Tuesday 9 November 2010

Well worth the wait

Since I began, in my modest and generally paperback way, collecting Japanese literature in translation, I've been looking for something, anything by Osamu Dazai. It's been years, my friends. I could have ordered some things online and would have done so eventually, but the satisfaction of the good find in a local shop is so profound that I kept putting it off - I have lots of other things to read in the meantime, after all.

A few weeks ago, however, the miracle happened. There, at the lovely She Said Boom! on College St. (which has been getting a great deal of my money lately), was this delicious Dazai morsel. And not only was it there, affordable, and in good shape, not long before this find I'd realized that my love of the short story had miraculously returned, after years of internal anti-Henry James backlash.

Dazai is considered one of the best, most important Japanese authors of the 20th century, and I can see why. This book was just so perfect and lovely. Especially compelling were the opening and concluding stories, "On Love and Beauty" and "Lanterns of Romance", which deal with the same set of characters - a family comprising five siblings who like to wile away dull Sunday afternoons and holidays constructing stories together.

"On Love and Beauty" is one of Dazai's earlier pieces, and much less sophisticated than its later counterpart. Dazai himself was not entirely pleased with it, but also felt a real attachment to these unique characters:
All the members of the family of the famous painter Irie Shinnosuke, who passed away some eight years ago, seem a bit on the eccentric side. This is not to say that the family is abnormal; it's possible that their way of life is as it should be and that the rest of us are the abnormal ones, but, at any rate, the atmosphere of the Irie home is definitely somewhat different from most. It was this atmosphere that suggested to me the idea for "On Love and Beauty," a short story I wrote quite some time ago.

The story opened with a description of the five Irie brothers and sisters and went on to sketch a certain insignificant little incident, It was a naive, sentimental, and trivial work, to be sure, but one that I nonetheless remain quite fond of, though I must admit that my affection is not so much for the story itself as for the family described therein. I loved that family. ("Lanterns of Romance", p. 135)
In "On Love and Beauty" it is the family and their alternately exasperating and amusing failure to create a cohesive story that is so enjoyable. Theirs really is a terrible tale, and Dazai's overarching story is rather more clever than engaging. In "Lanterns of Romance", however, not only are the characters more completely and therefore compellingly drawn, but their story is just ridiculously good and not in spite of each sibling's often wildly different approaches, but because of them. A wild and unique re-imagining of "Rapunzel", the Irie siblings create a pastiche that incorporates elements of fairy tale, romance, Romance, feminist critique, and a pedagogical lecture on filial and marital duty - and it really works. And it doesn't just work, it's probably the best version of "Rapunzel" going, for it manages to clunkily highlight all of the original's plot holes and then smoothly amend them. And, of course, all of this to show the curious way in which the Irie family members express their mutual affection for one another by competing in the telling of group stories.

And because I enjoyed Blue Bamboo: Tales of Fantasy and Romance (and Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life) so much, I've not only re-immersed myself in my Wodehouse/Jeeves short fiction collection, but I've also purchased that 900-page bruiser, the Collected Stories of William Faulkner - and am 60 pages happily into that as well.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read this one but now I'm dying to! Plus I'm a big fan of short stories. I read 'No Longer Human' (Ningen Shikkaku) many years ago in Japanese and thought it was good. But it was hard going in Japanese, what with all the kanji, so I'd like to read it again in English. A film version came out last year in Japan which I really want to watch as well. I hope you find more Dazai in the bookshops:)

Stefanie said...

I know exactly what you mean by the satisfaction of finding something in a local shop instead of giving in and ordering it online. I've not heard of Dazai before. These stories sound really good.

Bookphilia said...

chasingbawa: I hope I do too! No luck so far though...

Stefanie: They're so damned good! I hope you'll check out his stuff if you run across him.