the complete review Quarterly
Volume VIII, Issue 3/4   --   November, 2007

Akutagawa's Mandarins
A book group discussion


       In November 2007 I led a book-group discussion at Words without Borders on a collection of Akutagawa Ryunosuke stories, Mandarins (tr. Charles De Wolf, Archipelago (2007)). The discussion can be found there too, but for the sake of convenience my posts are collected on one page here. Not included are the reader-comments (and my responses), which is why it's worth visiting the original posts.

       I. Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Mandarins

I. Ryunosuke Akutagawa is one of those authors often associated only with a single work—in his case, the story (or, more specifically, the title) Rashomon. It is Kurosawa's film that's to blame for immortalizing the title, but outside of Japan that's the one work that Akutagawa's name has been tied to—even though the film is based on two of Akutagawa's stories, with the other, In a Bamboo Grove, providing much more of the source-material. Penguin Classics brought out a collection of new translations (by Jay Rubin) of Akutagawa stories (with an introduction by Haruki Murakami) in 2006, and they opted for the familiar, titling the collection: Rashomon and 17 other Stories. The stories are also "arranged in chronological order according to the time of their setting rather than the order of their publication" there, conveniently allowing Rashomon and In a Bamboo Grove to be the first the reader encounters. The 2007 Archipelago Books collection, Mandarins, the book under discussion in this book group, manages to avoid both stories—and that seems a good place to start. Yes, mention of Rashomon (and In a Bamboo Grove) is unavoidable when bringing up Akutagawa, but it seems to me there's a lot to be said for just moving right past them (and the near-overwhelming shadow cast by the Kurosawa film) and considering the rest of his work—or at least a solid sample thereof, as found in Mandarins. Charles De Wolf's translation of fifteen stories includes several that are fairly well-known and have been translated before (notably the stories translated here as The Life of a Fool and Cogwheels, versions of which can also be found in the Penguin Classics volume), as well as three previously unavailable in English. In a brief afterword, De Wolf suggests that in the West Akutagawa's name is: "most likely to be associated with those stories containing macabre or supernatural elements, with the theme of Rashomon, or simply with Japan's oft-noted history of literary suicides" and he thinks Akutagawa probably suffers: "less from obscurity than from typecasting." With this selection De Wolf hopes to allow for "a richer understanding and appreciation" of Akutagawa's work. (The selection of stories here—why these and not others—is certainly one of the topics we could discuss over the coming weeks. Amazingly, nothing even close to a 'Complete Akutagawa' collection in English exists. Rubin lists ten English-language Akutagawa-antholgies in his translation of Rashomon, but there is considerable overlap among them and it certainly would appear that there is a lot left that is still inaccessible to English-speaking readers.)

II. So who was Ryunosuke Akutagawa? He was born in Tokyo in 1892, graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1916 with a degree in English literature (with a thesis on William Morris), worked briefly as a teacher but then was able to devote himself to writing full-time starting in 1919. Though fairly successful he appears to have been a somewhat tormented soul, from being worried about following in his mother's footsteps (she lost her mind) to concerns about his writing, family, and much else. He committed suicide in 1927. For some online information about him, see: Last words by David Peace at The Guardian; Akutagawa at The Japanese Literature Home Page; Akutagawa at books and writers

III. So what are the book group plans? A story collection naturally lends itself to going through the book story by story, and certainly there are a few I'd like to focus on in particular, but I'm open to other approaches as well—from considering specific themes to Western influences, the whole insanity thing, or translation issues. Comments are particularly welcome, and I'm easily swayable as to what direction to go in. And I certainly hope those with more expertise or greater familiarity with Akutagawa will add their two cents. For those unsure of whether or not they want to play/read along, here also are links to some reviews available online (and, though coverage has been fairly limited, the reactions are certainly also something worth discussing once we've made our way through the book.): Asahi Shimbun; Bookforum; The Japan Times. We'll start at the beginning, and see how it goes. Obviously, how active the discussion gets depends on how many of you get involved—the more the merrier, of course—but I do hope to keep us moving along by posting regularly. Twice a week sounds like something to shoot for. So: first up, by mid-week: What's up with the title + a look at that title-story. (For those reading along: it's just five pages!)

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       II. What's with the title?—and a look at Mandarins

When I hear (read) Mandarins, especially in an East Asian context, I think: Chinese wise men. Something along those lines, anyway. But the mandarins that give this collection—and the opening story—its title refer to the citrus fruit. Confusing matters further, the Japanese title of the story—Mikan—refers to a fruit that, while mandarin-like, is quite different. Others have apparently translated the title of the story as The Tangerines—not quite accurate either, but at least less ambiguous.

Is it just me, or does this title—and the impression it gives—cause some confusion?

