I have decided to no longer review every book I read this year, since I simply cannot keep up. This month, I’ve read 13 books, including finishing off the chunkster that was The Brothers Karamazov(which was left over from my December Russian reading). 12 of these were translated books, greatly helped by the fact that it was January in Japan and I really enjoyed spending time in one of my favourite countries in the world (9 of the 12 were Japanese). The only one in English in the original was for the Virtual Crime Book Club – and you can catch our discussion of The Chemistry of Death by Simon Becketthere.
Of the 13 you can see in the picture below, you might notice two are different translations of the same book by Dazai Osamu, so let me reassure you that I am not counting that twice, but am including instead an academic work about Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu by Alan Stephen Wolfe (but it does not have a pretty cover). To go through my Japanese reading chronologically:
I found out about the fascinating life and work of Higuchi Ichiyo, the first modern Japanese professional woman writer.
I reconnected with my favourite Dazai Osamu, reading his No Longer Humanin a new translation and his shorter, often quite funny more purely autobiographical stories. This is where I also fell down the rabbit hole of reading more of him and about him in a more academic context.
I moved on to another modern classic and old favourite, Yukio Mishima.
I read an enjoyable romp of a crime novel with a deliberately American noir feel, despite its Japanese setting and preoccupation with the consequences of the Vietnam war: The Wrong Goodbye by Toshihiko Yahagi (not reviewed)
Last but not least, it was intriguing and timely to read about the often ignored homeless people of Tokyo Ueno Stationby Yu Miri
Aside from Japan, I also spent some time with Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz and his experimentally structured novelKokoschka’s Doll, as well as with the fast-paced, jazzy improv beat of talented German writer Simone Buchholz: Hotel Cartagena (not reviewed).
For February, I will spend time in Canada, but inevitably some other writing will creep in, especially if it’s winter themed. However, our host Meredith is continuing with the Japanese Lit Challenge until March, and I certainly intend to continue following the reviews that people are posting there.
Elsa the Rose – beautiful love story (although also ever so slightly obsessive) told through interviews with Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon, in conversation with Agnès Varda.
Ikiru – absolutely adored this film, more reminiscent of Ozu than Kurosawa. It tell the story of a faceless (not very likeable) bureaucrat who, when faced with a death sentence through a cancer diagnosis – becomes concerned about making up for lost time (and looking for fun in all the wrong places initially) and leaving behind a legacy. Particularly poignant and realistic in the post-funeral scene, when you see how others talk about the dead and misunderstand them.
The Godfather and The Sopranos – rewatched the first with my older son, who really likes it. Then, by way of counterpoint and an update into the Mafia families, started watching Season 1 of The Sopranos.
The Long Goodbye – was not entirely convinced by the portrayal of women as either manipulative bitches or decorative hippies high on drugs. However, I really liked Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe: with his dark suit, lanky figure, fluffy hair and constant smoking, it’s clear he must have been the inspiration for the Spike Spiegel in the anime series Cowboy Bebop.
Lovers Rock – described by many as their favourite of the Small Axe films by Steve McQueen. I loved the recreation of the period, the setting, the community and also the charming touches of youthful love (as well as more disturbing aspects of the party culture), but I did feel some of the music passages were too long.
Phoenix – a pared-down approach to acting by Nina Hoss to what could have been quite a melodramatic story of losing one’s identity, betrayal, forgiveness (or not) and moving on (both as an individual and as a country). The final ten minutes or so, when she gets off the train and is reunited with her husband and ‘friends’, are perfectly and heartbreakingly done.
Despite a busy working month, I’ve made a little bit of progress on my novel (I’m nearly two thirds of the way through, but I think it will need at least another edit before I’m happy with it).
However, I’m happy to say that I’ve very nearly finished the edits to my second translated novel: Resilience by Bogdan Hrib. ‘Resilience’ in the context of this novel does not focus on psychological resilience in the face of the unknown (although it does deal with this tangentially), but on geopolitics. It is defined as “the ability of states and societies to adapt and reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crisis, particularly in a period of unpredictability and volatility”. Of course, that is too academic to be of much interest in a crime novel, so let’s just say that this will be all about social media, fake news and dubious agents (who knows from where?) trying to influence international politics. This should come out end of March with Corylus Books.
Osamu Dazai: Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan’s great decadent romantic, transl. and introduced by Ralph F. McCarthy, Kodansha International, 1991.
Once I reconnected with my old flame, Dazai Osamu, it was difficult to stop at just the new translation of his final novel Ningen Shikkaku. One of my book blogging friends, whom you might know as @Kaggsy59 from Twitter, mentioned that she had a collection of his autobiographical stories in roughly chronological order, with sympathetic introductions to each story by McCarthy. Somehow, I did not manage to get my hands on this book back in the 1990s and it is now out of print and prohibitively expensive. So maybe I shouldn’t recommend it to you. But if you can get hold of it, it is probably the best introduction to Dazai’s work, as there is great variety and much more humour here than in some of his better-known work.
As the translator says, some of the stories are clearly more fictional than others, and there is a tendency to exaggerate for effect. Let’s not forget that most of these were stories for magazines, published during the writer’s lifetime, and that he had to produce work to earn a living. He injects humour into situations, often at his own expense, but also has the ability to turn from comedy to tragedy within the same paragraph, even the same sentence. This style – and the more domestic stories – remind me of Shirley Jackson’s family-inspired stories collected in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Except that Shirley Jackson does not mention directly her fury at her husband’s affairs, or her agoraphobia or her many health problems, while Dazai has no such qualms.
In his quite experimental story written in dialogue form ‘Mesu ni tsuite’ (translated here as Female, elsewhere as Of Women), we initially seem to witnessing one of those games that old friends might play late at night, after a bout of drinking. The narrator and his friend vie with each other to describe the ideal woman, in terms of looks, occupation, clothes, behaviour and speech. This may come across as crude masculine banter, but they then go on to create the scenario of a spa break. Yet even in this best of all possible imaginary worlds, things don’t go according to plan and the romantic dinner for two becomes increasingly awkward. The man seems to avoid intimacy by pretending he’s got a writing deadline, but then spends endless minutes copying out the Iroha poem repeatedly (used as a kind of alphabet ordering for the Japanese syllabary). It seems that even in his imagination, the narrator cannot rid himself of his fears and complexes. It all seems quite funny in a very ‘cringe comedy’ sort of way (which makes Dazai so modern, to my mind), but then both the friend and the reader realise, to their horror, that the story takes a sinister turn (apologies for spoiling the ending for you, but then, if you’ve read my previous post about Dazai’s life, you will know that only one ending is possible):
‘I heard a sound like water flowing behind me. It was only a faint sound, but a chill ran down my spine. The woman had quietly turned over in bed.’
‘”Let’s die,” I said. She too…’
‘Stop right there. You’re not just making this up.’
He was right. The following afternoon the woman and I attempted suicide. She was neither a geisha nor a painter. She was a girl from a poor background who’d been a maid in my home. She was killed simply because she turned over in bed. I didn’t die. Seven years have passed and I’m still alive.
Dazai does not come out well from most of these stories, as you might expect, but he can also be quite cutting about the people closest to him for comedic effect. For example, in the story ‘Trains’ he feels sorry for a country girl who has been spurned by one of his friends and impulsively decides to say goodbye to her as she leaves from Tokyo Ueno station. He takes his wife along for moral support, believing that she might have more social skills than him. As you might expect, however, everyone just hangs around, looking and sounding very awkward.
Three minutes or so still remained before departure time. I couldn’t stand it… nothing is more confounding than those last three minutes. You’ve said all there is to say and can do nothing but gaze helplessly at each other. And in this case it was even worse, because I hadn’t been able to come up with a single thing to say in the first place. If my wife had been a bit more competent, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but look at her: standing there with her mouth clamped shut and a sullen look on her face.
