Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) Paperback – Oct 31 2006
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About the Author
Haruki Murakami has written eleven novels, including Kafka on the Shore, as well as numerous other works.
Jay Rubin's translations include many of Haruki Murakami's works.
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The author, Akutagawa (1892-1927), is even today considered one of Japan's most accomplished short-story writers. As some reviewers say, he's not for everyone. But readers attracted to the dark, pessimistic and atmospheric, or to the introspective and psychological subtleties conveyed with style in his best stories, might find some of his works worthwhile.
He published about 150 stories between 1914 and his death; a scholar of his work has written somewhere that about half of them are still readable. There's a big gap between the best and the rest. Before this collection, some 60 of the stories had been translated into English since the 1930s. Here, eight more appear in English for the first time. The translator claimed nine, but a translation by Lawrence Rogers of "The Death Register" appeared earlier, in 2002.
Akutagawa's short-story career can be divided roughly into three periods. In the early works, from 1914 to 1922, at his best he drew inspiration from Japanese folktales and history and a range of non-Japanese sources, focusing on the characters' psychology to make them strikingly modern. Of the early works, the best known in English are "The Nose" (1916), "Kesa and Morito" (1918), "H-ll Screen" (1918) and "In a Grove" (1921), besides the vignette "Rashomon" (1915).
In the middle period, from 1922 or so to 1925, he sought more frequently and somewhat less successfully to make the settings of his writing more contemporary, while beginning to draw more deeply from his own life. Many of the works from the late period, from 1926 or so to his death, were heavily autobiographical, with his unease and despondency strongly apparent. Among the best-known works from the late period are "The Life of a Fool," "Spinning Gears" and "Kappa," all from 1927.
This anthology devoted about two-thirds of its pages to the early period, with the remainder split between middle and late. The translator sought a balance between retranslations of the author's well-known pieces from throughout his career -- most of the stories already mentioned, plus the beautifully compressed moral tale "The Spider's Thread" -- and first-time translations of lesser-known ones from the early and middle periods. The first-time translations, it was claimed, showed a funnier, more shocking and more imaginative side than had appeared previously in English.
Of the first-time translations, most enjoyed were those from the middle period: "Daidoji Shinsuke: The Early Years" (1924), the author's recollections of growing up in Tokyo in which his early psychology came strikingly alive, and "The Baby's Sickness" (1923) and "The Writer's Craft" (1924), in which he depicted with concern or irony the details of his family and working life. It seems that translations of autobiographical stories from this period haven't been published widely before, if at all. So they appear to be one of this anthology's main contributions.
Stories from the author's early period that were translated for the first time covered subjects such as harassed Christian villagers in the provinces in earlier times and an insane feudal retainer in Edo. Though maybe not on the level of his very best writing from this period, they too helped provide a more complete picture of his work. In particular, his story about a Christian who renounced her religion in an attempt to save her daughter, who then died, showed again his great ability to depict the macabre in ways that can't be forgotten.
Of the retranslations, maybe what's most worthwhile is that the versions provided here of the late works "The Life of a Fool" and "Spinning Gears" are better than the previous ones, more nuanced and more polished.
The main short stories I missed in this anthology were "Kesa and Morito," a brilliantly reimagined event from Japanese medieval times told in the first person, from the clashing perspectives of a man and a woman. And "Tangerines" (1919), a memorable vignette of observation and feeling during a train ride taken by the narrator. These were missed because for me this author, except in his moral tales, is often at his best in the early stories when speaking through other characters in the first person. Or in the works before his late period when he's describing events drawn from his own life but is in full control. Otherwise, too often the earlier stories feel a bit detached or in the late pieces his nervous sensibility becomes too jarring.