At least it's cleared up—to the extent it can be—fairly quickly: the 1919 story Mandarins is the first one in the collection, and the endnotes explain the title and the fruit in question—translator De Wolf explaining about the mikan that:

So representative is it of Japanese daily life, at least when in season, that English-speaking residents of Japan have come to refer to Tokyo as the Big Mikan.

De Wolf also notes that this story was published shortly after Akutagawa gave up his teaching position, i.e. embarked on a full-time writing career; from the chronology in Jay Rubin's Rashomon-collection we also learn that that was the year Akutagawa's father died (it's unclear whether he died before the story was published, but the chronology suggests it).

The story is one of transitions, taking place in its short entirety on "a Tokyo-bound train departing from Yokosuka." For the narrator it seems like a trip of little consequence: he sounds like little more than a bored commuter, though he doesn't even give a reason for his own journey. He's not the least bit excited about heading anywhere—or, indeed, about anything: "an unspeakable fatigue and ennui lay heavily upon my mind." Trying to read the newspaper, he finds himself: "weighed down all the more by the myriad commonplace matters of the world"—despite those 'commonplace matters' being ones that are of great significance, from "peace treaty issues" (it's 1919 and they're still sorting out World War I over in Europe) to the more personal: weddings, death notices. So here's a guy who is obviously tired of and unimpressed by it all, with, in a sense, nowhere to go.
My favorite touch? The line, slipped in:

For a moment after the train entered the tunnel, I had the illusion that we had somehow reversed direction

But, of course, the train on its tracks plows inexorably and unwaveringly ahead.

When he boards, he's the only passenger in that carriage, set to travel in his own little bubble—and he certainly seems like a guy who is isolated from the world. But it's not meant to be: the train is already moving and it looks like he's meant to take this journey alone when someone else does come "bursting in"—a young teenage girl.

She doesn't belong. "She was the epitome of a country girl," and all the words he uses to describe her and her clothing—"lusterless," "chapped," "unpleasantly," "grimy," "vulgar," "displeasing"… well, you get the idea: he's not thrilled to find himself thrown together with this person. But she's impossible to ignore, especially once she starts trying desperately to open the window.

It gets worse: they plunge into another tunnel, and then she finally gets the window open—leading to a "stream of soot-laden air" pouring in. He can barely breathe, he can barely see. But he also notices, for example, how the girl "was staring relentlessly ahead." Self-absorbed as he is, he doesn't really seem to have thought much about what this girl was doing here in the first place (beyond being annoyed because he thinks she belongs in a third class carriage, not a second class one), but … well, the soot-filled air begins to clear and there's a sense that the picture will become a clearer one as they emerge from the tunnel. And what do you know ? The outside view: "now was growing ever brighter" too.

The resolution probably has to come as suddenly as it does, and on first reading I didn't even notice how quickly the pendulum swings—the girl barely "extends her ulcerated hands" and already the sight of the mandarins (mikans), "the color of the warm sun", she flings out the window to the waiting children fills his "heart with sudden joy." But the moment is realistic: all it takes is an instant of illumination, where all the pieces fit into place—as is the case for the narrator here, who realizes that this girl is leaving her home and family for the first time (and likely essentially forever), and that this is one last gesture of connection. It is remarkably affecting, despite how little sympathy he has offered for the girl up to that point (offered also to the reader, who could envision her only as this grimy country girl); by focusing everything on that one gesture, of tossing the mandarins, he simply gets to the essence and the point, instantly re-defining the girl (by now realizing what her circumstances are, whereas previously he only saw her as an irritant). (One imagines the story is even more powerful for Japanese readers, for whom those flying mikans are much more meaningful.)

The empathy the narrator feels is also enough to, "for the moment, get him over his "unspeakable fatigue" and ennui (in a great last line)—and perhaps it's even more heartening that he can still be roused from his state to feel empathy, to have that joy rise up in his heart.

For him it seemed like a journey to nowhere, while for the girl it is the trip of a lifetime, representing the most radical change she will undergo, leaving a past behind and beginning a new life. But, of course, it also turns into a trip, a movement forward, for him—despite moments such as when he thought the train might have reversed directions. And for all its obvious symbolism (trips and trains and tunnels and mikans) it's pretty subtly done.

One can imagine that at the time Akutagawa wrote this he was in a similar frame of mind—in a sense in both these frames of mind, leaving a presumably secure teaching job for a surely somewhat less secure job as a writer, having lost his father, yet also a man prone to the world-weariness he ascribes to his narrator.

There are a lot of typical Akutagawa elements in Mandarins, including a sense of not knowing exactly where he's going to go with the story for quite a while (though it's so short he doesn't move as circuitously as he does in some of the longer tales). He also goes pretty far in presenting the two characters as not particularly appealing—and yet in the end they are both entirely sympathetic, which isn't that easy to do. It strikes me as a good introduction to his work, from the tone and some of the preoccupations, to the approach he takes in telling his stories.