Yet each story has layers: beneath the comedy there is something much more serious. While they are at the station, they also see ‘an ashen-faced fellow leaning out a window of the third class coach, bidding a faltering farewell’ and we realise that it is a young man being mobilised during the war. In ‘Female’, reference is made to a failed coup in 1936 (the so-called February 26 Incident) to reinstate the power and glory of the Emperor – an attempt that Mishima admired and Dazai completely despised.
Dazai was emphatically against the war, but, given his arrest because of his involvement with the Communist Party, he is careful not to upset the censors and only mentions war in passing in his work of the 1930s. His downbeat, fatalistic stories were increasingly frowned upon by the censors, so he reverted mostly to retellings of Japanese folk tale or older stories during the war.
Yet, for all his appreciation of traditional Japanese literature and history, he stubbornly refused to accept the established narratives or clichés. In a very funny scene in his story ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’, he and one elderly woman are the only ones in a bus full of tourists who steadfastly refuse to crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the mythical mountain, but look in the opposite direction.
Perhaps Dazai is at his best when he focuses on others rather than on himself. He has a great eye for detail and proves a good observer of people and situations. There is much warmth and humanity in his descriptions, even when he almost churlishly tries to undermine his own kind impulses, as if afraid that he might be accused of sentimentalism. The tenderness and hope of spring and marital love in a story like ‘A Promise Fulfilled’. The way he keeps assuring readers that he hates dogs, yet takes in a stray puppy in the comical tale ‘Canis familiaris’. Believing a rose-seller is an imposter and yet nevertheless buying the roses from her in ‘Thinking of Zenso’. The affection and admiration with which he describes his older brothers, who all had some literary talent (even though he clearly had a troubled relationship with them). In ‘Two Little Words’ he helps an old man fill in the withdrawal slip from his saving passbook and finds out that it is in the name of his daughter who died in the air raids. When sent by journalists for a photo feature with the vagrants in Ueno Park, he is able to relate to them and treat them like real human beings, observing much more within a few minutes of walking there than any of the reporters who accompany him. Perhaps most touchingly, in ‘Seascape with Figures in Gold’, he feels guilty about the way he used to treat one of the family maids, yet years later, when she comes to visit him with her family, she remembers things very differently and he ends up being almost envious of her peaceful, serene life.
In one of the last stories he ever wrote, ‘Cherries’, we are participating in an evening meal with his family and Dazai says something that reminds us of the main character in Ningen Shikkaku:
When I’m at home, I’m forever making jokes. Let’s say it’s a case of needing to wear Dante’s mask of merriment precisely because there are so many things that trigger the anguish in the heart… Whenever I’m with people, no matter how great my mental or physical suffering, I try desperately to create a happy atmosphere. It’s only after parting with company that I stagger away exhausted to think about money and morality and suicide.
I don’t know if I’ve managed to convey the flavour of this author without making you feel he is too self-indulgent. Mishima described him as ‘an invalid who does not wish to recover’ and therefore does not qualify as a true invalid. The thing with Dazai is that you cannot hate or criticise him more than he does himself. You have the feeling that it was not a pose. He handled the fame that came along after the publication of The Setting Sun just as badly as he had handled poverty and obscurity in his youth. He was ever the one to rebel against rules, and the tyranny of ‘should’, decrying what he perceived to be the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Japanese society during and after the war. His is a manifesto of constantly inspecting, never accepting at face value, opposing any facile answers: ‘I’m a libertine – burhaiha. I rebel against constraints. I jeer at the opportunists.’ He refused to join any clique and could be quite spiteful about what he perceived as arrogance in others. But for those who were truly poor, downtrodden, outcast or sad, he had endless compassion. He was always able to forgive weaknesses in others (probably because of all the weaknesses he could see in himself).
In the academic study I was reading in parallel with this, The Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu, the scholar Alan Wolfe argues that Dazai does not really fall into the romantic suicidal hero vein. Dazai is ‘simultaneously victim and victimizer’, and his texts resist our interpretation of him. Dazai becomes slippery, impossible to pin down to a single interpretation, teasing readers from beyond the grave. He constantly casts doubt on the veracity and consistency of the narrator – a technique that Mishima also uses in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Dazai would never be content with a final narrative, a theory set in stone, any effort to enclose thought once and for all. Everything is fluid, and the real meaning of things escapes us, or is only briefly glimpsed in the corner of one’s eye.
Robert Lyons Danly: In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life of Higuchi Ichiyo with Nine of Her Best Short Stories, Norton, 1992.
Higuchi Ichiyo is revered in Japan as the first major woman writer of the modern era, poised between traditional Japan and the death of the samurai era, and the rapidly modernising Japan of the late 19th century, a precursor to the many excellent women writers that Japan produced in the 20th century and the present-day. Although her portrait appears on the 5000 Yen note, and most of her stories have been adapted for film, I had not really read any of her work until Mieko Kawakami mentioned her as a role model and inspiration in her interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
Although Ichiyo died in 1896 of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, she left behind a legacy of nearly four thousand classical poems, twenty-one well-crafted stories and numerous essays, which would make anyone else feel like a slouch in comparison. Some of her stories are regarded as examplary to this day. This book contains nine of those stories, as well as extensive quotes from her very detailed, lively and accomplished diary, which she kept over a long period of time (and which I wish would get translated in its entirety into English). It also contains biographical notes, showing just how surprising and remarkable her achievements were, because she came from an impoverished former samurai family, and became de facto the head of the family at an early age, was largely self-taught and constantly struggled to make a living to support her mother, her sister and herself.
Trained initially in the classical style of poetry, and clearly a huge fan of the writing of the Heian court, this all changes in 1893, when she and her family move to the poorer, red-light districts of Tokyo and try to run a stationery shop (not very successfully). Her stories become less melodramatic and inspired by the past, and instead feature both a rich description of a particular time and place, as well as social critique. She allows the rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, orphans, shopkeepers from their neighbourhood to appear as fully-rounded characters and voice their concerns, their small joys and triumphs, as well as their disappointments and defeats. At the same time, she also depicts the social constraints placed upon them.
In her most famous and accomplished story/novella Takekurabe (translated here as Child’s Play), we encounter a group of youngsters growing up in the Yoshihara red-light district. We are privy to their games and teasing, their quarrels and fights, their mischief and bullying, but also their kindnesses and mutual help. Midori is a free spirited, almost pampered girl, generous at sharing the little luxuries money can buy with her friends – but her money comes from her older sister’s work as a courtesan and she herself is being groomed to follow the same fate. Nobu is the shy, introverted son of the local priest, perpetually embarrassed by the materialistic, wordly nature of his parents. Shota is the wealthiest of the three, the son of the local pawnbroker, but he is a likable boy, constantly embarrassed by his family’s avaricious ways. As the children reach their mid-teens, they realise that the world of opportunities that seems to lie ahead of them… are actually illusions, that their fate was always to follow in their parents’ or sister’s footsteps. The solidarity and hope that they had as children drains away and they are left feeling very lonely indeed.
The last story Wakaremichi (Separate Ways) addresses the same problem, although here it is a friendship between Okyo, a young woman in her twenties who works as a seamstress and the boy who oils umbrellas Kichizo, nick-named the Dwarf, because he looks far smaller than his actual age (sixteen). Okyo is finally forced to become the mistress of a rich older man and Kichizo feels utterly betrayed that she should choose that way of life. Childish innocence gets destroyed by adult pragmatism in all of her stories.
Nigorie (Troubled Waters) is an earlier, slightly more melodramatic piece, but it succeeds in showing the life of courtesans as they grow older and fade in popularity, and the dreams they have had to cast aside. Meanwhile, in Jusanya (The Thirteenth Night), the author addresses the plight of the woman desperate to leave an abusive husband. Oseki returns home to her parents one night to say that she wants a divorce, but that would not only bring poverty and disgrace upon her family, but it would also mean she never gets to see her son again.
