Oriental Odds and Ends

The more J-Lit you read, the more addictive it becomes, and anyone with a serious passion for Japanese literature, particularly that of the early twentieth century, is bound to want to expand their horizons at some point and explore what else is out there.  For this reason, collections are a great help to the budding Japanophile, and last year I read my first, the excellent Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories.  Today’s post looks at my second foray into the area of collected Japanese fiction – was it just as successful?  You’ll just have to read on to find out…

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Modern Japanese Literature, an anthology edited by Donald Keene, is a collection of Japanese writing covering the period from 1868 (the start of the Meiji Era, traditionally considered the beginning of ‘modern’ Japan) to the middle of the twentieth century.  Unlike the Oxford collection, Keene’s book is not restricted to short stories – it also contains traditional and Western poetry, a couple of plays and extracts from classic novels.  Running to 438 pages, there’s enough here to give any beginner a fair overview of the must-read writers of the period covered.

It would be impossible to cover all the works in detail, but I thought I would briefly touch on some of the ones I liked most from the various genres (concentrating on things I hadn’t read before).  In terms of extracts from novels, Shimei Futabatei’s The Drifting Cloud, an incomplete work from the late-nineteenth century, is one that appealed, with its story of a bumbling civil servant trying to find love in Meiji Japan.  I’m also tempted to splash out on Jun’ichiro Tanazaki’s novella Captain Shigemoto’s Mother and Yukio Mishima’s semi-autobiographical work Confessions of a Mask on the strength of the extracts given here.

There were several short stories I liked, and I wish there had been many more of them.  Among the best were Ichiyo Higuchi’s Growing Up and Kafu Nagai’s The River Sumida, both of which are lengthy, historical, coming-of-age stories set in and around the red-light districts of Tokyo.  Another favourite was Riichi Yokomitsu’s story Time, a beautifully-written tale of a troupe of actors on a dangerous night journey through the mountains (running away from an unpaid hotel bill…).  Finally, I also enjoyed Osamu Dazai’s story Villon’s Wife, another of his tales of mistreated women and badly-behaved men in post-war Tokyo, similar in style to his novel The Setting Sun.

Of course, there was a lot to be savoured beyond my usual prose diet, but poetry is not really my preference, so to be honest none of it really stuck in the memory.  However, of the two plays included, I did like Kikuchi Kan’s The Madman on the Roof, a short work on the subject of… well, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory really 😉  Kan’s play makes the reader look at the behaviour of both the sane and the insane and decide who the mad ones really are…

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Despite its good points though, I wasn’t entirely happy with the anthology.  One issue I had, the abundance of novel extracts, was my own fault as I really should know what the word ‘anthology’ means…  However, there were some other problems as well.  For one thing, the label ‘modern’ is a complete misnomer as the collection was released in 1956.  Anyone looking for Murakami, Yoshimoto, Ogawa or Abe will be sadly disappointed, and Mishima and Dazai are included as examples of the young generation!

In addition, the feel of the book is very old fashioned.  Both in the introduction and the short explanations which appear before each work, Keene’s comments appear patronising by today’s standards.  It smacks a little of exoticism, presenting the work of noble savages who are imitating Western art, some of them even doing so successfully.  While there is little that is outright insulting, the underlying tone is one of detatched superiority – and it grates a little…
A final issue I had with the collection though was a feeling that the translations weren’t always up to scratch.  This is a contentious issue, and many people are loath to believe that you can judge translations, but I actually had a few texts to compare.  In my private library (!), I have other versions of three of the works included here: Ryunosuke Akutugawa’s classic story Hell Screen; Natsume Soseki’s Botchan, a staple of the Japanese school curriculum; and Ogai Mori’s The Wild Geese, one of the most famous of the early Japanese novels.
The translation of Mori’s work was not as good as the one I have, but the difference wasn’t enormous.  However, in the other two cases, the contrast was like night and day.  While I wasn’t completely convinced by the more recent J. Cohn translation of Botchan when I read it, I’m now much more of a fan as the older Burton Watson version was stiff and stuffy, and detracted from the humour.  Similarly, compared to Jay Rubin’s excellent, irony-laden treatment of Hell Screen, W.H.H. Norman’s version is a little dull, losing the flavour of Rubin’s interpretation.  I’m never going to know which of the versions is more faithful to the original, but in terms of excellence in English, I’m with the modern ones all the way…
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Modern Japanese Literature is far from perfect, and compared to The Oxford Book of Short Stories it doesn’t come off too well.  However, it’s still worth a try; there is a lot of good writing in there, much of which I wasn’t aware of before opening the book.  Still, if you have the choice, I’d go with the Oxford book as a first collection of classic J-Lit.  It’s a lot more consistent and, more importantly, more consistently rewarding.
Of course, what I’d really like is another collection of Japanese writing – the abridged version of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (even if reading it would cause me multiple injuries!).  So, if anyone was thinking of sending me an early birthday present… 😉
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7 thoughts on “Oriental Odds and Ends

  1. You are so right – the title and content is a little bit misleading, a little bit out of date, and there are glaring ommissions. However, for so many students of Japanese, it is still their first introduction to the literature of the country, and gets them reading more widely and more deeply. So credit for that. Also, the Columbia anthology has got its problems too… (although it is a bit more modern).

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  2. Marina – Really? What's wrong with the Columbia anthology? I thought that was pretty much the definitve collection…

    Gary – There is some poetry, but not an awful lot, so you'd probably be better off going with a poetry anthology. I think this is one for the J-Lit completist 🙂

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  3. That Columbia Anthology is very expensive. If that was the only problem but it seems not.
    Unfortunatyle a few of the points you mention about the anthology you read (excepts of novesl, the translations, patronizing tone and what not) are not tempting. .

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  4. I like confession of a mask, I thought it was good. Anything from Yukio Mishima is good for me. The only Japanese short stories I read are Murakami's.

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  5. Jo – I find the short story collections are a good way to discover new writers. The two collections I've read have certainly helped me expand my J-Lit horizons 🙂

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