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       III. An Evening Conversation

I think it's worth lingering over An Evening Conversation, and not just because it is one of the previously-unavailable-in-English stories in the collection. Translator De Wolf says in his notes that: "it follows in a long Japanese literary tradition of rambling conversations among males concerning life, love, and art," and with that title one presumably shouldn't expect anything different.

It is a curious approach to story-telling Akutagawa takes here, in An Evening Conversation: not quite story-in-a-story (i.e. someone simply recounting a tale, the telling of the tale little more than a framing device), but also not quite just table-talk. It begins with Fujii definitely stepping in (or up), drawing attention to himself and making clear he wants to recount something, the story beginning with him making some fairly sensational claims and statements: "One can't be too careful these days. Even Wada's taken up with a geisha" he says, and then continues (after a paragraph setting the conversation scene—six middle-aged men, friends since their student-days, drinking hard on a rainy June night):

"Having made that shocking discovery," he continued to declaim, apparently warming to the subject, "I was struck by how times have changed.

Wada remains in the background as Fujii talks, Fujii "glancing occasionally at Wada," but Wada not letting himself be drawn into the conversation (or commenting on the banter at his expense). When he does finally jump in—"Nothing but a pack of lies!" he blurts out—the dynamics change completely. Unlike when Fujii was telling his side (or rather: part) of the story, Wada is more forceful and takes over the conversation. He eventually unleashes a lengthy monologue, and no one interrupts him. When he is done he throws down the gauntlet in a final flourish: "What say you all to that?"

Fujii's 'story' was like a feint. It seemed like it would turn into an account of someone taking up with a geisha, but it really doesn't amount to much. Yet it all foreshadows what comes in Wada's monologue, including someone like them taking a geisha as his mistress, and the idea of daring to impulsively follow one's heart (jumping off the merry-go-round …).

The man with the relationship with the geisha Koen is Wakatsuki, an old school friend of Wada's. Wakatsuki is described as both a businessman and a "haiku poet who goes by the nom de plume of Seigai"—and someone who cuts "a dashingly sophisticated figure." For years now he's apparently also been enjoying the company of—and at the same time educating (in the sense also of civilizing)—the geisha Koen, trying to improve her (as well as helping out her family)—but she's now taken up with another man, some "unmanageable ruffian." So much for Wakatsuki's efforts at making her more sophisticated …..

Wada explains why he's sympathetic to Koen:

Now Wakatsuki, like the men of the world he personifies, may, as individuals, be charming and lovable. They understand Basho; they understand Tolstoy. They understand Ike no Taiga and Mushanokoji Saneatsu. They understand Karl Marx. Yet what is the result? Of fierce love, the joy of fierce creativity, of fierce moral passion they are ignorant. All in all they know nothing of the sheer intensity of spirit that can render this world sublime.

It seems to me that Wada sounds particularly bitter because he is just a lesser version of this type of 'man of the world.' Indeed, the complaint is particularly interesting because Akutagawa's characters—and the whole assembled group in this story—tend to be so cerebral and philosophical, modern, educated and (to varying degrees) cultured men who hardly ever act out of passion. They're constantly mulling things over, rather than really doing anything—hardly ever daring to jump off the merry-go-round, as Fujii suggests they should.

(In his notes De Wolf sums up the story as one: ''about what Dr.Wada calls tsujin ('sophisticates, men of the world')," and calls Wakatsuki "the consummate tsujin," but aren't the six men drinking together similar? Aren't they, at the very least, tsujin-wannabes?)

To me Wada's account (and interpretation) is certainly as much an admission of his/their own failings as a criticism of Wakatsuki, and his closing cri de coeur—"As I contemplate life's value, I shall willingly spit on a hundred Wakatsukis, even as I honor and revere a single Koen"—sounds to me like one of almost self-loathing, since he knows he is nothing but a lesser Wakatsuki himself, and that a Koen remains always out of reach for him, even as he reveres her. (One reason for Fujii's remarks opening the story is surely to show yet another figure (from this circle) for whom Koen is unattainable (as she is for all of them): he thinks she smiles at him, when in fact she's smiling at Wada as they are going around on the merry-go-round). Or am I reading too much into this ?

Akutagawa's roundabout style and the limited action here—the merry-go-round anecdote is about as much action as he offers—and the emphasis on talk and speculation are quite a burden for any story. "Philosophy is philosophy; life is life …" Fujii observes, but Akutagawa manages the mix here pretty well. The first part of An Evening Conversation involves many of those assembled at the table. Fujii is leading the way, but there are constant interjections and the conversation shifts about; it's lively, even if not that much happens. Then, when Wada gets going, it's all him (talking about Wakatsuki and Koen) and much more thought-ful(l).