Ichiyo’s protagonists have very little wriggle room, very few choices open to them. They simply hustle and try to get through the day, the week, the month, and feed their dependents. This type of subject matter was perhaps not entirely new (there had been stories about the red-light district or ‘floating world’ before, notably Saikaku Ihara from two centuries earlier), but most of the stories were told by men and had a certain quality of titillation and sensationalism. Ichiyo shows real compassion and understanding for her characters. Moreover, it’s not just her subject matter that makes her memorable, but her beautiful style: full of allusions to classical works, elliptical, compact, full of word associations, puns, kakekotoba. These last are so-called pivot words, where you use the phonetic reading of a kanji character to convey multiple meanings concurrently – a much prized rhetorical device, because you can be concise yet introduce multiple layers of meaning. I suspect she might be quite difficult to read in the original, and not just because she was writing 130 years ago.
You can read a review of this book and of Ichiyo’s stories on Tony Malone’s excellent blog. If you get a chance to see the 1955 film of Takekurabe directed by Gosho, it provides a useful counterpoint to those in Japan who were looking back with nostalgia at the Meiji period during the post-war years.
Yuko Tsushima: Of Dogs and Walls, trans. Geraldine Harcourt, Penguin Modern 43, 2018.
I’ve spent a very happy January in Japan (virtually), revisiting old favourites and making some new favourites. Above all, I seem to have fallen into a research black hole regarding the remarkable Tsushima family: father and daughter. I have reviewed a book of short stories by Tsushima Yuko and Dazai Osamu’s last novel. I am now delving in some academic research about Dazai and also some of his more autobiographical short stories.
When I heard that there are two further recently translated autobiographical short stories by Yuko Tsushima, I could not resist. These two were translated in 2018 (touchingly, by the much-missed translator to whom we owe most of Tsushima’s work available in English) and published in the tiny chapbook series of numbered Penguin Modern Classics. It contains two stories: Suifu – The Watery Realm and Inu to Hei ni tsuite – Of Dogs and Walls, and they are the most openly and painfully personal stories I have yet read by this author. They are decades apart – the first was published in 1982, when Tsushima was establishing herself as an author, while the second was published in 2014, two years before her death.
In the first story, Tsushima must have hoped that by taking on her father’s legacy head-on, she might be able to put it to rest. Both for herself and for the Japanese reading public, who continued to be obsessed by all things related to Dazai’s life and writings. She was probably also keen to establish her own reputation as a talented author, entirely separate from him.
She certainly achieved that in Japan, leaving behind a legacy of 35 novels and hundreds of short stories, many of them prize-winning. From the mid 1980s she moved away from the stories inspired by her own life as a single mother, and took on a wider subject matter, often writing about ecological matters or Japan as a colonial oppressor or marginalised people such as the Ainu or the plight of interracial children born from American soldier fathers and Japanese mothers after the war. Sadly, these later works have not yet been translated into English, which may give us a rather one-dimensional view of her writing. In fact, when I wrote my previous reviews about her work, I was not fully aware of the richness of her legacy.
‘The Watery Realm’ moves delicately and confidently, like water, between three generations, via a loop of folkloric and personal associations. First, we have the five-year-old boy who is saving up all his pocket money to buy a castle-shaped decoration for the aquarium. His mother the narrator is reminded of the Dragon Palace from the Urashimataroo story, wonders pragmatically if she can afford it when they don’t even have a proper aquarium or goldfish, and remembers her own chaotic childish thoughts when told that her father had drowned himself.
Finally, we have the narrator’s mother, the boy’s grandmother, who was left a young widow with three children and has always felt superstitious about Suijin, the Shinto Water God. Suijin is actually the generic name given to any kind of water spirits (which can manifest as fish, eels, snakes, dragons) to be found in the many, many bodies of water all around Japan. Some of them are benign (after all, they help irrigate the land), but there is always more than a hint of malice or danger about them. The most famous of these are the Kappa (half-human, half-frogs or turtles), who appear in many folk tales and in a novella by Akutagawa.
In Tsushima’s story, the woman’s struggle to cook, clean and raise children in a house with no running water makes her feel as though she is battling against gravity itself as well as the greedy, evil spirit of Suijin. There are moments when she wonders why humans have evolved into land animals at all:
Sometimes I thought what fools we humans are – it’s living on land that causes all these woes; if we need water so badly then we should just return to it… Then, one day, my husband did return to the water.’
The water spirit crows in triumph at the harm she has caused and continues to torture the woman, taunting her that she will never recover from the loss of her husband.
Grieve all you like… wail until your throat is on fire. You can’t escape water… There’s nothing else here. The place is awash. Your husband is water now. You are married to water. You will be deafened by its voice, shattered by its weight.
However, the woman is determined not to allow herself to be defeated by this prediction. As she remembers it, she has not allowed herself to become a burden on others, has done a good job of living independently and providing a good life and home environment for her children, even when their family is struck down by a second tragedy, the early death of the middle child. [Tsushima’s brother did indeed die in his early teens of a sudden fever.] At a family meal, however, when the five-year-old grandson innocently asks her why she is not as scary as his mother said she was, it turns out that what she is describing is not a world that her daughter recognises. The instinct for survival might have come at a price. This is how her daughter remembers things:
A mother who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tight, and who faced that world with disdain, adamant that no one was going to look down on her: that’s who raised me. I grew up tutored in what happened if you trusted outsiders, taught that solitude was the only weapon of defence.
Just like her son’s longing for the Dragon Palace in the fish tank, which doesn’t quite live up to expectations, so the narrator see her mother yearning to cast a beautiful sheen on their past. All the unspoken resentments and fears between mother and daughter quiver in the air between them… but it is too late to address them. I cannot help but wonder how the author’s mother reacted to this story (she was still alive when it was published and may have seen too many parallels to her own life in it).
This story is full of raw emotion and becomes all the more poignant when you know that Tsushima’s son, who did indeed have a passion for aquariums and keeping fish, died a couple of years after this story was published, drowning in his bathtub while his mother was in the other room.
This third family tragedy might have given her a deeper understanding of her mother’s suffering and determination to keep going. In the later story, Of Dogs and Walls, the mother-daughter relationship is calmer, although still unknowable and tense. The story is focused on the sudden loss of the narrator’s brother, who was a couple of years older than her, but whom she babied and protected, because he had a developmental disability. However, the emotions in this story are kept on a tight leash. The grief is described and possibly partly attenuated by listing the dogs her mother kept in the yard, while the walls are perhaps the symbols of the protective scaffolding we try to erect around ourselves. Yet, for a brief moment in the story, a gate was opened in the walls separating their house from that of their neighbours’. Could the author be telling us that these fleeting moments of connection, of comfort, are all that we can expect in life?
Tshushima’s surviving child is a playwright, writing under the name Ishihara Nen. When reading this outstanding essay about her mother and her childhood, I was suddenly struck how similar her sentiments are to those of the narrator in The Watery Realm, how she feared her mother and struggled to understand and cope with her anger (directed at other people rather than at her, thank goodness, unlike in the story). Tsushima did not try to gloss over her life and rewrite it in a rosy fictional light. Nor, despite the unflinching honesty of her descriptions of single motherhood, did she become overwhelmed by self-hatred and nihilism like her father. Instead, she learnt to come to terms with her own grief and anger by listening and giving voice to others who had been struck by personal or collective tragedy. I might be reaching here, but it seems to me that she finally triumphed over her family’s painful legacy.
I have dug deep into Tsushima’s life, and yet all this is not at all necessary to read and appreciate her work. When I read Territory of Light two years ago, I knew nothing at all about all this, and yet it spoke to me with a great immediacy. So I will end with Ishihara’s words about just how much of her mother’s work is ‘confessional’.
