Osamu Dazai is one of Japan’s most celebrated modern writers. He was born in 1909, at the end of Japan’s era of rapid modernization known as the Meiji Period. He began writing as a high school student, moved by the suicide of the great Japanese short story writer, Ryonosuke Akutagawa in 1927.
Dazai is a writer of great genius, as remembered for his colorful life story as he is for his fiction. He had a complex, decade-long relationship with an apprentice geisha. He developed addictions to alcohol and opioids. He attempted suicide with multiple lovers, and eventually succeeded in 1949. Their bodies were discovered on what would have been his thirty-ninth birthday.
Dazai’s biography is so interesting to readers in part because Dazai was also a master manipulator of the semi-autobiographical I-novel genre—in many ways, his fiction is his biography. Most of his writing is, if not strictly autobiographical, at least deeply influenced by his own life experiences. Readers who frequent Dazai will find themselves on familiar ground in the latest collection of his work in translation, Early Light.
The first two stories in particular include the kind of narrator Dazai most frequently employs and the whole I-novel genre most celebrates—flawed, self-loathing, uncomfortable with his own genius, able to see the needs of others but unwilling to put anyone else’s needs before his own.
The title story, translated by Ralph McCarthy, chronicles a family in the late days of the Pacific War. Together with his wife and two children, the protagonist-narrator must strive to survive American firebombing. (This account has autobiographical roots. Dazai’s own home was destroyed twice during air raids.)
“One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji”, also translated by McCarthy, takes place some years earlier. The protagonist retires to the famous tourist site to rethink his life. The meditative narrative plays with the printmaker Hokusai’s famous collection of the same name to reconsider how the same sight changes when viewed under different circumstances. (Again, Dazai himself spent time on retreat in 1938. Like the story’s protagonist, he was looking for a new wife after a disastrous end to his first marriage.) Although the protagonist-narrator can acknowledge that others might find the view stunning, he is too jaded and world weary:
How much appeal would Fuji hold for one who’s never been exposed to such popular propaganda, for one whose heart is simple and pure and free of preconceptions?
“Climb a mountain,” he laments to one idealistic young woman, “and you just have to come right back down again.”
“Villon’s Wife” is the collection’s stand-out story. It was translated by Donald Keene, the great American scholar of Japanese literature who died in 2019. One of the English-language’s most-highly-regarded scholars of Dazai’s life and work, Keene is responsible for translating Dazai’s best-known work in English, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human.
The central character, Mr Otani, seems to be yet another stand-in for Dazai himself, a symbol of a Japanese aristocracy gone to seed. But “Viollon’s Wife” is nonetheless notable because it chronicles the 1930s and 1940s in Japan from a working class perspective. It is also unusual if not unique in Dazai’s oeuvre in being told from a woman’s perspective.
The narrator paints a pathetic picture. She has been all but abandoned by her literary ne’er-do-well husband. Their malnourished four-year-old child is underdeveloped—he is the size of a two-year-old and can’t speak yet. The story opens shortly after the war, when her husband’s liquor dealer charges into their dilapidated home demanding he return the five thousand yen her husband has just stolen. It is clear from the pain in the narrator’s description of her life that Dazai can grasp exactly the situation Mr Otani has placed her in. But it’s empathy that inspires no reform.
It doesn’t take long for the narrative’s sympathies to turn to the erstwhile husband. The narrator tells the reader that he is “like a man with the soul taken out of him”. She decides to get a job at a bar to pay off her husband’s drinking debts. The narrative invites, though does not force, the reader to conclude this is a positive turn of events. “Why has such a good plan never occurred to me before?” the abandoned wife asks, “All the suffering I have gone through has been because of my own stupidity.” Later, her husband comes by the bar to talk to her about her new life. “Women don’t know anything about happiness or unhappiness,” he says.
“Perhaps not. What about men?”
“Men only have unhappiness. They are always fighting fear.”
Even when Dazai has turned over the narrative voice to a woman, the wife of the character who serves as his stand-in, he gives the flawed, self-loathing genius space to speak:
They’re writing bad things about me again. They call me a fake aristocracy with Epicurean leanings. That’s not true. It would be more correct to refer to me as an Epicurean in terror of God. Look! It says here that I’m a monster. That’s not true, is it?
The wife responds, “There’s nothing wrong with being a monster, is there? As long as we can stay alive.”
None of the translations in Early Light are new, although this is the first time they have been collected together. As a collection, Early Light holds additional historical interest because life was so circumscribed for Japanese writers in the late 1930s and 1940s. In the face of rising nationalism, many picked up their pens on behalf of the war effort. After the 1942 Battle of Midway, very little was published in Japan that didn’t actively celebrate the government or military. For example, Junichiro Tanizaki had to cease printing his apolitical masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters, in 1943 because the publishers feared the book might “exert an undersible influence in view of the present exigencies at this decisive stage of the war.” Dazai skirted circumstances by publishing a series of fairy tales. By 1944, a severe paper shortage made printing almost impossible for all writers.
Early Light also includes fascinating tidbits from the very early days of the American occupation, including facts of life (like the black market) that American occupation forces hoped to quiet. Readers also access one Japanese reaction to the American-imposed, post-war constitution. A drunken lout taunts a barmaid: “Don’t be modest! From now on in Japan, there’s equality of the sexes, even for horses and dogs.”
Ultimately, though, Early Light is perhaps no more and no less than any of Dazai’s other writing. His is undeniably the work of a genius. But the same self-centeredness and misogyny that haunt even his best work are just as present in the three stories of this collection. For readers who aren’t willing to overlook these very real problems, the stories of Early Light are just as difficult to read.
The protagonist of the title story aptly observes, “This negative sort of concern for the feelings of others can wear a man out.” Readers of Early Light, or of Dazai in general, might find themselves equally tired.