Still, I'm not sure it's entirely successful: there are six men assembled here, and three are little more than extras, plus the narrator, who really only plays a part in shaping the story (and making his presence felt) by recounting it. It's Fujii and Wada who are front and center, but the narrator, Kimura, Iinuma, and Noguchi … well, they get in a line or two, but really don't contribute much. I think Akutagawa wants to emphasize how the whole group is one of (middle-aged) men who are pretty much all talk and little action, but for most of those here that comes across only due to the fact that … well, they're sitting here. (Though I understand why Akutagawa wanted more people at the table than just Fujii and Wada.)

But where Akutagawa again shows his story-telling skill is in how he ends the story. Wada goes on for quite a while, and it gets pretty heavy here with this analysis and interpretation, and then he throws out that almost accusing "What say you all to that?" when he's done. The way Akutagawa undercuts all the drama with the final small reaction-scene he describes is beautiful (and a very nice humorous touch in a story that has gotten fairly serious).

Finally, I'm not sure how I feel about the point that human (or women's?)nature is unchangeable, at least as presented in the example of Koen. Wada seems to think its great that she remains true to herself and, while she goes along with Wakatsuki's attempts at bettering her, doesn't succumb completely to them—he's more impressed by honest passion than Wakatsuki's 'civilized' ideals, or at least he claims to be. But is this a good message, to have Koen exposed to all of civilizations highest glories and then for her to run off with some real low-life (the best that can be said about him is that he is: "vulgar but passionate")? Is Wada serious, or is he just in a 'the-grass-is-always-greener' kind of moaning mood, willing to admire the path he hasn't taken while also knowing he would never have the guts (nor, probably, really the inclination) to follow suit?

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       IV. Literary Influences and East Meets West

The Handkerchief begins:

Hasegawa Kinzo, professor in the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial university, was sitting in a rattan chair on the veranda, reading Strindberg's Dramaturgy

I have to admit that I'm a sucker for reading-in-fiction, i.e. when authors place books in their characters' hands, or have them refer to their reading, or to specific books in general. I think it's a great way of placing a character, revealing something about him or her through the books of interest to them. (Haruki Murakami is someone who does this a lot too, though in his case it is often also music that plays that role.) In this opening to The Handkerchief it's the book-reference that really gets me interested and curious—and that almost immediately gives a third dimension to this character.

You'll have noticed that Akutagawa is a book-referrer: it's something he does in many of his stories. We just saw it in An Evening Conversation, where Wakatsuki (and his type) was described (and denounced) by Wada very much in terms of his reading and knowledge: "They understand Basho; they understand Tolstoy. They understand Ike no Taiga and Mushanokoji Saneatsu. They understand Karl Marx." Coming from both a different time and culture I think it's worth considering these references more closely; in An Evening Conversation the authors Wada cites are presumably those one would expect a cultivated man of the times to be conversant with. It dates the story, but it also gives a good sense of the intellectual climate in the Japan of that time.

Cogwheels (a story we'll be looking at at greater length towards the end of the month, if I have my way) perhaps goes to the greatest lengths in making the fiction-connection, the narrator constantly turning to books and finding his reality mirrored therein: picking up Madame Bovary he finds that: "in the final analysis I was myself but another Monsieur Bovary," or when he wants to distract himself from his fears by reading Dostoevsky and then instead only finds them reinforced. And when he peruses Strindberg's Legends finds:

The experiences described there did not vary significantly from my own

Even more straightforwardly, in The Life of a Fool (another story we're going to look at at greater length) the protagonist reads Strindberg's Confessions of a Fool(!) and finds:

The lies Strindberg was telling in writing letters to the countess, his lover, were hardly different from those he himself was writing.

I have to admit that I particularly like seeing the Strindberg-references. We're all familiar with Strindberg-as-dramatist, but he also wrote a lot of fiction, including some pretty wild and intense stuff (Inferno, The Red Room, etc.), and it's this that Akutagawa seems particularly drawn to. Strindberg's prose is a peculiar type of fin-de-siècle writing that's long fallen out of favor— somehow the intensity seems to grab readers differently than in his staged texts. The fiction also tends to be very emotional and confessional (and, often, ruthlessly (hence also unpleasantly) honest)—much like what Akutagawa does in some of these stories, though never at anywhere near the same fevered pitch: from the annoyed narrator we encountered in Mandarins to Cogwheels, there are a lot of Strindbergian echoes here. (If Strindberg had written it, however, the narrator would probably have blown up at the girl in Mandarins once his irritation reached a certain level …..)

Akutagawa cites quite a variety of foreign authors and works in these stories, most of which are 'classics.' Strindberg's Dramaturgy, as read by law professor Hasegawa Kinzo in The Handkerchief, is among the obscurer works. (In fact, it's unclear exactly what book this is; presumably a collection of writings about the theatre, as, as far as I can tell, Strindberg didn't write any 'Dramaturgy'-book.) Even at the time when the story was written the choice of this book, and the prominent first mention, must have made it stand out. And it's not just a prop: Akutagawa quotes two different passages from it (one defining 'Manier' (p.37), the other 'mätzchen' (p.44)), and this Dramaturgy is part of the story from the first paragraph to almost the last. (I imagine it was the 'Manier' and 'mätzchen'-ideas that set Akutagawa off, but it's telling that he anchors the story so firmly in the Strindberg.)