When I was born into this world, my mother was already a novelist. In her writings, a character who it seemed could only be my mother lived with children who seemed like me and my younger brother, in the same town where we lived. Thanks to that, until I was almost fully grown I thought my mother’s early works were all about our household exactly as it was. Even now, looking at the pieces written when I was little, if you were to ask me how much of it is true I couldn’t possibly tell you. All of it comes across as real, and then again it doesn’t.
Osamu Dazai: A Shameful Life (No Longer Human), transl. Mark Gibeau, Stone Bridge Press, 2018.
Mishima may have captivated me in my late teens, but my absolute favourite Japanese author of the modern era is Dazai Osamu. He is not as much read or appreciated abroad, but in Japan he has achieved cult status, even appearing as a suicide maniac detective in a manga and anime series called Bungo Stray Dogs. He is often seen as the epitome of the romantic decadent scoundrel – a Lord Byron with less of a penchant for wild animals or ability to buy his way out of trouble. To me, he continues my long line of infatuation with literary bad boys: a slightly less manipulative Rimbaud, a less cynical Baudelaire. N.B. This did not translate into liking American bad boys like Jack Kerouac, Bukowski or Norman Mailer. But clearly, the myth of the genius creator who is terminally depressed and incapable of relating well to people is still powerful when it comes to authors who died before I was born.
Superficially, there are quite a few biographical similarities between Mishima and Dazai, even though they were born sixteen years apart. Both were younger sons of quite wealthy landowners, who spent a significant part of their childhood years away from their family (raised by aunts, grandmothers or servants). Both of them were academically gifted and went to the prestigious Tokyo University (although Dazai dropped out and Mishima never practiced law) and both showed early promise in their writing. Both were shattered by their country’s experience of war (although neither of them served on the front because they were diagnosed with tuberculosis – mistakenly, in Mishima’s case).
Above all, both of them had tortured psyches, were over-sensitive and self-critical, and had destructive tendencies. But this is where their differences start. Dazai directed all that hatred inwards, bent on destroying himself, while Mishima turned it onto the outer world, bemoaning the loss of Japanese pride and ancient code of values. The world crushes Dazai, while Mishima sets out to crush the world.
Politically, of course, they could not be further apart: Dazai was a lukewarm member of the Communist Party in the early 1930s (which was banned at that time in Japan), while Mishima created his own private right-wing militia in the 1960s. Both of them had problems with their love lives: Mishima, for all his macho posturing, clearly had gay tendencies which he (and his family, posthumously) vigorously denied, while Dazai, for all of his more effeminate, unhealthy looks, was an inveterate womaniser. Mishima started publishing his stories and his first full novel (Confessions of a Mask) just as Dazai was ending his career by committing suicide. They had one single awkward in-person meeting. Apparently, Mishima had previously expressed some admiration for Dazai’s writing, but when they met, with Dazai very much the fêted established writer surrounded by courtiers and Mishima the unknown student, the younger man was tongue-tied, felt his ego was somewhat bruised and declared that he found Dazai too weak and that he despised his tendency towards self-dramatizing. (Pot calling the kettle black!)
What was truly problematic about Dazai of course was that his alcoholism, addiction to painkillers, adultery and suicidal tendencies did not just impact him, but also others. I have already mentioned how it impacted his children and will mention it again in my next review of Yuko Tsushima. He attempted a double ‘love’ suicide several times (a much more popular pastime in Japan than over here, with many notable examples in literature), before he finally achieved it successfully, and in one instance the consequences were fatal to the woman involved although he survived.
Novel or memoir?
The reason I insist upon all of these unsavoury biographical details is because they heavily influence Dazai’s work, particularly his last completed novel Ningen Shikkaku, translated by Donald Keene in 1958 quite literally as No Longer Human, while the new translation has opted for A Shameful Life. This new title (a bold decision, if I might say so) refers to the quote below (I will use Keene’s version here, which I feel captures the gravitas of the statement slightly better):
Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.
To summarise the story as succinctly as possible, the ‘author/narrator’ is handed three notebooks (the first one opens with the quote above) and three photographs by an old lady, a former bar- and now coffee-shop-owner, who knew the writer of the notebooks many years ago. She thinks it might inspire the narrator to write a novel. The narrator is intrigued by the appearance of the man in the photos, reads the notebooks and concludes that this story of physical and mental destruction sounds ‘a bit exaggerated here and there’ (Dazai ever ready to poke some self-depecratory fun at himself), and that he too might have been tempted to lock him up in an asylum if he’d encountered the man.
The failed love suicide, the addictions to morphine and alcohol, the involvement in a banned political group – all of these biographical details are present in the novel, but it would be simplistic to believe that they are just pages from Dazai’s diaries. In this age of blogging and extreme sharing via social media, we have seen that unedited ranting, vast outpourings of feelings of anger or despair are actually not all that readable.
The book may be one of the best descriptions of general despair, deep depression and alienation that I have ever read, but this is not achieved by unmediated access to the author’s thoughts. Although the bleakness with which Yozo regards life is probably very similar to the author’s own outlook, there is great craft in giving us that feeling of ‘nothingness’, no exit, in deliberately unadorned ‘honest’ prose. Authenticity is a lot harder to write than it looks – what Dazai leaves out is as interesting as what he puts in.
The autobiographical novel – shishōsetsu or I-novel – is a staple of modern Japanese literature – but I would argue it was there long before the 20th century. Although it is most often associated with the confessional, naturalistic style popular from the 1920s onwards, there are earlier examples of what one might call ‘creative non-fiction’ (with a huge emphasis on ‘creative’) in the ‘zuihitsu’ (random jottings/ personal essays) genre of the 13th and 14th century Japan. There is almost what one might call a ‘myth of sincerity’ in the I-novel: some of the thoughts may well reflect the author’s own preoccupations, but ultimately we are being misled – or rather, led precisely in the direction where the author wants us to go.
Last but not least, this is not just the story of an individual – it is also the story of a generation of Japanese who have had to come to terms with being perceived as monsters in a long and cruel war, and who find themselves utterly vanquished, unconditionally surrendered, and having lost everything they ever believed in (including the innate goodness of their fellow countrymen).
Overall, Mark Gibeau’s translation tries to create a more contemporary feel to the book. He is at pains to point out that this is by no means a criticism of Keene’s translation, but his choices are substantially different from those of his predecessor. I believe he is trying to be more immediate, to really convey the protagonist Yozo’s voice in all its weary cynicism and self-hatred, his sense of alienation from the world of humans as if we are there going through it with him, while Keene tries to make the horror more palatable by keeping it somewhat detached.
That doesn’t mean that the original translation is too cold, but it is now over sixty years old and can feel a little bit dated or too formal at times. However, although this new translation is lively and easy to read, at times I feel it gets the register of suffering just a little bit wrong. Here, for example, is how the narrator of the framing device describes the pictures of Yozo, which come together with the notebooks:
I think that even a death mask would hold more of an expression, leave more of a memory. That effigy suggests nothing so much as a human body to which a horse’s head has been attached. Something ineffable makes the beholder shudder in distaste. I have never seen such an inscrutable face on a man.
Donald Keene’s translation
Even the face of someone slipping into death holds some kind of expression, leaves some kind of mark. But this, maybe this is what it would be like if the head of a carthorse were sewn onto a human body. In any case, a vague sense of revulsion shivers up my spine. Never in my life have I seen a man with such a peculiar face.
Mark Gibeau’s translation
That word ‘peculiar’ just doesn’t seem to do Yozo sufficient justice, almost brings in a tone of levity. There are also several occasions when Keene has Yozo wondering if trustfulness or non-resistance is a sin, while Gibeau’s Yozo wonders if these things are crimes. I feel that some of the profundity of the original gets sacrificed for the sake of appealing to modern audiences. Perhaps there is a reason why Kafka and Camus (two near-contemporaries of Dazai’s) chose to write about similar themes – but few publishers or translators seem to feel the need to modernise them. They continue to speak to us directly.
