Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden, 1997
In this literary tour de force, novelist Arthur Golden enters a remote and shimmeringly exotic world.
For the protagonist of this peerlessly observant first novel is Sayuri, one of Japan's most celebrated geisha, a woman who is both performer and courtesan, slave and goddess. We follow Sayuri from her childhood in an impoverished fishing village, where in 1929, she is sold to a representative of a geisha house, who is drawn by the child's unusual blue-grey eyes. From there she is taken to Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto. She is nine years old.
In the years that follow, as she works to pay back the price of her purchase, Sayuri will be schooled in music and dance, learn to apply the geisha's elaborate makeup, wear elaborate kimono, and care for a coiffure so fragile that it requires a special pillow. She will also acquire a magnanimous tutor and a venomous rival. Surviving the intrigues of her trade and the upheavals of war, the resourceful Sayuri is a romantic heroine on the order of Jane Eyre and Scarlett O'Hara. And Memoirs of a Geisha is a triumphant work—suspenseful, and utterly persuasive. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA
• Education—B.A., Harvard; M.A., Columbia University; M.A.,
• Currently—lives in Brookline, Massachusetts
A member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family (owners of the New York Times), Golden was educated at the Baylor School (then a boys-only school for day and boarding students) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He attended Harvard College and received a degree in art history, specializing in Japanese art. In 1980, he earned an M.A. in Japanese history at Columbia University, and also learned Mandarin Chinese. After a summer at Beijing University, he worked in Tokyo. When he returned to the United States, he earned an M.A. in English at Boston University. He currently lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
After its release in 1997, Memoirs of a Geisha spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list. It has sold more than four million copies in English and has been translated into thirty-two languages around the world.
The novel Memoirs of a Geisha was written after interviewing a number of geisha, including Mineko Iwasaki, for background information about the world of the geisha, although Golden fictionalized key aspects of Geiko life including the notion that they participated in ritualized prostitution.
After the Japanese edition of Memoirs of a Geisha was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Iwasaki. The plaintiff claimed that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity, if she told him about her life as a geisha due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
In 2005, Memoirs of a Geisha was made into a feature film starring Ziyi Zhang and Ken Watanabe, and directed by Rob Marshall, garnering three Academy Awards. (From Wikipedia.)
Part historical novel, part fairy tale, part Dickensian romance, Memoirs of a Geisha is not only a richly sympathetic portrait of a woman, but a finely observed picture of an anomalous and largely vanished world.... An impressive and unusual debut.
New York Times
Golden's storytelling is rich and slow-paced. Like Austen, he lavishes attention on the minute details that regulate and define social distinctions. In the raising of a teacup or an eyebrow there are worlds of implication. The prose style is simple and strangely satisfying, perfectly attuned to its time and place. Golden manages to find the simile for every occasion. "That startling month in which I first came upon the Chairman again...made me feel like a pet cricket that has at last escaped its wicker cage. For the first time in ages I could go to bed at night believing that I might not always draw as little notice in Gion as a drop of tea spilled onto the mats." Golden deftly makes use of a culture that deflects emotion and makes direct communication taboo to create a world of intrigue and romance. Depression and war remain in the background while Sayuri imbibes wisdom from her mentor, Mameha, battles her rival, Hatsumomo, and yearns for the attentions of the Chairman. Memoirs of a Geisha is an intelligent entertainment.
Dan Cryer - Salon
Arthur Golden's brilliant debut novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a reminder of just how silly the exhortation "write what you know!" can be. Clearly Golden, a 40-something American male, has never lived anything remotely similar to the experiences of a geisha coming of age in the 1930s, the glory days of Kyoto's Gion pleasure district. Yet it is precisely this vanished world that he re-creates with subtlety, sensuality, and supreme authority, bringing to life characters so complete and idiosyncratic—so fully sprung from the eras he has evoked—that his novel ultimately overwhelms us, as seductive and beguiling as the geisha of its title.... Like a gorgeously layered kimono, Memoirs gradually unfolds to reveal the courage, love, daring, and hope of an intensely human—and, it turns out, surprisingly modern—woman. Sayuri's voice, alternately poetic and mischievous, lends the narrative an immediacy that provides a beguiling counterpoint to the exquisitely detailed rituals—such as the lacquered mask Sayuri learns to apply so expertly—that make up so much of geisha life in prewar Gion. Like Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World, Memoirs of a Geisha revives a long-vanished world and makes us experience, however briefly, its fragile, mothlike, and indelible beauty.
Sarah Midori Zimmerman (Writer-editor, New York)
"I wasn't born and raised to be a Kyoto geisha.... I'm a fisherman's daughter from a little town called Yoroido on the Sea of Japan." How nine-year-old Chiyo, sold with her sister into slavery by their father after their mother's death, becomes Sayuri, the beautiful geisha accomplished in the art of entertaining men, is the focus of this fascinating first novel. Narrating her life story from her elegant suite in the Waldorf Astoria, Sayuri tells of her traumatic arrival at the Nitta okiya (a geisha house), where she endures harsh treatment from Granny and Mother, the greedy owners, and from Hatsumomo, the sadistically cruel head geisha. But Sayuri's chance meeting with the Chairman, who shows her kindness, makes her determined to become a geisha. Under the tutelage of the renowned Mameha, she becomes a leading geisha of the 1930s and 1940s. After the book's compelling first half, the second half is a bit flat and overlong. Still, Golden, with degrees in Japanese art and history, has brilliantly revealed the culture and traditions of an exotic world, closed to most Westerners.