(Hasegawa Kinzo is another of these very hard to pin down Akutagawa characters: a law professor reading Strindberg—but, we also learn he: "was by nature indifferent to the arts, especially drama.")

Many of the stories have an East-meets-West element, but this one more than most intertwines Japanese and Western culture (not least by having the professor's wife be an American). Another major element in the story is the Gifu lantern hanging on the veranda—which the professor considers: "representative of Japanese civilization." And he often imagines himself: "becoming a bridge between East and West." There are constant reminders in the story, too, as for example the mother who comes to visit him has a "quintessentially Japanese face," while her son had studied German law and had written about Ibsen and Strindberg …..

Most impressively, near the end, we find:

There were nonetheless implications in what he had just read that impinged on his après-bain serenity. Bushido and its Manier

So he packs in French and German (via, don't forget, the Swedish), as well as Japanese (and we get the added punch of all that in English, which makes it even more apparent). Nice.

And Akutagawa again has a nice touch with his ending, as in the final paragraph, right after this, we find the professor shaking his head, as if to say 'No! Enough!'—and to unjumble all this and get back down to basics.

Among the things that I'm wondering is: is Akutagawa's extensive use of (Western) literary references one of the things that makes the stories appealing to us? There's comfort in familiarity, and when he pulls out Tolstoy or Wilde or Ibsen (or mentions The Magic Flute or Van Gogh, for that matter) it's obviously easier for Western readers to relate. I'm still unsure about the exact effects of this on my reading. I'm trying to compare it with how I deal with his Japanese literary references (of which there are also many, and which I generally have to rely on the end-notes to understand), but I think I'm so sucked in by the Western reference that I can fit in the added exotica (i.e. the Japanese stuff)—perhaps not entirely appropriately, but after a fashion.

Or is it the case that many of his references are to a literature that isn't that familiar any longer? Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, sure. But Strindberg's fiction, Radiguet's dying words? Isn't that as foreign as the Japanese authors he refers to?

Any thoughts and impressions? How much is Akutagawa a Western-oriented author? A cosmopolitan author of that age? One of the things that strikes me is how he is able to utilize Western references without abandoning his own culture, while none of the authors he cites were able (I think) to see beyond European (and a dash of American) culture: the Far East remained purely exotic, while Akutagawa seems to have internalized the Western culture of the day. (In this sense he strikes me as very modern: it's really only in recent years that this type of trans-national literature has become commonplace.)

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       V. Akutagawa—the Writer, the Works

As we slowly wind up the discussion, moving towards The Life of a Fool and Cogwheels (which I figure will be the appropriate notes to end on), I'm still struck by how much a proper (?) sense of the author eludes me. Try as I might, Akutagawa remains something of a mystery-man to me. And though I'm generally not big on worrying about the author behind the texts I find myself looking for more of a hold here—in part because even after reading this collection, which comes after I've read quite a few different Akutagawa translations over the years, I still don't feel I know him or his writing that well.

The most obvious manifestation of this is that I'm not very confident I could recognize an Akutagawa-story just from the writing alone. Just when there seem to be some common elements, I come across a completely different story…Unpredictability of this sort is good too, but I find it somewhat frustrating as well. Quite a few of these Akutagawa stories are based on older stories, and they, in particular, have a very different feel from the contemporary ones. (Jay Rubin's chronological presentation of the stories in his Rashomon-collection—"according to the time of their setting rather than the order of their publication"—is looking better to me all the time—though even that hasn't made Akutagawa completely straightforward.) Kesa and Morita, with its soliloquies (with only very limited stage-direction to go with them) appeals to me, but I find it hard to fit in with many of the others; once again I wonder how differently those of us who are essentially unfamiliar with the historical and literary backgrounds (Konjaku monogatari, Genpei-seisuiki, Basho, etc.) are limited in how we can appreciate the text. The endnotes help a bit, but I imagine that true familiarity (not necessarily having read all of these, but 'knowing' them the way Western readers 'know'even the Shakespeare and Bible, Mozart, Rembrandt they haven't read/heard/seen) makes a big difference. How are you finding this? Less bothered by this than I am? (How helpful do you find the endnotes, by the way? Especially since they're tucked in the back—i.e don't have to interfere with the reading-experience if you don't want them to—I feel like I could have used a lot more. I think I can manage the stories without them, but I like the idea of getting at all the additional references if I want to.)