However, in other instances, Gibeau sounds spot-on. Here is Dazai voicing universal concerns about hiding your true self, about living behind a mask and attempting to fit in at all costs, which Yozo decides to do early on in life, and which results in tremendous personal pain and disconnection from other people:
I lived in quivering terror of people, and since I had no confidence whatsoever in my ability to speak or behave like a human being, I gathered up all of my fears and anxieties and concealed them in a box, deep inside my breast. I took enormous pains to conceal my melancholy and nervousness, and devoted myself instead to cultivating an air of innocent good cheer. Thus, little by little, I was transformed into an eccentric clown.
I have always shook with fright before human beings. Unable as I was to feel the least particle of confidence in my ability to speak or act like a human being, I kept my solitary agonies locked in my breast. I kept my melancholy and my agitation hidden, careful lest any trace should be left exposed. I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.
Here I feel that the more elegant, stylised language of Keene keeps us at arm’s length from Yozo’s suffering.
But are we in fact supposed to take Yozo’s suffering that seriously? Is this a person who is crushed by life or someone who has disengaged and fled? We never find out if he is still alive or not, if he committed suicide, or if all of those notebooks that he sent to the former bartender were performative pieces, cries for help, or even… fiction. Or could it be that he was being far too hard on himself, that he never really fully understood his own effect on others? After all, the book ends on the words of this old woman, who knew Yozo in real life, and who disbelieves pretty much everything she read in those notebooks:
‘It’s all his father’s fault,’ she said absently. ‘The Yo-chan I knew was kind and so gentle. If only he didn’t drink – no, even when he did drink… He was such a good boy. An angel.’
Yukio Mishima: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, transl. Ivan Morris, Vintage Classics, 2001.
In 1950 a young Buddhist monk-in-training set fire to the temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto. The young man was diagnosed as schizophrenic and died a few years later, but his apparently inexplicable act of destruction has captured the imagination of creators ever since, most notably in Mishima’s best-known novel, but also in numerous film, stage and even opera and dance adaptations.
Mishima was not content to just label the young man as ‘mad’; instead he tried to delve deeper into the psychology of such an individual, even visiting the arsonist in prison. Of course, this is a fictional, speculative account, but such is the beauty of Mishima’s writing and his understanding of twisted minds and feelings, that it feels truer and more interesting than perhaps the real story could have been.
This was one of those novels that changed my understanding of life when I was a 19 year old student of Japanese language and literature, but I had not reread it since. I was almost afraid to, in case it failed to live up to my memory of it. For the first half or so of the book, I struggled. I was nearly convinced that it was a mistake not to consign it to the attic of my memories: the self-absorbed, sulky teenager is not the kind of character for whom I have any patience left. Yes, he stutters and has problems communicating with others, yes, his mother has cheated on his dying father, and yes, he has no place really to call home other than this almost far too beautiful temple where he has been sent to train to become a priest… but is that really sufficient reason to be such a bastard? There is a crescendo of unpleasant scenes that the narrator Mizoguchi observes and takes part in, so the final act should really not come as a surprise, but the journey there can be quite distasteful.
However, despite the occasional pretentious philosophising (typical teenager, I suppose), there are passages of great beauty throughout. The final chapter or two, in particular, reminded me why I loved this novel so much. The part of the story which has always fascinated me was still there and still intact. It’s the eternal artist’s dilemma, which reminds me of Andrei Rublev, except that Mishima tries to answer the questions that Tarkovsky only asks (and Mizoguchi is no artist). How can actual, real-life beauty ever live up to the beauty in our imaginations? Are the creation and destruction of beauty our only possible responses to an indifferent, cruel world? Does the artist have to sacrifice everything for the sake of beauty – is that the only thing that gives art authenticity? Can we ever really understand and fully appreciate beauty until we feel its loss? And doesn’t darkness or ugliness make the beauty stand out all the more?
Like a moon that hangs in the night sky, the Golden Temple had been built as a symbol of the dark ages. Therefore it was necessary for the Golden Temple of my dreams to have darkness bearing down on it from all sides. In this darkness, the beautiful, slender pillars of the building rested quietly and steadily, emitting a faint light from inside.
Mizoguchi has two friends who almost act as the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders: Tsurukawa, the naive, idealistic friend who believes the best of everyone, and Kashiwagi, whose birth defect has turned him cynical and cruel. [There might be a lot to say here about Mishima’s aversion towards bodily defects, he who indulged in bodybuilding and modelling, but we’ll leave that aside for now.] Mizoguchi wants Tsurukawa to be his conscience but is fascinated and swayed by Kashiwagi. Tsurukawa is weak in his moral rectitude, while Kashiwagi is strong in his corruption. The narrator also feels let down by his mother and by the Superior of the temple – for they are nothing but ordinary human beings, with all sorts of flaws. Meanwhile, he wallows in his self-hatred and grows to resent anything that reminds him that he too is imperfect and weak. Does beauty not become tarnished by familiarity? So why does this temple he knows so well still exert so much fascination upon him? Why does it render him impotent (both literally and metaphorically) and how can he rid himself of the hold it has over him?
Perhaps beauty was both these things. It was both the individual parts and the whole structure… the mystery of the beauty of the Golden Temple, which had tormented me so much in the past, was halfway towards being solved. If one examined the beauty of each individual detail… the beauty was never complete in any single detail… The beauty of the individual detail itself was always filled with uneasiness. It dreamed of perfection, but it knew no completion and was invariably lured on to the next beauty, the unknown beauty…. Nothingness was the very structure of this beauty.
Many have taken issue with Mishima because of his problematic life, opinions and death, and it’s true that in this particular book (and a few of his other ones) the main character is a complete knob. But the author shows his character in all his ‘knob-ness’: it’s this self-awareness of his own personal flaws, this distancing from the sentiments described, this ability to make us pity and understand even the strangest of compulsions, the worst of human nature, that make me still appreciate Mishima. This is a man who was afraid of unpredictability, of too much freedom, of lack of structure, a repressed homosexual… and this tension is clearly visible and unresolved in his books. Alas, in his real life, it manifested itself in a reverence for military discipline and authority, a tendency to see things in binary terms which is more Western than Japanese. Am I reading too much in this book in saying that Mizoguchi is incapable of seeing any other solution than either destroying the temple or allowing himself to be destroyed by it (and that this is presented as a major error of judgement)?
The book was published in 1956 and the event it depicts was still fresh in people’s memories at the time, but it can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the emptiness and self-hatred that many in Japan felt after the end of the war. This translation came out in 1959 in the US, although it wasn’t published in the UK until 1994. Ivan Morris belongs to that first generation of translators and scholars, who did so much to familiarise the Western world with Japan after the Second World War, and humanise the people we had previously demonised. I group him loosely together with Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker (Jay Rubin, John Nathan and Michael Gallagher came a little later, thereby representing the second wave). We owe them so many of the translations of the classics: Genji, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, but also the modern storytellers that really aroused our interest in Japanese literature: Kawabata, Tanizaki Junichiro, Oe Kenzaburo, Mishima, Dazai Osamu and Kobo Abe.
If you look at these two lists, what do you notice? That it was largely male translators translating male writers (with the exception of the Heian classics). Of course, that is not to say that these writers were not brilliant and did not deserve to be translated, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there was a certain element of pre-selection going on there, so our image of Japanese literature was slightly skewed until at least the 1990s, when other (ahem – female) authors and translators began to appear, and when it became possible to admit that maybe the Japanese economic miracle was not all light and beauty.