Wilda Williams - Library Journal
Cherry-blossom delicate, with images as carefully sculpted as bonsai, this tale of the life of a renowned geisha, one of the last flowers of a kind all but eliminated by WW II, marks an auspicious, unusual debut. Japan is already changing, becoming industrialized and imperialistic, when in 1929 young Chiyo's fisherman father sells her to a house in Kyoto's famous Gion district. The girl's gray-eyed beauty is startling even in childhood, so much so that her training is impeded by the jealousy of her house's primary geisha, the popular, petty Hatsumomo. Caught trying to run away, Chiyo loses her trainee status until taken under the wing of Mameha, a bitter rival of Hatsumomo.
Chiyo flourishes with Mameha as her guide, soon receiving her geisha name, Sayuri, and having her mentor skillfully arrange the two main events vital to a geisha's success: the sale of Sayuri's virginity (for a record price), and the finding of a sugar-daddy to pay her way. Seeing the implications of Japan's militarism, Mameha pairs Sayuri with the general in charge of army provisions, so that as WW II drags on she and her house have things no one else in Gion can obtain. After the war, with her general dead and others vying for her attention, Sayuri pines anew for the only man she ever loved—an electrical-corporation chairman whose kindness to a crying Chiyo years before altered the course of her future.
Though incomparable in its view of a geisha's life behind the scenes, the story loses immediacy as it goes along. When modern times eclipse Gion's sheltered world, the latter part of Sayuri's life—compared to the incandescent clarity of its first decades—seems increasingly flat.
1. Many people in the West think of geisha simply as prostitutes. After reading Memoirs of a Geisha, do you see the geisha of Gion as prostitutes? What are the similarities, and what are the differences? What is the difference between being a prostitute and being a "kept woman, " as Sayuri puts it [p. 291]?
2. "The afternoon when I met Mr. Tanaka Ichiro, " says Sayuri, "really was the best and the worst of my life" [p. 7]. Is Mr. Tanaka purely motivated by the money he will make from selling Chiyo to Mrs. Nitta, or is he also thinking of Chiyo's future? Is he, as he implies in his letter, her friend?
3. In his letter to Chiyo, Mr. Tanaka says "The training of a geisha is an arduous path. However, this humble person is filled with admiration for those who are able to recast their suffering and become great artists" [p. 103]. The word "geisha" in fact derives from the Japanese word for art. In what does the geisha's art consist? How many different types of art does she practice?
4. Does Sayuri have a better life as a geisha than one assumes she would have had in her village? How does one define a "better" life? Pumpkin, when offered the opportunity to run away, declines [p. 53]; she feels she will be safer in Gion. Is her decision wise?
5. How does Sayuri's status at the Nitta okiya resemble, or differ from, that of a slave? Is she in fact a slave?
6. Are Mother and Granny cruel by nature, or has the relentless life of Gion made them what they are? If so, why is Auntie somewhat more human? Does Auntie feel real affection for Sayuri and Pumpkin, or does she see them simply aschattel?
7. "We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them" [p. 127]. How does this attitude differ from the Western notion of seizing control of one's destiny? Which is the more valid? What are Sayuri's feelings and beliefs about "free will"?
8. Do you see Sayuri as victimized by Nobu's attentions, or do you feel pity for Nobu in his hopeless passion for Sayuri? Do you feel that, in finally showing her physical scorn for Nobu, Sayuri betrayed a friend, or that real friendship is impossible between a man and a woman of their respective stations?
9. How do Japanese ideas about eroticism and sexuality differ from Western ones? Does the Japanese ideal of femininity differ from ours? Which parts of the female body are fetishized in Japan, which in the West? The geisha's ritual of preparing herself for the teahouse is a very elaborate affair; how essentially does it differ from a Western women's preparation for a date?
10. Does the way in which the Kyoto men view geisha differ from the way they might view other women, women whom they might marry? What are the differences? How, in turn, do geisha view men? Is the geisha's view of men significantly different from that of ordinary women?
11. Do you find that the relationship between a geisha and her danna is very different from that between a Western man and his mistress? What has led Sayuri to think that "a geisha who expects understanding from her danna is like a mouse expecting sympathy from a snake" [p. 394]?
12. As the older Sayuri narrates her story, it almost seems as though she presents Chiyo and Sayuri as two different people. In what ways are Chiyo and Sayuri different? In what ways are they recognizably the same person?
13. Pumpkin believes that Sayuri betrayed her when she, rather than Pumpkin, was adopted by the Nitta okiya. Do you believe that Sayuri was entirely blameless in this incident? Might she have helped to make Pumpkin's life easier while they were in the okiya together? Or has Pumpkin's character simply been corrupted by her years with Hatsumomo and the entire cruel system that has exploited her?
14. Sayuri senses that she shares an en, a lifelong karmic bond, with Nobu [p. 295]. How might a Western woman express this same idea?
15. During Sayuri's life, Japan goes through a series of traumas and unprecedented cultural change: the Great Depression, the War, the American Occupation. How do the inhabitants of Gion view political events in the outside world? How much effect do such events have upon their lives? How aware are they of mainstream Japanese culture and life?
16. What personal qualities do Sayuri and Mameha have that make them able to survive and even prosper in spite of the many cruelties they have suffered? Why is Hatsumomo, for example, ultimately unable to survive in Gion?
17. Is Sayuri the victim of a cruel and repressive system, a woman who can only survive by submitting to men? Or is she a tough, resourceful person who has not only survived but built a good life for herself with independence and even a certain amount of power?
18. Why might Golden have chosen to begin his narrative with a "Translator's Note"? What does this device accomplish for him?
19. In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden has done a very daring thing: he, an American man, has written in the voice of a Japanese woman. How successfully does he disguise his own voice? While reading the novel, did you feel that you were hearing the genuine voice of a woman?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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