The outlines of Akutagawa's life seem fairly interesting (see my introductory post), but it's fairly difficult to find much beyond the summary-chronology in, for example, the Jay Rubin Penguin-collection. I'm a bit surprised that there doesn't seem to be a proper English-language biography available at this time—surely there's a lot of material in this life; at least there is apparently a forthcoming biography, listed in the Rubin-bibliography, by Carole Cavanaugh—doubly-appropriately titled Akutagawa Ryunosuke: An Abbreviated Life.

Among the information available online I found some of the Japan Times-reviews by Donald Richie of some interest regarding these issues. In the review of the Penguin-collection he writes:

In what is still the finest assessment of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's life and work, Howard Hibbett complained that for most, the author's name meant merely a collection of exotic, misanthropic stories, and that this ironist and superb stylist had had an ironic fate abroad. "He has been the most amply translated of modern Japanese writers, yet his work has been sadly diminished by both the hazards of translation and by the loss of a rich extraliterary context."

Richie writes that: "This is now amply remedied in Jay Rubin's most welcome edition," and I did find the supplemental material in that volume helpful, but I still feel like I'm missing some (most?) of the extraliterary context—and it frustrates me. I'm also wondering how much the different editions and translations add to the feel of not knowing exactly how to get a grip on him: I've read earlier translations of many of the stories in both Mandarins and the Penguin volume, and these constant slight differences I encounter really give an odd feel to the work as a whole. Has anyone else had that experience? In discussing The Life of a Fool and Cogwheels—both conveniently in both Mandarins and the Penguin volume—I'd like to look at some of the translation issues more closely too, but there is a question of how the previous translations have had an effect on how we see Akutagawa. In another review, about yet another Akutagawa-collection, Richie writes:

Another problem with the foreign translations, besides their sheer number, is that Akutagawa was translated early. As a result, these first translations range from the unscholarly to the appalling. One of their unwelcome qualities is that they insist upon the exotic—this being one of the few ways to sell Japanese literature in the early days. An unfortunate result is that Akutagawa is made to seem quaint and curious, a mere purveyor of the exotic.

Because they're short and spread variously about I think the different translations have a different effect than, say (because it's being much-discussed nowadays), the new War and Peace translations. The Constance Garnett point of reference is a useful one: she translated what seems like all the Russian classics, and her versions were generally the first available in English, making for a uniform presentation. That obviously had many weaknesses, but also made the Russians very approachable. Akutagawa, on the other hand, seems to have gotten tossed on the English-language market piece by piece over the decades, all sorts of different translators having all sorts of different cracks at bits of his work—and even now, when we've to some extent superseded those early versions (and both De Wolf's and Rubin's translations certainly seem solid enough), I wonder to what extent they still hang over Akutagawa and his reputation. Or is this just a case of me knowing both a bit too much and much too little and thus failing to concentrate on the only thing that matters, the stories in front of me ? (In my (weak) defense: I can't help myself.)

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       VI. The Life of a Fool

The Life of a Fool was published posthumously and looks very much like autobiography, the final "Defeat" (so the title of the last section, #51) in real life just a larger (and hence fatal) dose of that Veronal that he claimed was the only thing that gave him "moments of relative lucidity." The note at the beginning of the piece, entrusting the manuscript to Masao Kume (and bidding farewell…) is dated June 20th, 1927—a full month before his July 24th death—making the story seem like just another part of the preparation for the (drawn-out) end. And he seems to have been working his way up to it for a while, as even the aborted "double platonic suicide" he describes in "Playing with Fire" (#47) is apparently based on actual events (and, one guesses, the test-hanging (#44) too). So it's hard not to see The Life of a Fool as summing-up, testament, and suicide note rolled up into one—an overview of his life, but very much from a particular perspective.

The 'story' consists of fifty-one short pieces, each with a title, many focused on a very specific impression or event. I like this approach, and think it works very well here—though perhaps this is because Akutagawa pretty relentlessly beats the same drum here, but does it with so many fine variations. It's all a bit grim, actually, but I found something very compelling about the pieces and the impression they give.

I think it's the concision, and jumping from one impression to the next, that lets him get away with being so explicit throughout. In fact, there's little beating around the bush ("Smiling wryly through his tears, he thought about his life. Before him lay only madness or suicide.") But what might be an annoying heaping-it-on works pretty well here. Consider just the opening piece, capturing 'The Era' and already showing us exactly where to place this character: he's on the second floor of a bookstore, he's climbed a "Western-style ladder" to get to even higher heights. The books there—all Western, too—are "less a collection of books than the embodiment of la fin de siècle." He recites their names as it grows darker and darker—"but quite on their own they were sinking in the melancholic gloom." He starts to go down the ladder and Akutagawa actually has a lightbulb go on over his head. Below are the people—customers and clerks—the real world, but they look shabby and small. Then, in quotes, the pompous pronouncement: "A single line of Baudelaire is worth more than all of life." Between all the symbolism and those words…well, it's pretty ridiculous, isn't it? If you take it apart, piece by piece. But it works here, conveying that distant-from-life, wanting-to-lose-oneself-in-pure-literature (and what's purer than just a single line of Baudelaire?) youthful innocence and delusion. And it's also already a good summing-up: Akutagawa's desire to rise above it and exist in some realm of pure literature.

