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The Look of a King, the View of a Geisha

by Robert David Jaffee

December 29, 2005 | 7:00 pm

Gong Li stars as Hatsumomo in the film version of Arthur Golden's romantic epic "Memoirs of a Geisha." Photo by David James

Gong Li stars as Hatsumomo in the film version of Arthur Golden's romantic epic "Memoirs of a Geisha." Photo by David James

"It's cozy out here," says Arthur Golden, author of "Memoirs of a Geisha." Out here is in the Japanese garden in the back of Elixir, a teahouse in West Hollywood.

Golden, in town for the recent film premiere of "Geisha," is dressed in a dark turtleneck and sits relaxed on a bench, one leg crossed over the other, yet with perfect posture. Maybe it's the preppiness of his attire or the comfort with which he sits, but Arthur Golden reminds me of King Arthur -- not the one from legend, but Graham Chapman's Arthur from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Partly, it's the way he repeats how "cozy" it is out here, in a garden nook with the sound of water gurgling from fountains, a setting familiar to those from Chapman's Oxbridge circle. Partly, it's the way he says, when it is suggested that he is related to the Sulzbergers, that "I am a Sulzberger."

He says it much like the way Chapman announces "I am Arthur."

Golden is a patrician Jew if there ever was one, hailing from a fabled German Jewish family, owners for over a century of The New York Times, one of the members of "Our Crowd," who dine at the Harmonie Club and marry within the crowd. Yet Golden is not from New York City like the better-known Sulzbergers. His mother, Ruth S. Holmberg, is a sister of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, former publisher of The New York Times. Golden's mother was a longtime publisher of one of the family's other papers, the Chattanooga Times.

Despite Golden's Chattanooga background, his accent is hard to place. He doesn't speak in a drawl or even with a tinge of the Upper East Side. His words come out softly, gently. This is a man in touch with his feminine side, which is a real strength for a male writer trying to write from the point of view of a woman, let alone a geisha, in the first person.

The movie version, which was released by Sony Pictures in early December in limited markets before expanding more recently, has received mixed reviews, although critics seem united in praising the performance of Ziyi Zhang, who plays the apprentice geisha Sayuri, the protagonist of the story.

While Golden succeeded in capturing the voice of a geisha, he recognizes that when a movie is made of a book, "The narrative voice cannot be translated as if you're being pulled by someone's hand and walked through."

The voice, he says, "is a feature that will absolutely be lost."

While the filmmakers, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Robin Swicord, use occasional voice-over in the movie, Golden is correct that Sayuri's unique voice, like the unique voice of any first-person narrator in any novel, can not be replicated.

But this is particularly true of "Geisha" because Golden's novel begins with a translator's note from a fictional NYU professor, a conceit that was perhaps most famously used by Vladimir Nabokov, who had a character named John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., write a foreword to "Lolita."

This multilayered level of artifice functions in the case of "Geisha" as a "Western-receiving consciousness," Golden says.

It is not culture alone that Golden has transcended, but also religion and sex.

He mentions that his great-great-grandfather was Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of Reform Judaism. He gets slightly agitated, pumping his arms a bit up and down as if to contain his anger, when he notes the recent comments by Iran's new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust is a "myth" and that Israel should be moved to Europe or destroyed.

But he doesn't seem overly upset. He adds with a bit too much gentility "we feel a certain way because we are human beings, not because we are Jews."

He points out that his newspaper kin, like Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who published The New York Times during World War II, had to maintain objectivity as newspapermen, rather than promote the cause of any one ethnic or religious group. Many critics have denounced such "objectivity" as an excuse for towing the line of the Roosevelt administration during the Holocaust. Yet, historically, German Jews have always attempted to straddle two worlds, the world of the non-Jewish establishment and the world of the Jews, just as Golden has straddled the world of an American male and a geisha in writing his book, which was a bestseller when it was published in 1998.

Golden admits he struggled with writing from the point of view of a woman.

He spent a great deal of time interviewing a famous geisha, who later sued him for revealing her name in his acknowledgments. That suit was settled out of court. But the access he had to her gave him great insight into that hidden world.

Golden began by writing in the third person, for the same reason most writers do, to achieve a kind of distance from his subject. In fact, he wrote the book twice in the third person until he realized that he had "spent six years writing something that was boring." He says that his book made the rounds and that he could not find a publisher.

"I was very scared to impersonate a woman," Golden says.

But Golden realized that he was writing about "one woman at one moment at one time. I'm not writing about all women. It's not like walking a tight rope but rather like being in a canoe and keeping it between banks."

He smiles a bit sheepishly when asked if he consulted his wife. It's as if his secret has been discovered, yet he says that his wife's responses showed "exactly how Trudy would feel, but not how Sayuri would feel."

He adds, "I am not here to teach you a writing lesson, but the two enemies of fiction are stasis and generality."

In pronouncing such obvious principles of writing as if he had invented them, Golden speaks less like a seasoned practitioner of the craft than someone who himself may have only just learned these very basic points.

Still, there is no question that he avoided stasis and generality in "Geisha." There is a great deal of movement in the book and movie, some of the literal kind, such as the young girl's abrupt departure from her fishing village to Kyoto; some of the more internal variety, her evolution from Chiyo, the daughter of a fisherman and maid at a geisha house, to Sayuri, the most prized apprentice geisha in the town.

The movie's appeal may rest largely on the beauty of its images and the beauty of its actors, notably Ziyi Zhang as Sayuri, Michelle Yeoh as her "sister" or fairy godmother and Gong Li as a spidery Madame Merle named Hatsumomo. But the book goes beyond the beauty of the geisha and reveals Golden's deep knowledge of Japanese culture.

Golden, who studied Japanese art history at Harvard, Japanese history at Columbia and has lived in both China and Japan, clearly did yeoman work in researching the subject of geisha. He not only conjures up the world of superstitions and curses that mark these artists, but also more specific details, like how Granny, the elder of the okiya, had skin that looked like an "uncooked chicken's" because of a type of makeup that is no longer used, but that contained lead and formed a dye when combined with chemicals from hot springs. Golden also layers in other historical facts, such as how a geisha's fees were once calculated; they were based on the number of incense sticks burned while she was at a teahouse.

When one has a conversation in Japan, Golden says, "You can't say anything without making an explicit statement about the social relationships." He points out that when Japanese men go out alone, "the hierarchy of the office will prevail." He adds that "obsequiousness and gruffness are character traits" based on that stratified structure.

The geisha, he says, "break down that hierarchy, make all the guys relax, make everything pleasurable." But geisha have been "supplanted by bar hostesses," bringing an end to a certain era.

The interview, too, has come to a close.

Golden announces that he has to leave, and he strolls away through the "cozy" garden, a modern-day Arthur.

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