There Are Bored Foreign Teenagers Too!

I recently came across this feature in The Guardian about bored teenagers in literature as selected by John Patrick McHugh – and really liked many of the titles listed, some of which deserve to be better known. However, we come up against this problem over and over again in the Anglo-Saxon world: very little awareness of literature that is not written in English.

Much as I love the ‘Write Around the World’ literary travels with Richard E. Grant currently showing on BBC4, and much as I appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patricia Highsmith to have only two foreign writers out of seven in both the episode on Italy and the one on the South of France feels rather… provincial. My blogger friend Emma in France is always puzzled why there is such reluctance to read books in translation in the Anglocentric world and has a Translation Tragedy category on her blog. (This applies also to English books that haven’t been translated into French, but more often books in other languages that haven’t been translated into English).

Anyway, back to stroppy teenagers (a subject which has somewhat incensed me this week, I have to admit). There are so many superb books about teenagers in world literature – and a few of those have made it into the English-speaking world too. So here is my correction to that Guardian list. Quite a few of these titles also fit into the #WITMonth project, if you are looking for inspiration.

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse, transl. Heather Lloyd, Penguin Modern Classics

The quintessential story of a bored wealthy teenager who cannot resist manipulating all the people around her, especially the women who seem to be gravitating around her father. Written when the author was still in her teens herself, this short book scandalised French society at the time (1950s) and led to a life of success and excess for Sagan. (This would also have fit in perfectly with the Write Around Episode set in France and has had a Hollywood adaptation).

Jean Seberg giving the evil eye to David Niven and Deborah Kerr in the 1958 film directed by Otto Preminger.

Trifonia Melibenia Obono: La Bastarda, transl. Lawrence Schimel, The Feminist Press at CUNY

The teenage protagonist here is anything but privileged: Okomo is an orphan, raised by her grandmother in Equatorial Guinea. She longs to find her father and in doing so gets involved with the illicit gay subculture in her country, which she finds far more welcoming than her own mainstream culture. It is also the first novel from that country to be translated into English.

Faiza Guene: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, transl. Sarah Adams, Harvest Original/Harcourt.

Again, a marked contrast to the genteel, wealthy French teen described by Sagan: this is the France of the banlieue, those ghetto-like suburbs of Paris. The heroine Doria is determined to prove that not all that comes out of these estates is crime and rap although all the odds seem stacked against her: her father has abandoned the family, her mother has to do cleaning jobs to make ends meet, the boy she loves doesn’t seem to notice her, and she has just about had enough of school…

Janne Teller: Nothing, transl. Martin Aitken, Strident Publishing.

Denmark may often be touted as the happiest country in the world, but for Pierre Anthon, the teenager at the heart of this book, it is most certainly not the case. One day, he has an existential crisis ‘he realized that nothing was worth doing, because nothing meant anything anyway’ and climbs up a tree. Nothing that his classmates say or do can convince him to come down again. Philosophy is clearly important to Scandinavian teenagers (remember ‘Sophie’s World’ by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder), and this is a very interesting attempt to counteract teen nihilism.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis, Jonathan Cape (no named translator!)

At the start of this autobiographical graphic novel, the authors is a child, but in the subsequent volumes she grows up and describes both her daily life in Iran in a time of Islamic revolution and war with Iraq, as well as her difficulties in adapting to life in exile.

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, transl. Jamie McKendrick, Penguin Modern Classics

A will-they, won’t-they teenage love story set in 1930s Italy, when the anti-semitic laws introduced by Mussolini means that the young narrator of the story is kicked out of the local tennis club in Ferrara and is invited to play tennis in the private garden of the wealthy Finzi-Continis. Elegy for a lost world, with the author telling us early on in the book that the glamorous family he so admired were deported and killed in concentration camps during the war.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick, transl. as ‘Why We Took the Car’ by Tim Mohr, Scholastic

Mike and Tschick are two German teenage boys – or rather, Tschick is the nickname of a Russian immigrant boy, whose surname is too complicated for anyone to even attempt to pronounce. They feel like outsiders, never get invited to any of the cool parties and during the summer holidays, they take an ancient Lada for a spin and end up making a road trip out of it.

Tschick has also been adapted for film as ‘Goodbye, Berlin’ directed by Fatih Akin.

Makoto Shinkai: Your Name, Yen Press.

