Much to my shame I'd not read any of Akutagawa's stories before picking up this collection, I'd seen 'Rashomon', the Kurosawa film which was based on two Akutagawa stories, 'Rashomon' and 'In A Grove' and I'd been meaning to explore Akutagawa ever since. These 15 stories capture Akutagawa's great talent as a master of short story writing. Akutagawa was mainly writing in the Taisho period (1912-1926), and was a pupil of the great Meiji novelist Soseki Natsume, whom he greatly admired. Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927 by taking an overdose of Veronal, an early form of barbiturate, at the age of 35. This collection covers stories that span his entire career, 'The Handkerchief' an early story from 1916, to later stories like 'The Life Of A Fool' and 'Cogwheels' from 1927. Also this collection includes 3 stories published in English for the first time. 'An Evening Conversation', 'An Enlightened Husband' and 'Winter'. After reading a story like 'The Handkerchief ' where a professor's sense of bushido is questioned after receiving a visit from the mother of one of his students who had recently died, Akutagawa's inclusion of details, like the Gifu lantern really places you in the professor's company, when contemplating that Akutagawa was about 24 when he wrote this story, you can see why Soseki was so taken with Akutagawa.
Another story that stood out for me, was 'An Enlightened Husband', largely narrated by Viscount Honda, who's lament at the passing of the early Meiji era seemed to strike a chord, it seems that most of the characters in this collection, and maybe Akutagawa's stories as a whole, speak about a world now lost to them, although the stories in this collection are set in different time periods. I found so much in the detail included in these stories about an array of things I've not come across before, from the mention of the novel 'Nanso Satomi Hakken' to Shiki-shima cigarettes. Along with his seamless translation, Charles De Wolf's notes at the back of the book, are a great source of biographical and historical information on each of the stories, and it was interesting to learn that Akutagawa collaborated with Tanizaki Junichiro, I knew that they both had connections to Tsukiji, I think being there roughly at the same time, but didn't know that they had actually worked together.
Akutagawa's stories have a melancholic streak about them, and a supernatural element, something which is hinted at in 'At The Seashore', with a mysterious voice and the mention of a ghost, maybe the two are related?, and also in 'Cogwheels'. Akutagawa studied English literature, writing a piece on William Morris, and he travelled in Russia and China, it would be nice to think that one day maybe a collection of Akutagawa's non-fiction/essays would be published. Indeed names from European and Russian Literature are mentioned throughout the collection, not only Goethe, Strindberg, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, but also authors who were Akutagawa's contemporaries, Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet. In the story 'O'er Withered Moor', Akutagawa explores the thoughts of those assembled around the great poet Basho, as he lays out on his death bed. The story 'Winter' has a very Russian feel to it, maybe due to the narrators mention of his astrakhan hat. A story I've heard the name mentioned many times before is 'Life of a Fool', which for me overshadowed the rest in this collection, along with 'Cogwheels' published posthumously 3 months after his death. 'The Life of a Fool' is 51 short fragments each with a different subtitle, each a little snapshot concerning episodes of the authors life, that ends with noting the brief relative lucidity after taking the dose of Veronal.
Some video footage of Akutagawa can be found here.