For all that, Akutagawa led what seems like a fairly conventional life; he certainly didn't isolate himself. Still, that seems to have weighed heavily on him: his newspaper-contract afforded him considerable security and stability, but the brief piece on that (#21) is titled Shackles, and in Pierrot Puppet (#35) he writes that:

He intended to live with such intensity that he would have no regrets at his death. He nonetheless continued to spend his days in diffident deference to his foster parents and his aunt, thereby creating for himself a life divided between light and darkness.

His literary creations are not necessarily an outlet but seem often a constant attempt to capture this feeling—as he recognizes in the second half of the same piece:

One day he saw standing in an Occidental clothing shop a Pierrot puppet and wondered how much like one he was himself. But his unconscious, that is, his second self, had long since included this intuition in a short story.

In Languor (#36) he envies students' lust for life, admitting: "Somewhere along the way he had lost interest in life," and that: "All I have is my desire to produce." But I don't know that I can find where he really showed much interest in life. Yes, he describes being passionate about some things earlier on, but even then what passion he has—like for a single line of Baudelaire—is practically overwhelming, a small all-encompassing bit he wants to grab hold of. Most obviously he describes that in Sparks (#8): where he's captivated by the sparks coming off the trolley wires. He's still younger here, but already had his fill:

He had taken a survey of his life and found nothing in particular that he wanted or desired. But now those violet sparks…To seize those stupendous sparks exploding in space, he would happily have forfeited his life.

After a while one gets the feeling that this is not just hyperbole. In fact, doesn't there seem a sort of inevitability to his suicide? All these explanations are almost just variations on a theme, different ways of explaining (to himself? To posterity?) why everything leads up to that one final step.

A lot of what Akutagawa describes here are variations on that very fin de siècle-feeling of ennui. I've mentioned before Akutagawa's use of Western references, and The Life of a Fool seems to rely on them particularly heavily. They're not all typically fin de siècle—Goethe, Voltaire, Tolstoy get name-dropped too—but what seems like the vast majority of the points of reference (including also Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Mozart) are Western. (Toson's Shinsei (ref. #46)—explained only in the 'Additional Terminology'-section at the end of the book—is one of the few Japanese references.)

In Prisoners (#50) he visits a mentally ill friend who tells him:

"We are both haunted by demons," his friend remarked, lowering his voice, "the so-called fin de siècle demons."

He seems to accept this diagnosis, later coming to the conclusion: "There could be no doubt: he was being tormented by the fin de siècle demons." Certainly he seems to want to see it in those terms: he "just read the last words of Raymond Radiguet," he finds Strindberg's lies in his Confessions of a Fool "hardly different from those he himself was writing" (#25), etc., etc. Is this almost complete embrace of something so foreign in part because of its foreignness—i.e. done with the knowledge that he'll never completely be part of it? Or was that fin de siècle-feeling really so much in the air that he could convincingly play along? Or, finally, was part of his problem that he had missed the boat—after all, he's writing in 1927, and it was already a very different world by then, in both Japan and elsewhere? (After all, his melancholy seems very much founded in this sort of longing for the unobtainable…)

Finally: am I too limited in my focus here? Should we be paying a lot more attention to the lunacy here, for example? There are, after all, quite a few instances of mental illness here (recall that Akutagawa's mother was mentally ill, and that he apparently worried greatly about following in her footsteps), and he ascribes his physical ills (#41) to: "his shame of himself and his fear of them—the society he despised"—i.e. it sure sounds like a lot of this is in his head…

On a slightly different note, this story is also a good one for translation-comparisons. It's also one of the stories in Jay Rubin's Penguin-collection, and Rubin opts for The Life of a Stupid Man for the title, which gives quite a different feel to the story. De Wolf, explains his choice, and I certainly think the idea that Akutagawa: "is also putting himself in the grand tradition of socially alienated, morally flawed but nonetheless prophetic 'fools'" is convincing. Without having any proper sense of what the Japanese word "aho" really corresponds to, I certainly prefer the fools-idea; 'stupid' seems to go too far.

To get an idea of the different translation-approaches, consider for example the De Wolf and Rubin versions of #16 (in its entirety):


He read a book by Anatole France, his head propped up by a pillow of skepticism exuding a rosy fragrance; the presence in that same pillow of a centaur quite escaped his notice.


Pillowing his head on his rose-scented skepticism, he read a book by Anatole France. That even such a pillow might hold a god half-horse, he remained unaware.