The anthology seems to have been a labor of love by the translator, who reevaluated the author's complete works and retranslated a number of the best-known stories, instead of just reprinting previous versions. There was an introduction by the writer Haruki Murakami that was useful for a Japanese perspective on Akutagawa's life, problems and significance. The collection also supplied a detailed chronology of the author's life and many scholarly footnotes. It contained several more stories than the other large anthologies, Glenn Shaw's Tales Grotesque and Curious (1930), Takashi Kojima's Japanese Short Stories (1961) and Exotic Japanese Stories (1964), Seiji Lippit's The Essential Akutagawa (1999), and Charles De Wolf's Mandarins (2007). It's the most careful and detailed of any collection for this author that I've seen.
Still, it lacked works of his that are well worth reading. For that reason, those who enjoyed it might also like the other collections, especially the ones by Lippit and De Wolf. The quality of the translations in Lippit varies -- unlike Rubin's book, numerous translators were involved -- and about half the titles are the same. But from the early period Lippit offers strong pieces set in the past that supplement the ones in Rubin, such as "Kesa and Morito," "Tu Tze-Chun" (1920), "Autumn Mountain" (1921) and "The Faint Smiles of the Gods" (1922). His anthology also contains Akutagawa's erudite but grim note of farewell.
The anthology by De Wolf offers a mix of the familiar, including new versions of "Tangerines" and "Kesa and Morito," and tales translated for the first time. Compared to Rubin and Lippitt, De Wolf devotes less space to the macabre early stories set in the past and more to the variety of styles in the author's career. There are a number of tales from the early period set in contemporary times, for example, including "The Garden" (1922). And "Winter" (1927), a late but masterful story that isn't obsessively autobiographical.
Shaw's anthology also contains earlier works well worth reading, such as "Mori Sensei," "Lice" and "The Wine Worm," as well as good versions of "The Handkerchief" and "The Ball."
This reader hopes that translators of future collections for this author will take the opportunity to introduce into English a few more of his still-untranslated works, among them "The Story of St. Christopher" (1919), which has been called a stylistic tour de force, "A Day in the Life of Oishi Kuranosuke" (1917), and "Lechery" (1921). Or maybe even something from his essays, like "Words of a Dwarf." Aside from the interest of his best works, he stands out as one of the more sensitive writers of his time and place during a period of massive change. And not least, as a personality.
For much of Akutagawa's early career, he delved into Japan's literary past. The story "Loyalty" is a complex tale based on a true event that took place during the Tokugawa period, when the young head of a noble family went insane, creating a crisis among his samurai retainers. Samurai were meant to be loyal to the death, but that loyalty also extended to the Shogun. If one's master posed a thread to the Shogun, where should your loyalty lie? This is the problem that faces two very different retainers, each of whom must make an almost impossible decision. The story explores not only loyalty, but the issues of sanity, respect, obligation, and shame.
Some of the more humorous stories include "Horse Legs" and "The Story of a Head That Fell Off", both involving dead men who suffer terrible humiliations, one at the hand of some spiritual bureaucrats, and the other because of a medical miracle. But the final section of the book, which include those selections that tell Akutagawa's own story, is possibly the most moving and compelling. Akutagawa's childhood was difficult, as his mother went insane shortly after his birth. He was afraid of mental illness for the remainder of his life, and the final story of the book, "Spinning Gears" tells the tale of his last months spent in depression and constant anxiety. He suffered from insomnia, hallucinations, and constantly worried about his own sanity. It is the final passage of the story that conveys Akutagawa's overwhelming despair:
"I don't have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn't there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep"
The story was published posthumously in 1927, the year Akutagawa took his own life. The story progresses toward that inevitable conclusion, and gives us an insight into Akutagawa's tortured mind.
Later stories included in the book, from 1925 to 1927 are more autobiographical or personal, and while revealing how similar that people feel about fear, stress, anxiety, and how we live within communal society, sadly, these stories show how the author is losing his equilibrium and peace of mind. It is difficult to parse out if it is the fear of going insane or if it is actual instability precipitating his emotional frailty.
The material is an affirmation of the author’s reputation for descriptiveness and attention to human detail. They may be difficult to read being 100 years old, based in Japan and having gone through a translation to English. None other than Japan’s most famous contemporary author Haruki Murakami (1Q84, Norwegian Wood, etc.) has supplied an extensive introduction for the book. The introduction is detailed enough to require its own footnotes.