This YA novel was released around the same time as the animated film directed by Shinkai, describing two teenagers, a boy and a girl, bored of their daily routines in the city and the countryside respectively, who end up switching bodies periodically. They communicate through notes and text messages on their phones, but when the boy makes an attempt to visit the girl in the countryside, he discovers that her village has been obliterated by a falling comet.

Tsugumi Oba & Takeshi Obata: Death Note, Shonen Jump.

I cannot avoid mentioning Death Note when I talk about Japanese teenagers: this is a very different kettle of fish than the romantic and sweet Your Name. It is a manga that became an hugely successful anime series and a (somewhat less superlative) film. It’s the story of cocky teenager Light Yagami who finds a mysterious, dark notebook, which confers the ability upon the owner to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages. And so Light becomes a vigilante, initially planning to create a more just world by killing all criminals, until the power goes to his head…

Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, transl. Christopher Moncrieff & Christopher Bartholomew, Istros Books.

Mircea Eliade became a revered (although controversial) professor of world religions, but this is a fairly autobiographical novel that he wrote as a teen and never published in his lifetime. Although it takes place in Bucharest a hundred years ago, it is a universal story of the monumental egoism but also lack of confidence, search for identity and everyday failure of teenagers everywhere. Although there are shades of the insufferable Holden Caulfield here, this book doesn’t try too hard to be clever. The strength of the book lies in precisely those passages where the narrator unwittingly reveals all of his adolescent naiveté and doubts which are both funny and touching.

I could have made a much longer list, but the original had ten, so these ten will do for starters. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent French novella that we published at Corylus Books Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy, transl. Graham Roberts, in which we spend some rather tense time with disaffected teenagers in a run-down school and a French literature class. A guest author is visiting, the ineffectual teacher is ogling at her much to the amusement of his pupils, and then the school enters lockdown because of a potential terrorist attack…

Very good timing to talk about teenagers in literature: wishing you success to all the UK students getting their GCSE results today!

#WITMonth: No Heaven This… Mieko Kawakami

My tour of depressing and untouristy locations continues with middle-school Japan in Mieko Kawakami’s merciless yet somehow endearing Heaven, which is also my 14th book in the #20BooksofSummer reading (I might still hit the target!).

Mieko Kawakami: Heaven, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd.

After the full immersion in the female perspective in Breasts and Eggs, this shorter and earlier novel by Kawakami takes us into the heart and mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. The unnamed narrator is horrifically bullied at his school, probably because of his lazy eye, but does not dare to let any of the adults in his life know. The teachers don’t seem to want to have their eyes opened for fear of the school’s reputation suffering, while the boy believes his parents would blame him or think less of him for acquiescing to the bullying. (Incidentally, bullying is indeed a major problem in Japanese schools, and has led to many suicides or self-harming incidents. The love of conformity in Japanese society means that anyone who is a little different becomes a possible target.)

Be warned: some of the bullying scenes are extremely brutal, verging on the unbearable, although they are never voyeuristic or gratuitous. What makes it even more shocking is the almost throwaway descriptions of these scenes, which have become part of the daily routine. The ringleader Ninomiya is the good-looking golden boy who breezes through his schoolwork as well as athletics. His teachers cannot keep up with him, so no one ever believes he could be so vicious. Besides, he and his gang are careful to cover their tracks: they punch and kick without leaving visible marks, or enjoy the power of forcing humiliating rituals upon the narrator.

When we are told about the somewhat enigmatic new boy, Momose, who joined the class after elementary school and who is almost equally as beautiful and gifted as Ninomiya but much more nonchalant about things, we readers are tempted to hope and believe that he will become an ally. But this is not an American high school story of converting the wicked or finding redemption. Momose proves to be even more chilling. He does not enjoy the bullying or get a kick out of it, but he refuses to feel any concern or guilt about it. When the narrator tries to confront him, saying that he doesn’t have the right to hurt him or any other human being, this is what Momose says (I am collating several relevant passages into one quote, because this is a scene that continues over quite a few pages):

Well, first of, when you said that we’re the same, you were way off. See for yourself. I’m not cross-eyed, and I’m not you. You are cross-eyed, and you’re not me.

Second, that thing you just said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else… Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to do.

There’s no reason it has to be you. It could have been anyone. But you happened to be there, and we happened to all be in a certain mood, so things went the way they did.