I like the De Wolf version considerably better—"pillowing" and "god half-horse" are just jarring, the second sentence-order feels off —but I'm glad to have the Rubin version too. Using it almost as a gloss I think I have a much better idea of what the Japanese original must be like. (I could be completely mistaken, but perception is, to a large extent, what counts, and these variants seem to me to give a better idea of the original—like looking at two pictures of a building taken from different angles gives you a better idea of what the building looks like).

I have to admit to relying on the Rubin as much as the De Wolf collection in all these discussions—for one, it has more biographical information, and the notes are, by and large, considerably more useful—but it's where the stories appear in both collections that it's proven most useful to have a second version. But now, long after it's much too late, I'm not so sure this was the right approach to take. For one, it's easy to get hung up in the differences in the texts over the actual texts themselves (ascribing too much meaning to specific word choices, for example—'fool' vs. 'stupid man', etc.—rather than just considering the story).

Did anyone else have that experience, or did you just stick to the De Wolf?

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       VII. Cogwheels

So what strikes me about Cogwheels is how much it is a story of resignation. Another posthumously published story (though the first part was published shortly before Akutagawa's death), it's also the story both De Wolf and Rubin close their collections with, presenting it as the final act. (In the Penguin edition Rubin titles the story Spinning Gears.) It is another summing-up story, though focused more on the present than The Life of a Fool, and I think there really is also a very different feel to it. Passion still figures prominently in The Life of a Fool, even if it is often near-ridiculous— that "A single line of Baudelaire is worth more than all of life"-sentiment—but Cogwheels is world weary in a different way.

Passive, resigned: the narrator doesn't have much drive left in Cogwheels. It's a wonder he can undertake any journey, as he does at the beginning of the story. In the hotel, then, he'll: "set off aimlessly," and that seems to be all he's doing. Here is a character who actually sees himself as Monsieur Bovary, of all people! What's interesting is that while in The Life of a Fool even suicide seemed something he was actively playing at—he has a go at hanging himself, he wants to enter into a suicide pact—here he doesn't even seem to have the energy for that. In The Life of a Fool he was pro-active, in Cogwheels he ends the story with the plaintive plea:

Oh, if only someone would gently and kindly strangle me in my sleep.

The first section of Cogwheels, 'Raincoat', seems at first just another story of a trip, with various delays, observations, and asides. The narrator finds fault ("'Café' … a dubious appellation") and seems a bit worn down, but his attention jumps from one thing to the next, and he engages in a few conversations. He's on his way—and then gets—to a wedding reception, and there's little out of the ordinary. There's that ghost-story at the beginning, and there are those cogwheels spinning in his eyes, half-blocking his vision for a few moments, but where it really hit me that maybe something is really, really off is when he turns to the meat on his plate. There's a maggot there, which is disturbing enough, but what's really disturbing is his reaction—an almost surreal calm:

I saw a small maggot gently struggling, making me think of the English word worm. Like qilin and fenghuang, it could only refer to a mythical animal. I put down my utensils and gazed at the glass into which champagne was being poured.

That sort of sets the stage for everything: he might have seemed indifferent before, but this reaction really suggests his utter resignation. (But what then of his panicked reaction to waking up and finding only one of his slippers? This seems a ridiculous over-reaction, even if it is something that triggers a particular nightmare in his head ("For two years I had been plagued constantly by such fears" …)).

Much isn't what it seems—or at least what he expected: he walks down an embankment and expects to see a "two-storied wooden structure" (and instead finds only a bathtub sitting on a foundation). He picks up Crime and Punishment (randomly choosing a page, of course—aimless even here) and finds himself reading The Brothers Karamazov. There's a disconnect from the world here: he's literally losing grip on reality, at least in part.

Is that what the cogwheels are for, too? Preventing him from seeing clearly?

Is that also why the supernatural elements are so prominent in the story? Some things are ambiguous: he hears taunting laughter, but finds: "There was no one in the corridor." He manages to get some sleep but is woken by words he thinks he hears whispered in his ear (the nicely sinister: "Le diable est mort"). But there's also the raincoat/ghost story at the beginning—and, especially, his wife's sudden feeling that he was going to die (right at the end of the story). Finding his wife, hearing her remarks about the feeling she had: "This was the most terrifying experience of my life …" he says. I'm not too sure what to make of this. Does he see it as an omen of his death and is that what scared him? (But right after that he longs to be strangled in his sleep…)

Is the key his admission that: "My affirmation of materialism forced me to deny any sort of mysticism?" Is this the consequence—mysticism coming back to haunt him, with a vengeance? From what happens to him, between the supernatural elements and the cogwheels, it certainly doesn't sound like he can find any happy harmony with mysticism either any longer.

Any thoughts? Anything I am missing, or should consider from a different angle?

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Mandarins: Akutagawa Ryunosuke: Other books by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke under review at the complete review:

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