The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in titles translated from Japanese into English. While many of these novels and short stories collections are by rising authors, publishers also present readers with classic works by authors already well-known outside of Japan. These include Osamu Dazai, long celebrated for his No Longer Human, first translated into English by Donald Keene in the 1950s. Dazai’s A New Hamlet was translated by Owen Cooney in 2016. No Longer Human was released in a new translation by Mark Gibeau as a Shameful Life in 2018. The short-story collection Early Light debuted in the fall of 2022. The Flowers of Buffoonery is the latest addition to his oeuvre in English.
The Flowers of Buffoonery, translated by Sam Bett, stars Dazai’s most famous character, the semi-autobiographical Yozo Oba. Oba is by far best known as the protagonist of No Longer Human. The pre-war Japanese literary establishment celebrated the so-called I-novel genre—an autobiographical laying bare of the author’s most shameful secrets. No Longer Human is a highly stylized example.
The Flowers of Buffoonery was originally published in 1935. Readers who enjoy No Longer Human may appreciate a glimpse at Dazai’s alter ego written thirteen years before Dazai wrote No Longer Human. (No Longer Human was published in 1948; Dazai famously committed suicide shortly after he finished writing it.) Some of the events overlap, but by 1948, Dazai’s perspective had hardened.
Life had certainly been difficult for Dazai even before he wrote The Flowers of Buffoonery. He was 26 years old in 1935 and had already attempted suicide at least twice. But the next thirteen years included two failures to win the Akutagawa Prize (which he took extremely personally), hospitalization for opioid addiction, divorce, poverty, the chaos of World War II, and two more known suicide attempts.
Maybe it’s most notable that 1935’s Yozo notes only “I barely qualify as human”; 1948’s Yozo is “no longer human” at all.
The focus of The Flowers of Buffoonery is also much narrower than that of No Longer Human. Dazai limits himself to four days following a suicide attempt. Before the novella opens, Yozo throws himself off a cliff with a lover he barely knew. He survives; she does not. Two friends and his brother meet him at a mental hospital. Little happens. (Dazai attempted suicide in 1930 with a waitress named Shimeko Tanabe. Tanabe died, but Dazai survived. Dazai was charged with attempted murder, but his family protected him from a jail sentence.)
Yozo is a narrator in familiar Dazai style—gratingly self-centered, but also essentially human. Here, he perhaps has more of a sense of humor about himself than a Dazai reader expects. For example, Yozo’s friends playfully call him “Yo-Yo”. The narrator fails to comment.
What sets The Flowers of Buffoonery apart from No Longer Human, though, are the narrative interruptions. Dazai the narrator is very present in The Flowers of Buffoonery. For example, he’s more willing to wink at the reader about the semi-autobiographical nature of his work:
The perceptive will perceive what I am up to… I might have skirted the whole issue by writing this in the first person…
Through the narrator’s cheeky commentary, the reader gets a glimpse not just of the author, but also of the publishing scene and literary world of 1930s Japan.
Dazai the narrator challenges the conventions of the I-novel genre, which virtually all “literary” authors of the 1920s and 30s had to follow. Some of the novel’s most poignant moments are when the narrator wrestles with questions of sincerity and art. In a world before the death of the author, how does an author attempt to really tell the truth?
I’ve been exploiting my narrative position to hoodwink readers, using this first-person narrator to impart the work with idiosyncratic nuance. I was arrogant enough to think that I could be the first Japanese author to employ such a sublimely Western style. And yet, I failed. But no, even this confession of failure can be counted as part of the novel’s grand design. So you can see, I can’t be trusted. Don’t believe a single word I say …
“I’m a real-life artist,” he reflects, “Not a piece of art.”