the truth of authenticity in the voice. And, to be honest, knowing from the first that this was a white American guy with a long list of degrees from Mass (a white American guy who simply studied Japanese history and spend a short while in Japan--would have been different if he'd grown up there, perhaps) I was suspicious and reluctant. In the end, I found myself reading it on a long holiday after I'd exhausted all my other books and someone left this one behind. And I won't lie: it was a compelling read in many ways. I did enjoy it. But I didn't buy it. So thanks for your inside note, it places it all into context.


message 10: by Angrybeaver (new)

Angrybeaver "Comfort Women" by Nora Okja Keller provides an excellent contrast to Arthur Golden's book "Memoirs of a Geisha." However, I warn you in advance that it is gut wrenching in its' sincerity. While Golden's work was superficial and deliberately artistic Keller's book chases thru your imagination like a howling lost soul. It is described as a book about mothers and daughters but it is as much about a relationship between the self one chooses to reveal and the self one chooses to hold sacrosanct. It's easy to fly thru the book at the speed of light but I don't recommend doing it that way...read it as slowly as you can and refuse to miss details that are hauntingly written and provoking. A warning though, this is an emotionally intense book versus a vacation read.


Connor Sherman I would like to know a lot more about Japanese culture, but I have no idea where to start. I started with this, but after reading your review it made me feel ignorant for thinking it was actually true. If anyone can recommend me some books about Japanese culture, Japan, or even geisha, I would really appreciate it!


message 12: by Anna (new)

Anna Thanks for the review! It was very informative and got me wondering if you could give some examples of inaccuracies in the book when Golden was trying to depict the Japanese geisha life.


Heidi Parton I don’t think that Golden was necessarily trying to be tricky by writing the fictional translator’s note; Nathaniel Hawthorne did the same thing in The Scarlet Letter. It’s a literary device that isn’t used often, but is done so to create a certain artistic effect. Whether that device is successful or not is up for debate. Also, I think it’s totally feasible for a person of one gender to write from the perspective of another gender and be successful at it. Flannery O’Connor wrote about men authentically; William Faulkner occasionally wrote from his female characters’ perspectives and succeeded. It’s just that such a thing requires a greater removal of the self—you have to be able to see completely through that character’s eyes, which includes not just what they see and feel and think, but how they see and feel and think it. Whether Golden succeeded in doing so is, again, what is up for debate; I’d say he didn’t completely. And, as far as cultural authenticity goes, being an "outsider" who has read novels by great Japanese authors, it's easy for me to see how Western Memoirs of a Geisha is. There’s a marked tonal difference, for one; it’s much warmer and more effusive than a Japanese novel would be. The pacing is different, too; more direct, I guess, or with a more clearly marked plot arc. However, Golden wasn't writing for a Japanese audience; he was writing for a general American audience that has entirely different expectations. I think it's important to keep that in mind. While I wouldn’t put this book up on a pedestal and call it a contemporary classic, I will say that it’s solid popular fiction. If anyone is interested in reading Japanese novels, I recommend Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari or Masks by Enchi Fumiko (my favorite novel).


message 14: by Reid (new) - rated it 1 star

Reid Totally agree about all the nature nature nature metaphors, they became incessant and insulting, as you say. Ruined a good story.


message 15: by Anna (new)

Anna Heidi wrote: "I don’t think that Golden was necessarily trying to be tricky by writing the fictional translator’s note; Nathaniel Hawthorne did the same thing in The Scarlet Letter. It’s a literary device that i..."

I completely agree with the pacing difference. I hadn't even realized it until you mentioned it, actually...


message 16: by Gina (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gina Mellon Geisha, a Life, is allegedly the premise for Sayuri's character, and she writes this book, to clear up any falacies he may have implied w Memoirs. Please forgive my brief review, but after reading both I can still say that Memoirs, did exactly what a good "fiction" book does for me. Leaves a lasting impression,that I for one won't soon forget.


Barbara Find Women of Comfort


Rachel Scheidt I don't know what you're talking about but Hatsumomo DID NOT have any reason to treat Chiyo so unkindly. Only like once does she give her a reason to hate her and that's already after Chiyo's got in trouble for the lies Hatsumomo told and she was already treating her like a dog. After someone did all that stuff to me i'd want to be mean to her too.


message 19: by Jeff (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jeff I think it's unfortunate that you would review a tasteful book based on a heavy-handed movie interpretation of that book.


Monica "It is a wonderful introduction to geisha, Japanese culture, and the East for the uninitiated Western reader" Here I am! The uninitiated Western reader. Can you suggest me another book I should read that faces Japanese culture's aspects in a better way?


Celestina A very interesting view of the book that I have not even considered.This is one of my favourite books of all time but I've never really thought deeply about the characters. A nice review.


message 22: by Sarah (new)

Sarah I thought Arthur Golden did a fantastic job with this tale. I'm not interested in whether it is historically or culturally accurate. I don't think that is what people are looking for when they pick up a 'fiction' book. I got what I was looking for with this book; an in-depth and deeply moving story.


Juushika The answer to "what book should I read instead?" is apparently Geisha, a Life (among other books mentioned in comments above, obviously); Golden interviewed and then misrepresented Mineko Iwasaki in creation of Memoirs, and she wrote her own autobiography in response. I've not yet read it but it's well vouched for, and its existence also clearly answers the question of whether or not Golden's novel is appropriative and problematic (it is).

I wrote this review years ago, pretending to know a lot more than I did (in its own way problematic!), and so can no longer engage in responses to my criticism, but I still stand by the view that this book is unforgivably flawed--the sort of flaws that can't be dismissed by the eternal cry that it's "just" fiction.


Marius Hancu While reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, you may want to see my questions related to it as answered in the alt.usage.english (AUE) Usenet newsgroup. My thanks to the participating AUE members. The focus of my questions was the language: rare words, funny or original expressions, special or strange constructs — as I saw them, from within my own idiosyncrasies.


message 25: by india (new) - added it

india Good book


message 26: by india (new) - added it

india The first place in my heart disease and stroke of genius to figure out how many people are going to the boy was a good day at work and the same time I see you soon to be released in the same time period of time for me to get to see you soon then I have to be honest I'm not a bad thing about it but it's still available in my head hurts like that I am a bit late to India to be in town of your friends are the only reason you soon then we will have a great hi how are you guys have fun with that one of the same time I see you soon and the boy was I wrong but it doesn't matter if you'd like me a pic of your own home and then I have no


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