Two writers in particular stood head and shoulders above the others in the early 1990s, when I was studying Japanese – and they remain among the most translated Japanese writers, at least until Murakami Haruki came along. I am referring, of course, to Kawabata and Mishima, Kawabata because of his Nobel (this was before Oe won his), and Mishima because of his highly-publicised, dramatic death. Their literary styles were very different: Kawabata’s prose is bare, restrained, detached, full of ellipses and hidden meanings, while Mishima is ornate, intense, visceral and dramatic. The battle between the fans of the two writers was as acute as the one between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky fans. If you like Dostoevsky at all, I would encourage you to give Mishima a try, and forget about the unsavoury aspects of the man, simply succumb to the magic that is his writing style.
Yu Miri: Tokyo Ueno Station, transl. Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press, 2019.
Ueno Park is an oasis of beautiful greenery in the heart of Tokyo. It houses several museums and cultural venues, a zoo, a Shinto shrine and is the site of the most exuberant cherry blossom gazing in the Japanese capital. When I first went to Japan in the summer of 1989, it was one of my favourite places to escape to from the humid heat of the city.
However, when the Japanese economy stagnated in the 1990s, the park became notorious for its large population of homeless people, who have created a makeshift town of blue tarp tents and cardboard boxes under the unusually large, sheltering trees. On my most recent trip to Japan in 2015, I was shocked to see how vast this community of the disenfranchised was. Japan has a tendency to sweep this problem under the carpet – for the longest time they wouldn’t even admit to having any homeless people. Nowadays, the problem is acknowledged but there is very little effort to deal with it in a concerted and humane way. The only positive is that the restaurants and shops in the neighbourhood give them their surplus, about-to-expire food. The police periodically disperses the homeless people, particularly when there is a formal event at one of the Ueno venues, with imperial attendance, but since there is nowhere else for them to go, they slowly drift back there. With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon in 2020 (now 2021), the past two years or so have seen widespread attempts to ‘discourage loitering’, i.e. setting up of camps.
Yu Miri’s book gives us the life story of one of these marginalised people (and, in his company, we get to meet others from this community, which is by no means as homogeneous as you might expect). Kazu is a labourer in the construction industry, who left his family in Fukushima to make money in the big city in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics.
I never took my children to Ueno zoo… I didn’t take them to the zoo, nor to the amusement park, the seaside, the mountains; I never went to their beginning-of-the-year ceremonies or graduations or to a parents’ open day or to a sports day, not even once. I went back only twice a year, in summer and in winter…
Unsurprisingly, his children grow very distant, and he feels completely disposable and superfluous when he goes back to his home village. But things are no better in Tokyo: as a member of the homeless community, he is well-nigh invisible. ‘To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past while still being in full view of everyone.’ Of course, we soon find out that Kazu is in fact a ghost, so he is literally invisible and can eavesdrop on the conversations of those wandering through the park. There are interesting contrasts between the visitors to the park and museums, and the homeless community. We also get to know other homeless people like Shige, extremely well-educated, who spends a great deal of his day in the public library, but is so ashamed of one single event in his past, that he can never return to his family.
However, it is Kazu’s memories, his guilt and pain, that are at the forefront of the book. Kazu has always felt a special bond or affinity with the Emperor Akihito (who has since the writing of the book abdicated in 2019 in favour of his son Naruhito).. They were born in the same year (1933), they had their first son born on the same day in 1960, and Kazu even saw the old emperor (Akihito’s father) up close back in 1947. Despite his hard work, his submission, his feeling that he has done everything he was supposed to do, Kazu’s life has been full of bad luck. I want to avoid spoilers so I won’t say anything more specific here, although you are probably not going to read this book for its suspense. The narration glides from one conversation to another, from past to present, so that we often lose track of who is talking and what is real, what is experienced and what is merely observed and overheard.
There are some parts of the book where the author gets sidetracked into lengthy descriptions of a historical event or person, or descriptions of different types of roses interspersed with the dialogues Kazu hears in the park. I have to admit I was not quite sure what the author intended with these digressions. It might be to add to that overall effect of no escape, no enlightenment for Kazu. He is stuck in limbo and there is no end to his suffering and no meaning to his life or that of those around him.
I thought that once I was dead I would be reunited with the dead. That I could see, close up, those who were far away, touch them and feel them at all times. I thought something would be resolved by death. I believed that at the final moment, the meaning of life and death woudl appear to me clearly, like a fog lifting…
But then I realized that I was back in the park. I was not going anywhere, I had not understood anything, I was still stunned by the same numberless doubts, only I was now outside of life looking in…
Time does not pass. Time never ends.
Critics have made much of Yu Miri’s own outsider status – as a Japanese of Korean descent, she belongs to a group that is heavily discriminated. She herself has said that she wants to give voice to those who are voiceless and marginalised, but resists being stereotyped as a ‘minority writer’. Her only other novel to be translated thus far into English Gold Rush is about a less obvious kind of outsider. [You can read an excellent review of it on Tony’s blog.] Another writer who also struggled with this tension between giving voice to the type of experiences often unacknowledged by Japanese society is Kenji Nakagami, who was a Burakumin, so-called hereditary outcastes of society because they engaged in ‘unclean’ trades.
P.S. I should also add that I had the pleasure of discussing the book in December 2020 at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene Press, a wonderful initiative that introduces books published by small independents, translated from all over the world.
So my first two January in Japan reads have shown the darker underbelly of Japanese society. Will my next one live a little more up to the expectations we might have of this country? I’ll give you a clue…
Tsushima Yūko: The Shooting Gallery and other stories. (transl. Geraldine Harcourt), The Women’s Press, 1988.
It’s a puzzle to me why Yūko Tsushima is not better known to the English-speaking world. During her life she won pretty much all of the major Japanese literary prizes. She did not produce a huge body of work, but wrote steadily throughout her life. Quite a bit of her earlier work was translated into English in the 1970s and 80s by respected New Zealand translator Geraldine Harcourt, who had a personal connection with the author. Tsushima also fitted in with the feminist preoccupations of the Western world during that period (the time of Spare Rib magazine and Virago Press) – although perhaps she did not fit in well with the narrative of the Japanese economic miracle and boom years. She was not ‘exotic’ enough, not ‘other’ enough. She was not writing about cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums (although she does write about a chrysanthemum beetle). Her protagonists were usually single mothers, struggling to bring up children in a society that was often belittling and marginalising them. Perhaps too relatable the world over… although with additional pressures in Japan.
I am hopeful, however, that after the success in recent years of her novel Territory of Light (which was reissued in 2018 in the Penguin Classics edition), the rest of her work might be discovered. Like her father, she does not have an enormous range in terms of subject matter or stylistics, but what she does write is magnificent, just like her father’s work.
I do realise that perhaps I shouldn’t be allowing her father to enter the conversation, really, even if he is Dazai Osamu, a writer greatly revered in Japan (perhaps less well known abroad, because he too presents too gloomy a view of Japan and of mankind more generally). I certainly don’t think they can or should be compared to each other. After all, Tsushima was just a baby when her father died. However, her father’s highly publicised double suicide with his lover and abandonment of his family clearly had an enormous impact on Tsushima’s worldview and on her work. (She confronts this situation and imagines her mother’s reaction in a short story called ‘The Watery Realm’ which is not part of this collection, but has also been translated by Geraldine Harcourt).
So when Tsushima explores the life of single mothers, she is not only mining her own experiences as a single mother, but also memories of herself growing up in a single parent household. She was bemused by the ‘feminist’ label that often got stuck on her, and it’s perhaps the age-old truth that if a man writes about the very heart of loneliness and lack of communication, even (or perhaps especially) within a family, they are perceived as addressing the great universals of human experience, while if a woman does it, then it’s a domestic theme or less important women’s fiction.
Set against a backdrop of harsh realism, of dirty dishes piled high in the sink, cramped flats, whining children, fluorescent lights with insect corpses piled high, Tsushima’s protagonists, most of them mothers, but some of them young girls or boys, try to escape into their dreamworlds. But reality often comes chasing after them, crushing their carefully constructed alternative worlds.
