Well, I hadn’t planned to necessarily read another Japanese book for this month’s Japanese Literature Challenge… However, a flurry of mentions on Twitter centring around the recent New Directions ‘Storybook ND’ releases reminded me that I had “Early Light” by Osamu Dazai in that edition lurking digitally – and so it seemed like a good time to try a little e-reading! I’m not a fan of the medium (my eyes suffer a lot…) but as the hardbacks of this series are so expensive, I had no choice but to try the e-book. Fortunately, it’s a short work so I managed…

“Early Light” contains three short works by Dazai, an author I’ve written about before on the Ramblings; back in 2016, I read his classic work “The Setting Sun” for our 1947 Club, and I’ve actually owned several of his works for decades. Dazai was a complex man, often controversial, who took his own life; and his writing style for “The Setting Sun” was fascinating, if detached. That latter element was commented on by Marina Sofia, who mentioned she thought it was typical of much Japanese writing, and some years further down the line I tend to agree with her.

The works featured here (translated by Ralph McCarthy and Donald Keene) are varied; the title story is an autobiographical one, which relates the misadventures of the narrator during the fire bombings of Tokyo at the end of WW2. The man is a drinker, and he and his wife and child are burned out of house and home. Having survived the conflagration and lost everything, they flee to relatives, only to be subject to bombing again. Underlying this is the health of the couple’s little girl, suffering from severe conjunctivitis which is hard for them to treat owing to the conflict.

The second story is “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji”, which takes its title from Hokusai’s famous series of paintings of the mountain. However, the narrator here is less than respectful towards this Japanes landmark; staying locally and trying to write, everywhere he turns he sees a view of Fuji, most of which have been reduced to cliches. Harrassed by the sightseers who’ve come to see the view and have their pictures taken with it, it becomes debatable as to whether he’ll ever get any writing done.

Whenever Nitta came to visit me from then on, he brought various other youths with him. They were all quiet types. They called me “Sensei,” and I accepted that with a straight face. I have nothing worth boasting about. No learning to speak of. No talent. My body’s a mess, my heart impoverished. Only the fact that I’ve known suffering, enough suffering to feel qualified to let these youths call me “Sensei” without protesting—that’s all I have, the only straw of pride I can cling to. But it’s one I’ll never let go of. A lot of people have written me off as a spoiled, selfish child, but how many really know how I’ve suffered inside?

The final piece, “Villon’s Wife”, is in complete constrast to the first two; narrated by the put-upon wife of yet another drunken writer (are you sensing a pattern here??) it tells how her husband’s habits have left them totally impoverished. However, it is the woman here who manages to step outside the boundaries of her everyday life of degradation and find a way to save them from total destitution.

Dazai was a fascinating author, with these three stories of his being very entertaining and often thought-provoking. There’s a semi-humourous aspect to “One Hundred…” as the narrator ruefully surveys not only the landscape around him but also his inability to writer. “Early Light” is intriguing, as he takes what could be a difficult topic (particularly bearing in mind other narratives about wartime bombings…) and handles it with a lighter touch than you might expect. The events he and his family are dealing with are dramatic, dangerous ones, yet his almost matter-of-fact writing keeps the story from becoming too harrowing.

As for “Villon’s Wife”, well, I’ve seen it described as a masterpiece, and it really is. What’s particularly interesting, I suppose, is seeing the drunken author from the viewpoint of his long-suffering wife, and kudos to the author for capturing that; possibly this is an unusual thing in Japanese fiction of the time, although I’m not well-versed enough in the topic to say. But it’s very satisfying to watch Mrs. Otani gradually developing her own identity, gaining confidence and dealing with what life throws at her to finally manage to pull their lives around. Fascinating.

This will, I think, be my last read for Japanese Literature Month, and it was a top-drawer work to end the month on! I have unread Dazai on Mount TBR and I really should try to get to some of it sooner rather than later, as this was a marvellous read; I’m glad ND decided to issue it. And thanks need to go also to Dolce Bellezza for hosting this wonderful reading event – one of my favourite of the year, and I have enjoyed it this January! 😀