Review: Memoirs Of A Geisha — Arthur Golden (1997)

People just love this book, don’t they? I guess I can understand some of that. There’s a good deal to appreciate in the literary side of the work. Golden has done a marvellous job of evoking the characters, and creating a setting that has tremendous verisimilitude for the reader. And yet, the book left me uncomfortable.

For those of you who don’t know, Memoirs of a Geisha is a work of fiction — a romance, really — which has been dressed in the kimono of an autobiography of sorts. Golden creates a fictional interviewer and translator at the beginning, and then offers us a work composed from ‘recorded interviews’ with his fictitious lead character, the geisha Sayuri. 

The biographical material works very well, and Golden creates a wholly believable ‘voice’ for his Sayuri. The book is fully of interesting titbits and details, elements of the culture and the times, and particularly the location within Japan wherein the book is set. And yet, were it purely a biography I would find it very hard to believe, for it’s wrapped around what is really a very mundane, very conventional ‘love at first sight is finally requited’ tale with Sayuri at its centre.

On the other hand, viewed purely as a novel I found the book little to my liking. Biographies are interesting because they are biographies. From a novel, I hope for both more, and less. More in the sense that I’d like a more complex tale, stronger themes… I’d like to see more at stake than I do in a biography, generally speaking. And less in that I am willing to sacrifice minutiae of detail — the careful description of a colourful kimono; the precise arrangement of an apprentice geisha’s hair — in exchange for that strong and complex tale. 

In fact, thinking careully, I find Golden’s book to be quite a lazy work. This might seem odd, considering the depth of research involved, the care he has taken over building Sayuri’s ‘biography’ — but a quick investigation of Golden’s background reveals him to be a scholar of Japanese history and art. I would never say that the evocation of the Gion district and the geisha lifestyle was an easy task — but I would say that for a man of Golden’s learning, it would be far easier than  for most.

This book seems to me something that Golden has done to display his learning and study. There is in the West a lingering fascination with the geisha, and a lack of real information about them. Rather than writing an honest novel, or an equally honest historical study, Golden has chosen to pretend that his novel is history.

Now there are many fine historical romances out there, though relatively few take the form of autobiography. Am I meant, then, to be overwhelmed by Golden’s art in the creation of his narrator Sayuri? But why? There’s nothing easier for the novelist than to build a convincing character if that character spends the entire book talking about herself and her life. 

Should I be delighted by the novel? I think not. As a little girl, Sayuri has a chance encounter with a powerful man who impresses her. For the next thirty years or so, she dreams of him, encountering him from time to time, eventually rising to the circles in which he moves — and finally becoming his mistress, despite the inevitable obstacles. And these obstacles: a spiteful, jealous senior geisha of the same household as Sayuri; World War II; the fact that the best friend and right-hand man of her desired lover is deeply enamoured of her, preventing the Desired One from acting… there’s nothing really very interesting in any of these. They unfold like a hand of cards, like — well, like the worn and well-signalled plot turnings of a rather generic romance.

I very much wanted to like this book. Instead, I find myself wishing it had been one thing, or the other, and wondering what it is that has so beguiled so very many readers. 

There is one consequence which will follow from reading and reviewing this book, however. It seems that in researching his book, Golden did indeed interview and record a real geisha by the name of Mineko Iwasaki, and by some accounts used rather more of her material than he should. Certainly, she later brought a lawsuit against him for breach of confidentiality. But more importantly, she also produced her very own autobiography, Geisha of Gion — and I am now rather more interested in that book than I am in Golden’s piece.

It will be interesting to see the outcome. Is Arthur Golden really a talented novelist? Or is he merely a student of Japanese history and a very successful opportunist? 

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8 comments

  1. Never read Memoirs of a Geisha.

    Not likely to now after reading your review.

    Instead should I perhaps approach Flavorwire’s Emily Temple’s 50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers, which includes such tomes as: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and Out by Natsuo Kirino.

    1. That sounds like…. fun?

  2. I read Memoirs of a Geisha a long time ago and I know I found the historical bits really interesting, and the romantic bits – meh. It was as if there were two completely different books operating in parallel, and only one of which was any good. (I will admit quietly to reading Dan Brown for the historical bits. I can’t stand him as a story teller)

    1. Yep. You nailed it. Like two books in parallel. I very much got the impression that he used a by-the-numbers romance plot to string along his academic historian stuff. I’d have been delighted to read the historical material on its own merits.

  3. As someone who read Memoirs of a Geisha, got interested in the Geisha culture, and then did quite a bit of research on Maiko and Geisha in modern times and in the past, I re-read this book again and found immense inaccuracies to what the Maiko and Geiko (Kyoto Geisha) culture is actually like. As Mineko Iwasaki-san had said in several interviews, Golden perversed her story. She said that this book and this story isn’t about a geiko but rather about a prostitute disguised as a Geiko. The book seemed to concentrate more on her looks and flirtatious ways and the sheer drama rather than the actual arts. She seemed to rely more on those aspects than the arts she worked so hard to perfect. The only exposure that the book brings about the arts is a couple scenes of her practicing, a dance or two and maybe one instance when she plays the shamisen. All in all, this book is pure fantasy, he got more wrong in the Geiko culture than he got correct and no person interested in the Geiko/Geisha culture should look at this book as a credible source. And poor Mineko-san. After the book was published and her identity was revealed in the process of making the book, she has been shunned from the Geiko community. Only very recently are they starting to allow her back in, but she admitted that the effects that book brought on her has made her contemplate suicide, after all, she lost all the friends she ever had since she was very young, that would be enough to drive anyone over the edge. She’s better now after she’s been slowly let back in, but there are still many who view her as a villain even though she only wanted to expose others to what Geisha are.

    1. Useful information. I did say that I got a sense of ‘verisimilitude’ from the work. That’s a novelist’s simulation of truth — a sense of truthfulness. It definitely doesn’t necessarily imply truth.

      In any case, I am definitely going to pick up Mineko Iwasaki’s book as a result!

  4. I did not read the book, I solely saw the movie. For me it was rather a starting point to discovering the geisha world, and thus I am grateful this story ‘exposed’ me to this world.
    As for Golden,I would say he is a bit of both. He clearly has talent, but what made him who he is is being an opportunist. And I guess this is generally speaking the way famous people get where they are. They seize something different, something new, and turn it into something available to everybody. I believe he could have made his story accurate if he wanted, he had the means; but I think he did not want to. In order for his work to have success it had to be as close as possible to a westerner’s understanding. We’re talking about a remote culture that is hardly understood by people who do not come in contact with it, therefore they would rather prefer a story that has things they can relate to. It is a bit sad money and fame are more important that spreading a truthful description, but that is our society after all, and I do not think it will change any time soon.
    Great review! I too cannot wait to read Geisha of Gion!

  5. Hi, I really enjoy your article !
    Here is my review about the same subject ^^
    http://plumedamethyste.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/geisha-arthur-golden-l/

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