I don’t care if things are so bad that you can’t sleep. That’s got nothing to do with me. It doesn’t make me feel anything. Nothing. Your problems have never crossed my mind… Don’t try and tell me something stupid like it’s my responsibility to think about your feelings.

Given these kind of reactions, it’s not surprising that the narrator at first doesn’t quite dare to believe in the timid hand of friendship being extended to him by Kojima, a girl in the class who is also being bullied for being dirty and smelly (her nickname is ‘Hazmat’). They write each other messages and meet in person outside school, bonding over their common suffering, but never really discussing it in detail. Instead, they try to bring a little bit of joy in their lives – and even manage a day trip to a museum during the summer holidays, where Kojima describes her favourite bit of escapism, a painting she calls ‘Heaven’. The description of this burgeoning friendship is delicately done, with a lot of sympathy for youthful awkwardness, but this is no saccharine love story.

When school starts again, things go back to the unbearable and dysfunctional normal. Just as you start to fume as a reader about their passivity, you realise that Kojima deliberately chooses to appear poverty-stricken and dirty, because it creates a bond with her father, whom her mother abandoned to marry a rich man. While the narrator is often ashamed that he allows the bullying to continue, Kojima turns the negative into a positive. She has created an entire ideology about their suffering, a martyrdom mentality that is oddly reminiscent of early Christianity:

That’s not why we let them do this… It’s not because we’re weak. We’re not just following orders or whatever… We know exactly what’s going on. We see it and we let it happen. I don’t think that’s weakness at all. It’s more like strength.

Kawakami is so good at capturing the voices of her youthful protagonists, making them urgent and compelling, that at first you completely buy into this desperate attempt to explain and justify what is happening to them. Yet, towards the end of the book, things take an ominous turn. The narrator discovers that his eye problem could be corrected with a relatively simple and cheap surgical procedure, but when he tells Kojima, she is profoundly disappointed in him for ‘abandoning’ their principles and what she perceives to be their just cause:

Even if something happens to us, even if we die and never have to deal with them again, the same thing will happen to someone, somewhere… The weak always go through this… Because the strong never go away. That’s why you want to pretend to be like them, isn’t it? You want to join them.

A very different cover for the hardback – which of the two do you prefer?

This is a nuanced and at times unexpected exploration of bullying, of moral strength and weakness. There is the secondary issue about missing or self-absorbed parents. The narrator’s father is largely absent (and a bit of a selfish patriarch when he is around). Although his stepmother is the only one who seems to listen to him, his relationship with her is stilted, as if he resents her own passivity in front of his father. He wonders what his own mother (who died when he was very young, and from whom he has inherited the strabism) would have been like. Meanwhile, Kojima cannot forgive her mother for the way she disdains her former husband, Kojima’s father. It is easy to see that, although the subject of the book is bullying in school, it could easily be extrapolated to the adult world.

One striking feature of the story is how it changes stylistically. In the beginning, the language is very plain and declarative: simple sentences, describing routine actions in a detached, matter-of-fact style. The author keeps reverting back to this style when she describes the more extreme behaviours of the classmates or the suicidal thoughts of the narrator, as if to make those scenes more bearable through the restrained choice of words. When the friendship blossoms between the young people and they start writing longer notes to each other, the style grows more descriptive, at times lyrical, at times painfully graphic, coltish just like the adolescents themselves. Finally, towards the end of the book, the language becomes much more impassioned, with the narrator engaging in a constant interior monologue (or imaginary dialogue with those around him), and his surroundings (the weather, the park) are coloured by his emotions.

There are glimmers of hope and beauty in this stifling world, and the book ends on a determined upbeat note.

Everything was beautiful. At the end of the street, a street I had walked down more times than I could count, I saw the other side for the first time, glowing white, I understood it. Through my tears, I saw the world come into focus. The world had depth now.. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, fighting to see it all…

But is the narrator’s determination justified, or is he doomed to be disappointed once more? The book ends on an ambiguous, and absolutely perfect final sentence.

This is a less ambitious and therefore much more coherent and well-structured story than Breasts and Eggs, but what is clear from reading two of her books so far (and hoping that there will be more of them to come in translation) is that Kawakami is an author to watch, who can move effortlessly between registers and styles, and develop convincing characters of all ages and genders.