In the title story, an exhausted mother tries to find the magical seaside memories of her youth once more and recreate them for her sons.
The thought of the sea had come to her suddenly the night before… She’d made up her mind to take the two children to the beach. There she had been, hemmed in by the cracker crumbs, plastci blocks, empty juice cans, underwear and socks that littered the room, the sinkful of dirty dishes, the washing hanging from the ceiling, the sound of the TV, the younger child’s crying, her own voice talking at the office, and the weariness – a weariness that turned her body to a desiccated old sponge. Unable to lie down, she was sitting having a cigarette with her elbows resting on the table when a trasnaprent blue gleam streaked before her eyes… It could only be the sea. It had completely slipped her mind.
Needless to say, once they get to the sea, it does not live up to their expectations at all. No cool, beautiful blue – the sea is grey, the light dull, the beach full of concrete and rubbish and dog poo, the children complain that they are tired, they have to pee, they can’t walk any longer… She closes her eyes and dreams of some sort of release:
… one day my back will sprout a pair of lance-shaped wings which will begin to beat, my body will visibly expand, and when the metamorphosis is complete I’ll be a dragon that ascends spiralling to the heavens. I’ll leave everyone watching astounded on the earth below as I soar aloft. my golden scales gleaming. Refreshed.
In another moving story ‘The Silent Traders’, a walled park in the middle of the city becomes a place for abandoning unwanted animals and develops its own microcosm, becoming a fantasy land for the lonely children growing up around it. People thoughtlessly or casually hurting and neglecting animals is a recurrent motif – undoubtedly a parallel with the way they marginalise and overlook certain people. Another theme that crops up time and again is that of feeling invisible. In ‘Clearing the Thickets’ we seamlessly move from a young woman relinquishing her lover to a woman in a bright red dress and wondering if she is visible at all, to a scene where the wayward daughter returns home to help with clearing the weeds in the family garden and, seemingly out of sight and mind of her mother and older sister, she overhears them viciously gossiping about her.
The mother-daughter relationship in particular is often fraught with problems. All of the characters are flawed, and yet we cannot help but empathise with the yearning of many of them for escape from the everyday worries, their need to be loved and understood and appreciated. But to what extent do they weaken themselves by relying too much on others to be rescued? And when they understand that rescue is not forthcoming, how can they not despair and fnd the strength to carry on? It’s this wonderful rich complexity of each character, this understanding of the contradictory impulses in every one of us, that I find so satisfying in Tsushima’s work.
These are stories to read carefully and savour every word. They move effortlessly between the bland everyday and daydreams or even pure fantasy. I hesitate to call them magical realism, but there is often a strong reliance on symbolism. Stories that will make you uneasy, that will lodge themselves into your mind and never quite leave you.
You can read an excellent review of this story collection here, and thank you also to this blogger for referring me to this very revealing autobiographical essay by Tsushima published in the Chicago Tribune. I will leave you to read it for yourselves, but this paragraph in particular describes her subject matter perfectly:
I have never written about happy women. This is not because I like unhappiness, but it comes from my firm belief that misfortune is not always bad. Happiness can spoil people. Happy people can lose sensitivity, and as a result they become poor in terms of human qualities.
While it is true that I didn’t get to read as much as I planned in the September-December time-frame, I found that having a bit of a plan for the final quarter of the year (or third, to be precise) did give me additional motivation. 2021 doesn’t look like it will be any less busy, but I will repeat this reading planning model for January-April. Of course, I keep it fairly flexible, allowing myself to add random books that capture my fancy, or offer me the thrill of transgression without being too constrained by the rules. Most of these books are on my shelves already, so that gets rid of my ‘far too many unread books’ concerns.
January = January in Japan
I have already read Tokyo Ueno Station but intend to reread parts of it for reviewing. I also plan two further rereads: two of my favourite Japanese books of all time – Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku in a new translation and Mishima Yukio’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion(it was the first novel that I read in the original Japanese all the way through back in my student days). I also intend to read some more by Tshushima Yuko (Dazai’s daughter). The Shooting Gallery is a collection of her short stories. I’ll also read short stories by Higuchi Ichiyo, one of the first professional women writers of Japan, who described the plight of the working classes.
February = Canada
In Canada it will still be lovely and wintry weather in February – real winter, with pure white snow and skiing. Perhaps nicer to read about than to live through it. So I have a nice selection of Canadian authors to hand. Dorian Stuber has been trying to get all his bookish Twitter friends to read Marian Engel’s Bear, so I’ll finally do him the favour! Carol Shields’ Mary Swann is about a latter-day Emily Dickinson who is killed soon after handing her manuscripts over to an editor – and becomes a bit of a posthumous sensation. I love Anne Carson as a poet and look forward to reading some of her essays as well in Plainwater. Inger Ash Wolfe is the crime writing pseudonym of author Michael Redhill, in case I feel the need for a bit of lighter reading. Last but not least, the only French language writer I seem to have from Canada on my shelves is Mathieu Boutin L’Oreille absolue, about two violonists, one young and ambitious, the other midlle-aged and depressed.
March = Drama All the Way
This month will pave the ground for the next month, so I will be reading plays. Something I very rarely do nowadays, although I was very keen on reading (and performing) plays back in my late teens. I will reread The Holiday Gameby Mihail Sebastian (which I am hoping to translate at some point if a friendly publisher decides it’s worth pursuing), as well as two Austrian favourites Arthur Schnitzler and Ödön von Horvath. Last but not least, something by Noel Coward, who also falls roughly into that time period. Which time period, you ask? Why, the one that I will be immersed in for April… If there is time, I might revisit Oscar Wilde’s plays, all of which I adored as a teenager, even Salome, which is less well-known.
April = #1936Club
The reading club dedicated to one specific year of publishing only lasts a week, but I intend to extend my reading to the whole month. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that Mihail Sebastian’s play was written that year (although not performed until 1938 – very briefly), and that Horvath also had two plays that appeared that year. Additionally, I also intend to read Max Blecher’s Occurence in the Immediate Unreality, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts and Mircea Eliade’s Miss Cristina, all published in 1936 and all East European. If I have time, I’d also like to read a book about Mihail Sebastian (a novel rather than a biography) by Gelu Diaconu, entitled simply Sebastian.
It’s been a few years since I last reread Genji, but I’m vicariously living through the experience as two of my literary friends on Twitter read it for the first time in English and French translations. Yee @hdinguyen11 (check out her book blog here) and Knulp @KnulpTanner, who has a book blog in French, are comparing notes on their respective translations as they go along. It’s such fun to read their tweets and to add my tuppence worth of additional info and comparisons to the (possibly far too many) translations that I own. I wrote the article below for the Asymptote fortnightly newsletter back in 2018, but it’s not currently available anywhere online, so I thought I would share it here on my blog, with big thanks to Yee and Knulp for reminding me of it!
Written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu roughly 1000 years ago, The Tales of Genji (Genji Monogatari) is considered the oldest novel in the world. It is perhaps also the longest novel in the world, more than 1200 pages, spread over 54 chapters. Although it has a cast of over 400 characters, there is a recognisable main character (Genji himself, the son of the Emperor by a beloved but not royal concubine) and a small core of recurring characters. There is a narrative arc (of sorts): the characters grow older and wiser, while the story gets darker as old age and regrets set in. However, the chapters are believed to have been written episode by episode for distribution amongst the other ladies of the court (therefore, there are some inconsistencies, time lapses or overlaps), much like a feuilleton in a newspaper in more modern times.
When I first encountered Genji Monogatari as a student, our Japanese professor told us: ‘It’s the kind of book that everyone talks about, but very few read properly.’ This is in marked contrast to the 13th century poetry anthology of Hyakuninisshū, which is widely known and often quoted in contemporary Japan (thanks in part to the card game based on its tanka poetry, which is traditionally played on New Year’s Day). Why should that be the case? It cannot be solely because of the obscure allusiveness to classic Chinese poetry typical of the Heian period, for the poetry anthology too contains many such examples, including the author of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, herself.