The book bunches the author’s stories into several groups, namely A World In Decay, Under The Sword, Modern Tragicomedy and Akutagawa’s Own Story. The earlier stories are not wholly original works and yet are personal picks. The later works see the author adapt to his period’s stylings and quasi-autobiographical self-reference. Given how he committed suicide it would be no exaggeration to ponder whether writing these late stories shortened Akutagawa’s life. There is also the matter of the derangement of the author’s mother and the real possibility of her son having inherited the same. This is worth mentioning because, for better or worse, superlative artists are often unbalanced.
The stories do not paint a rosy picture of humanity. The absurdities and hollow strangeness of it all are a particular focus of these pieces. Referring to religion in Dragon: The Old Potter’s Tale the translator writes, “toys with the likelihood that religion is nothing more than mass hysteria, a force so powerful that even the fabricator of an object of veneration can be taken in by it.”
Although moralistic in nature, the stories could certainly be read as pure entertainment or as depictions of Japanese thought and society including its customs and costumes. Moreover, the earlier stories are easily for anyone interested in Heian or Tokugawa Shogunate periods romanticized through modes like film and literature. Hell Screen, in particular, is a successful example of horrific outcomes set in the period of feudal Japan. This story, in my opinion, is second only to In A Bamboo Grove in its evocative draw and surreal psychology.
The eighteen stories are not always entertaining, but are consistently articulate, graphic and speak to that certain Japanese essence.
The stories of Akutagawa are divided thematically in this collection into four groups. The first section, "A World in Decay," includes his most famous story, Rashōmon. These are dark and magical tales of Japan's past that, at the same time, reflect a confidence in the power of a writer's artistic vision. The most memorable of these stories is "Hell Screen," in which an artist commissioned to paint a picture of Hell compulsively, but knowingly, draws himself into the very Hell he is painting.
The second group of stories, subtitled "Under the Sword," continues the historical setting, but in a starkly realistic mode. The theme here is faith and loyalty against a background of religious or political change. Akutagawa's writings were heavily influenced by Christianity, and several of his stories feature Japanese Christians being persecuted for their beliefs. These were written at a time when Japan was politically divided over the issue of Western cultural influence.
Next is a short selection of stories called "Modern Tragicomedy," in which we see Akutagawa at his most cheerful and playful, writing satirically of Japanese life in the 1920s. In "Horse Legs" a clerical error on the part of some bureaucratic divine authority has killed a man before his allotted time. He is brought back to life with apologies, but since his legs had already begun to decompose he is given a pair of horse's legs instead. In "Green Onions" the focus of the story isn't the plot itself, but the author's need to finish it before his deadline.
The final segment is a series of autobiographical stories Akutagawa wrote in his final months, some of which were not published until after his death. These are grim and troubled stories reflecting the author's tragic life. His mother was insane, an insanity he always feared he had inherited. He was raised by foster parents, having little contact with his natural father, and as a sickly child in a society prizing martial virtues he was ostracized by his teachers as well as his fellow students. Yet his early love for literature and his intellectual accomplishments made him contemptuous of others even as he was hurt by their rejection of him. Similar internal conflicts developed over religion and sex, as he flirted with Christianity and had several extra-marital affairs.
Akutagawa's final story, "Slipping Gears," reads like an extended suicide note. He felt himself slipping into madness--parts of the story itself seem deranged--and finished: "--I don't have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn't there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?" On 24 July, 1927, Akutagawa took an overdose of sedative and died in his sleep.
Akutagawa read widely in the Western classics, and his works are sprinkled with references to authors such as Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Flaubert, just as to the Japanese and Chinese classics. This, plus his association with Christianity, makes his stories particularly approachable by Western readers. The Penguin edition is abundantly footnoted to provide the necessary background material on Japanese history and Asian literature. This collection is an excellent introduction to modern Japanese literature.
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