Brief Reviews of Two Books Which Deserve Better

It’s a choice between either giving brief reviews of two books which I really loved recently… or being forever silent about them, as more and more time passes since I read them. So, with apologies to those who were hoping for more thoughtful and detailed reviews, let me tell you about two unusual, beautifully written novels by two authors who certainly ploughed their own furrow and avoided any fashionable trends.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball (1964)

For once, it was not Backlisted Podcast that drew my attention to this work (although I loved listening to their episode on it afterwards). I came to it via a passion for Mozart, particularly Don Giovanni, which clearly Brigid Brophy shared (she wrote a book about Mozart’s operas).

The novel is basically a Mozart opera set in the present-day (or, rather, what passed for present day back in the 1960s, when she wrote it). Yet there is a strange timelessness about the setting as well, so that the mention of phones and taxis seems almost jarring. The two ‘main’ characters describe the plot (such as it is) very well when they say that all they think about is ‘Mozart and sex’ or ‘Mozart, sex and death.’

The scene is a New Year’s Eve masked ball at a very large and impressive mansion somewhere in London. Anna is the friend of the hostess Anne (they also shared a husband at some point – although not at the same time) and she has come dressed as Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. We witness the ritual of seduction between her and a stranger dressed as Don Giovanni, but we also witness the pas de deux between two other couples, the middle-aged hosts, and judgemental, ostensibly bored teenagers. Of course, we also have the interactions between these various couples and other assembled guests. Duets briefly turn into trios or quartets, with the occasional chorus of voices chiming in. Outside, it starts snowing, bringing an occasional hush and wonder to the proceedings.

The book is a playful look at the identities we toy with and then discard, the masks we put on to seduce and confuse, to attract and distract, or even to repel unwanted advances. It has sizzling flirtatious dialogue, a whirlwind of images, a crescendo of passion and one of the best descriptions of postcoital pleasure tinged with melancholy that I have ever read. Although it also brings in the awkward and self-absorbed adolescent voice through the diary that young Ruth (dressed as Cherubino) is keeping throughout the party, it is the verbal sparring of the grown-ups that set the tone for this novel. No one speaks like that in real life, we feel – or at least not with strangers you have barely met – and yet don’t we all wish we could?

There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about whether Donna Anna was seduced or not by Don Giovanni at the start of the opera, but the debate I found even more fascinating was whether the operatic Don Giovanni is brave or merely a cad, whether he chooses to provoke Hell into taking him prematurely, rather than passively wait for death to come. However, I don’t want to give the impression the book is all high-brow flights of fancy, or that you need an in-depth knowledge of Mozart’s operas to appreciate it. It is also surprisingly down-to-earth, very funny and full of witty observations, such as:

… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like us read books. The rich have them catalogued.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder (1994)

From a joyous celebration of life, to a more melancholy book, which I believe nevertheless does celebrate life.

The Memory Police of the title seems to be the elite squad operating in an unnamed island where Ogawa sets her quasi-dystopian novel – but they are not content to merely make things disappear from time to time, they want to make sure that the memories of all the disappeared objects are erased too. Their methods of enforcing compliance get more and more brutal, as they seek out those who cannot forget. One such person who cannot erase his memories is the editor of the narrator, who is a novelist. None of the characters have names, they are described by their physical attributes – the old man – or their jobs, or else simply initials – the editor is also R – as if the names themselves are fading away. The novelist decides to try and save him: despite the great risk, she prepares a small secret room in her house with the help of her faithful friend, the old man with DIY skills, and invites the editor to hide there. Meanwhile, the editor tries to teach them to remember, with the help of a few forbidden ‘missing’ objects which the narrator’s mother had hidden long ago. But the most frightening and sad aspect of the book is that these objects no longer awaken any feelings in them.

Earlier in the book, the novelist wonders sensibly enough about the ratio between the disappearance and the creation of objects:

‘I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?… What can the people on this island create? A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books that no one reads… Poor unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing – and the energy that goes along with them… If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absence and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.’

I have to admit that this and other passages shook me a little: they reminded me a little too much of my years of being shut in a totalitarian country, cut off from the outside world, with no possibility of leaving, and being forcibly told to forget my friends from abroad or any other interpretation of reality other than the ‘official one’.

However, this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Yet, despite the often shocking disappearances and the consequences they have on each of the individuals, the characters try to lead as normal a life as possible, to celebrate birthdays, and cook nice meals, wash and sleep and talk. It’s this resistance, this almost futile resistance, of the small, vulnerable person in the face of the behemoth (which could be a hostile authority, or simply time itself) which makes this book so incredibly subtle and poignant.

