Sunday, June 22, 2014

Osamu Dazai's "Self Portraits"

Translated by Ralph F. McCarthy, Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan's great decadent romantic comprises 18 short stories by Osamu Dazai. The long introduction by the translator provides a useful biographical context for the stories. Dazai wrote a form of biographical fiction, which amounted to a light fictionalization of his actual life. The life was certainly decadent. Born into a wealthy and politically influential family, Dazai left his class by marrying a young geisha. He forsook his university education in order to be a writer. He had romantic liaisons with many women. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He tried committing double suicides with his lovers, and finally killed himself at the age of 39.

The Tales are, however, not romantic with a capital R; they do not seek transcendence of the mundane. Instead, they are wistful, even comical in places, full of consciousness, and self-consciousness, of life's suffering. They are non-resistant to life. "Cherries," the final story of the collection, is particularly self-lacerating. The shorter stories, such as "Female," "Seascape with Figures in Gold," "A Promise Fulfilled," are shapely and striking. The longer stories are ambitious and complex. His famous "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, " though not quite providing the number of views promised in the title, gave a variety of fresh expression of the beauty and meaning of this touristy icon. Not least among these views is a view of art, an ars poetica:

To take what is simple and natural--and therefore succinct and lucid--to snatch hold of that and transfer it directly to paper, was, it seemed to me, everything, and that thought sometimes allowed me to see the figure of Fuji in a different light. Perhaps, I would think, that shape was in fact a manifestation of the beauty of what I like to think of as "elemental expression." Thus I'd find myself on the verge of coming to an understanding with this Fuji, only to reflect that, no, there was something about it, something in its exceedingly cylindrical simplicity that was too much for me, that if this Fuji was worthy of praise, then sow ere figurines of the Laughing Buddha--and I find figurines of the Laughing Buddha insufferable, certainly not what anyone could call expressive. And the figure of this Fuji, too, was somehow mistaken, somehow wrong, I would think, and once again I'd be back where I started, confused. 

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