It could have something to do with the sheer length of the story, which is not for the faint-hearted. However, the main reason undoubtedly is that until the early 20th century there was no adequate translation of it, not only in English, but even in modern Japanese. The 11th century saga remained part of the cultural legacy of Japan, but the refined, almost effeminate aesthtetics of the Heian court fell out of favour in the period of warring clans and samurai codes which followed. It would be like English readers trying to tackle Chaucer in the original.
It wasn’t until 1912 that Japanese modernist poet, feminist and social activist Yosano Akiko published an abridged version of Genji translated into colloquial Japanese. This was the result of a lifetime’s infatuation with the work: she had read it countless times by the time she turned twenty, wrote biographical studies of Murasaki Shikibu, produced a series of lectures and a scholarly commentary of the text. The latter was sadly destroyed in a fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but she published a full translation in 1938. While it is perhaps surprising that such a resolutely modern, unconventional woman as Yosano Akiko found common ground with the confined women of the Heian court, waiting patiently for fickle lovers, she somehow found a voice that would speak across the centuries to both men and women of her day. Both her translations are still in print and transformed the fate of Genji.
It was thanks to her earlier version of the modernised Genji that we have the first complete English translation of the work. A partial, unsatisfactory translation attempt was made by Baron Suematsu in 1882, but that sank without a trace. Then Orientalist Arthur Waley discovered both the original and Yosano’s translation in the 1920s and there is something of the flow and verve of Yosano in his own work. As a confirmed Sinologist, Waley was also familiar with many of the classical Chinese poems that are being referenced in the text. Last but not least, the translator was an admirer of the artistic and literary style of the Bloomsbury group. We see all of these influences at work in his creative, some might even say idiosyncratic translation.
Waley skips any bits he finds too dull or obscure. He has no qualms about rearranging names, sentences, even paragraphs and themes to make the book more palatable to an English audience. He tries to capture the spirit of the beauty of the original prose, rather than sticking to it literally. The flowery style may on occasion veer towards sentimentalization and prettification. It seems to capture an echo of an earlier period much like the pre-Raphaelite painters captured the medieval spirit in a new style that had little in common with the original.
There is also a paternalistic bias which jars with the modern reader – the translator’s voice intervenes at times, giving us his value judgements rather than Murasaki Shikibu’s voice: ‘This chapter should be read with indulgence. In it Murasaki is still under the influence of her somewhat childish predecessors…’ Yet in spite of his imperialistic tendency to judge other cultures through the prism of his own, his translation helped perceptive readers to see beyond mere ‘exoticism’. Virginia Woolf reviewed Waley’s translation in 1925 and saw instantly that this was far more than ‘cranes and chrysanthemums’. Genji is about universal human nature: ‘how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; how the grotesque and the fantastic excite him beyond the simple and straightforward; how beautiful the falling snow is and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy’.
Despite its flaws, Waley’s attractive translation raised the profile of this Japanese classic so much that when Japanese novelist and short story writer Tanizaki Junichirō attempted his own translation into modern Japanese, he admitted that he was heavily influenced by Waley’s work. While Tanizaki and Yosano’s translations are the most literary, there have been other modern Japanese translations, for example the more erotic version by Funchi Emiko and the most accessible one, the everyman’s edition by Buddhist nun Setouchi Jakuchō. Contemporary scholars of Japanese literature recognise, however, that it was Genji’s surprising success abroad which led to its enshrinement as the ‘greatest Japanese classic’ in its home country.
The second complete English translation of Genji was published by Edward Seidensticker in 1976 and could hardly be more different from Waley’s work. Seidensticker resolutely sticks to a pared-down, understated style, with relatively few footnotes. As such, it is very readable, clear yet faithful to the original. His treatment of the 800 or so poems which appear throughout the pages of Genji has provoked some ire from purists: he renders them as couplets. It may not be true to Japanese poetic form, but at least he keeps them distinct from the main text, unlike Waley, who turns them into dialogue.
Royall Tyler’s translation in 2001 consciously attempts to return to the original Heian text and mimic its highly elliptical style. For instance, he does not use place or chapter names to identify the characters – an unspoken convention that all translators have resorted to for the sake of clarity. Instead, Tyler sticks to identifying them by their titles with elaborate ceremonial indirectness. This makes it difficult to follow, since those titles constantly change over the course of the book, as characters get promoted or fall out of favour. The endless hesitations and circumlocutions may be closer to the original style, but they feel old-fashioned and heavy-handed. The poetry sticks to the Japanese form but sounds a little pedestrian. For those who would like an insight into the intricacies and dramas of the Heian period, however, there is much to learn from the encyclopaedic footnotes.
Finally, the most recent translation is the 2015 version by Dennis Washburn, who tries to find a middle ground between clarity and as literal a translation as possible. The strength of his translation lies in its psychological depth and a modern sensibility to the different voices, which is in direct contrast to Waley’s. Washburn allows these often introverted, opaque characters to muse about their life and regrets, without judgement or sense of superiority. In his interpretation, it becomes clear just how much the characters are torn between the fleeting appeal of material, secular culture and a desire to escape worldly attachments.
To demonstrate just how different these translations can be, and why none of them can be considered the definitive translation, let us look at just two examples:
Chapter Five: Wakamurasaki
Genji visits a Buddhist monastery in the mountains and encounters there the love of his life, Murasaki, who is but a little girl at the time.
Arthur Waley: “Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall–audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.”
Edward Seidensticker: “Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.”
Royall Tyler: “Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.”
Dennis Washburn: “Genji was feeling ill. It has started to rain, bringing a cooling breeze. Moreover, the water in the pool of a nearby waterfall had risen with the spring runoff, and the roar was clearly audible. He could just barely make out the sound of sleepy voices reciting sutras, a sound that sent chills through him. The atmosphere of the place would have affected even the most insensitive of people, and, coupled with his preoccupation with both Fujitsubo and the girl, it prevented him from getting any sleep at all.”
In this passage, Waley comes across as charmingly entertaining, Seidensticker as pedestrian, Washburn as a little too emphatic, while Tyler’s version seems both respectful to the orginal and the most seductive to modern readers.
Chapter One: Kiritsubo
However, the test I always give to any new translation of Genji is to read the first paragraph of the opening chapter, which is fiendishly difficult to render comprehensible to a modern reader. The chapter describes Genji’s mother and the circumstances of his birth. In this case, it seems that Waley is the most gossipy and entertaining, Seidensticker the most unobtrusive and clear, Tyler the most instructive, while Washburn is once again too long-winded.
Arthur Waley: “At the court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of the very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them. This her position at Court, preponderant thought it was, exposed her to constant jealousy and ill will; and soon, worn out with petty vexations, she fell into a decline…”
Edward Seidensticker: “In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and the lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill…”
Royall Tyler: “In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health…”
Dennis Washburn: “In whose reign was it that a woman of rather undistinguished lineage captured the heart of the Emperor and enjoyed his favour above all the other imperial wives and concubines? Certain consorts, whose high noble status gave them a sense of vain entitlement, despised and reviled her as an unworthy upstart from the very moment she began her service. Ladies of lower rank were even more vexed, for they knew His Majesty would never bestow the same degree of affection and attention on them. As a result, the mere presence of this woman at morning rites or evening ceremonies seemed to provoke hostile reactions among her rivals, and the anxiety she suffered as a consequence of these ever-increasing displays of jealousy was such a heavy burden that gradually her health began to fail.”
Which of those translations do you prefer? And do you think you might be tempted to tackle Genji yourself, if you haven’t already done so? Let’s start the Murasaki Shikibu fan club [I was going to say the Genji Fan Club – but that is in fact the entire plot of Genji Monogatari, one might say!].