The whole book is written in a calm, matter-of-fact yet somewhat dreamy style. I felt as if I was standing in a soft but constant rain, ready to melt and disappear myself, despite the occasional shock of the story within a story told periodically, about a typist who has lost the power of speech, and is emprisoned in a tower full of broken typewriters (this is the novel the main protagonist is writing).

My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.

A huge thanks, incidentally, to Jacqui and Debbie from the Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood Bookshops, who sent this book as part of the subscription package for my fifteen-year-old son. He has been too busy with GCSE exam-replacement assessments to read it yet, and it may be a little too subtle for him, but I absolutely loved borrowing it off his bookshelves. The more I think about the book, the more I love it: it has left a very profound echo in my heart.

#6Degrees April 2021

Time for another random bookish chain, where we all start with the same book but end up on very different journeys, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which I have considered reading but fear I might find too depressing. Books about bad parenting get me all flustered.

I mean, the book Back to Delphi by Ioanna Karystiani (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas) was disquieting enough, and the mother in that is not necessarily a bad one, just a tad self-absorbed and trying to hide her suffering from her son… which of course gets misinterpreted. The two of them end up incapable of communicating with each other – and the son goes on to become a rapist and a murderer. He is granted a brief furlough from prison and she takes him to Delphi in an attempt to reconnect with him, and to try and find out where she went wrong.

The next book in the chain is another Ioana, a Romanian one this time: Ioana Parvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday, a time-travelling mystery and love letter to the city of Bucharest, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It has been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth for Istros Books, and deserves to be better known.

I used to be more of a fan of time-travelling novels in my youth, not so much now. The last memorable one I read was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer. It is not an easy book to describe, perfectly bonkers, but as always with Lauren Beukes, utterly compelling.

However, I preferred another of her novels, Moxyland, set in an alternative future Cape Town, where people are increasingly controlled by their mobile phones and apps, leading to a sort of corporate apartheid dictatorship.

I haven’t yet read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (transl. Stephen Snyder) but it seems to have a similar premise, except here the authoritarian regime seems bent on destroying people’s memories. This was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps if it had been written more recently the internet and mobile phones might have played a bigger part, as they do in Moxyland.

Of course, the concept of erasing memories or of accepting only one official version of history is something that all dictatorships have in common, and one of the best examples of this is the description of the ‘retouched’ photograph, a frequent occurence in an attempt to get rid of someone who became politically undesirable, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.

Scotland, Greece, Romania, Chicago, South Africa, Japan and Czechoslovakia – a well-travelled series of links this month. Where will your spontaneous bookishness take you?

Monthly Summary, January 2021

Reading

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 Beckett here.

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 Human in 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 a short story collection by Yuko Tsushima, Dazai’s daughter, and learnt more about the impact of her father’s death via an example of autofiction.
  • 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 Station by Yu Miri

Aside from Japan, I also spent some time with Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz and his experimentally structured novel Kokoschka’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.

Films

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.

Other News

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.

January in Japan: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

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.

Dazai at around the time of the first double suicide attempt.

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.’

‘What happened?’

‘”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 – buraiha [the so-called Decadent School in Japanese arts and literature]. 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.

I can live with that.

January in Japan: Higuchi Ichiyo, First Professional Woman Writer

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.

Higuchi Ichiyo on the 5000 yen note.

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.

Still from the film Takekurabe.

#JanuaryinJapan: Yuko Tsushima again

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?

Tsushima Yuko in 2011, from INK Literary Monthy in Taiwan.

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.

Ishihara Nen: People’s Voices, Mother’s Song

January in Japan: Dazai Osamu

Osamu Dazai: A Shameful Life (No Longer Human), transl. Mark Gibeau, Stone Bridge Press, 2018.

Zoe’s surprisingly enthusiastic reaction to this book – it had the effect of catnip on her!

Biographical background

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.

Osamu in a bar, photographed by Tadahiko Hayashi, who was not aware at the time who was in the picture.

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.

Dazai Osamu with his two older children (Yuko Tsushima’s sister and brother), showing that there must have been happy times in his life too.

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).

Translation Comparison

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.

Mark Gibeau

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.

Donald Keene

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.’

January in Japan: Yukio Mishima

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?

A less common picture of the Golden Temple in the snow.

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.