Sunday, 20 September 2009

Self Portraits

'Self Portraits' is a collection of eighteen semi autobiographical stories by Osamu Dazai, translated by Ralph F. McCarthy, who also provides a great introduction and biographical notes at the start of each of these stories. Dazai is probably best known for his two novels 'No Longer Human' 1948 and 'The Setting Sun' 1947. Dazai is described as the enfant terrible of Japanese Literature, who had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the literary establishment, although he found a mentor in Masuji Ibuse, and had forays with the Communist Party, (illegal in his day). This year is the centenary of Dazai's birth, Osamu Dazai being a pen name, he was actually born Tsushima Shuji, in 1909, into a large, wealthy farming family, but from these stories you get the impression that from an early age he found it difficult to fit in. His father died when he was fourteen, and the death of Akutagawa in 1927 affected him dramatically, he began to neglect his high school studies, spending more time at his story writing. In 'My Elder Brothers', Dazai gives us a glimpse of his childhood with his brothers, their attempts at starting a literary magazine, Bunji, the eldest son, became head of the family after the death of their father, and would control Dazai's financial allowance from the family, which Dazai would usually squander away on booze. Two of Dazai's brother's died early, Reiji died of septicemia and Keiji died of tuberculosis. Dazai returns to his relationship with Bunji in the later story 'Garden', when he had to return to the family home, after the house where he was staying in Kofu was bombed.

Covering the major events in Dazai's life, marriage, betrayals, suicide attempts, evacuation from Tokyo during the bombing raids, the house in Kofu where he and his family was staying, that was hit by a bomb, (Early Light), his plan of burying everyday necessities in the garden proved to be a good plan. It also includes pieces on everyday foibles and experiences, like his fear of dogs, and an account of being invited back to a gathering in his home town, which turned into a drunken disaster. 'Merry Christmas' written in 1946 is a moving story of a chance encounter of bumping into the daughter of woman he used to know, Dazai names his character as 'Kasai'. He relates how during the war it was difficult to find booze and that somehow the girls mother always managed to have something to offer him whenever he called. He used to sit with her and get drunk, the daughter seems evasive when Kasai asks after her mother, he decides that he wants to pay her a visit, and when they reach her apartment he calls out her name. The daughter finally tells Kasai that her mother died in the air raids in Hiroshima, and that before she died she cried out his name.
One of the larger pieces is 'One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji', the same name as Hokusai's famous series of pictures. It mainly covers the period when Dazai stayed at Tenka Chaya, a tea house near Mt Fuji, in a series of vignettes Dazai offers up moments when the mountain appeared to him, sitting up all night drinking sake, after a 'certain persons' shocking confession, at dawn he went to relieve himself, and through the mesh covering the window he saw a pure white Fuji, standing in the dark little room, stroking the mesh screen and weeping with despair, he recounts. Also after drinking with a group of students, walking home he looses his coin purse, irrate at first, Fuji soon works it's magic on him, and calmly he retraces his steps and finds his purse.

At the beginning of the short piece 'I Can Speak' there's a little question that seemed to stick with me as soon as I had read it, Dazai, or his character asks, 'What is life-the struggle to surrender?, The endurance of misery?', particularly the first bit ' - the struggle to surrender', it seems to capture, for me anyway, how Dazai may have lived his life which is caught in this collection. Dazai is one of those writers that manages to write down any aspect of life's experience and imbue it with something utterly original, through his own struggling, he seems to point to just how important individuality is, no experience is wasted in his writing, as indeed it should be in life.

Recently Aomori Art Museum held an exhibition, celebrating the centenary of Dazai's birth, download the pdf of the handbill to see some examples of Dazai's painting. Also a film to watch out for is 'Villon's Wife' based on one of his short stories, starring Asano Tadanobu and Matsu Takako, you can see a trailer at the film's website.

Contents of Self Portraits -

My Elder Brothers
Seascape with Figures in Gold
No Kidding
A Promise Fulfilled
One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji
I Can Speak
A Little Beauty
Canis Familiaris
Thinking of Zenzo
Eight Scenes from Tokyo
Early Light
Two Little Words
Merry Christmas
Handsome Devils and Cigarettes

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