on 31 July 2008
This is a review of Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, translated by Jay Rubin and published in 2006. Not Rashomon and Other Stories, the name of two other books by other translators that contain only a handful of tales and were published years ago. Why Amazon groups the three books together despite their different contents, I don't know. No stars for them.
The author, Akutagawa (1892-1927), is even today considered one of Japan's most accomplished short-story writers. As some reviewers say, he's not for everyone. But readers attracted to the dark, pessimistic and atmospheric, or to the introspective and psychological subtleties conveyed with style in his best stories, might find some of his works worthwhile.
He published about 150 stories between 1914 and his death; a scholar of his work has written somewhere that about half of them are still readable. There's a big gap between the best and the rest. Before this collection, at least 60 of the stories had been translated into English since the 1930s. Here, eight more appear in English for the first time. The translator claimed nine, but a translation by Lawrence Rogers of "The Death Register" appeared earlier, in 2002.
Akutagawa's short-story career can be divided roughly into three periods. In the early works, from 1914 to 1922, at his best he drew inspiration from Japanese folktales and history and a range of non-Japanese sources, focusing on the characters' psychology to make them strikingly modern. Of the early works, the best known in English are "The Nose" (1916), "Kesa and Morito" (1918), "H-ll Screen" (1918) and "In a Grove" (1921), besides the vignette "Rashomon" (1915).
In the middle period, from 1922 or so to 1925, he sought more frequently and somewhat less successfully to make the settings of his writing more contemporary, while beginning to draw more deeply from his own life. Many of the works from the late period, from 1926 or so to his death, were heavily autobiographical, with his unease and despondency strongly apparent. Among the best-known works from the late period are "The Life of a Fool," "Spinning Gears" and "Kappa," all from 1927.
This anthology devoted close to two-thirds of its pages to the early period, with the remainder split between middle and late. The translator sought a balance between retranslations of the author's well-known pieces from throughout his career -- most of the stories already mentioned, plus the beautifully compressed moral tale "The Spider's Thread" -- and first-time translations of lesser-known ones from the early and middle periods. The first-time translations, it was claimed, showed a funnier, more shocking and more imaginative side than had appeared previously in English.
Of the first-time translations, most enjoyed were those from the middle period: "Daidoji Shinsuke: The Early Years" (1924), the author's recollections of growing up in Tokyo in which his early psychology came strikingly alive, and "The Baby's Sickness" (1923) and "The Writer's Craft" (1924), in which he depicted with concern or irony the details of his family and working life. It seems that translations of autobiographical stories from this period haven't been published widely before, if at all. So they appear to be one of the main contributions of this anthology.
Stories from the author's early period that were translated for the first time covered subjects such as harassed Christian villagers in the provinces in earlier times and an insane feudal retainer in Edo. Though maybe not on the level of his very best work from this period, they too helped provide a more complete picture of his work. In particular, his story about a Christian who renounced her religion in an attempt to save her daughter, who then died, showed again his great ability to depict the macabre in ways that can't be forgotten.
Of the retranslations, maybe what's most worthwhile is that the versions provided here of the late works "The Life of a Fool" and "Spinning Gears" are better than the previous ones, more nuanced and more polished.
The main short stories I missed in this anthology were "Kesa and Morito," a brilliantly reimagined event from Japanese medieval times told in the first person, from the clashing perspectives of a man and a woman. And "Tangerines" (1919), a memorable vignette of observation and feeling during a train ride taken by the narrator. These were missed because for me this author, except in his moral tales, is often at his best in the early stories when speaking through other characters in the first person. Or in the works before his late period when he's describing events drawn from his own life but is in full control. Otherwise, too often the earlier stories feel a bit detached or in the late pieces his nervous sensibility becomes too jarring.
The anthology seems to have been a labor of love by the translator, who reevaluated the author's complete works and retranslated a number of the best-known stories, instead of just reprinting previous versions. There was an introduction by the writer Haruki Murakami that was very useful for a Japanese perspective on Akutagawa's life, problems and significance. The collection also supplied a detailed chronology of the author's life and many scholarly footnotes. It contained several more stories than the other large anthologies, Glenn Shaw's Tales Grotesque and Curious (1930), Takashi Kojima's Japanese Short Stories (1961) and Exotic Japanese Stories (1964), Seiji Lippit's The Essential Akutagawa (1999), and Charles De Wolf's Mandarins (2007). It's the most careful and detailed of any collection for this author that I've seen.
Still, it lacked works of his that are well worth reading. For that reason, those who enjoyed it might also like the other collections, especially the ones by Lippit and De Wolf. The quality of some of the translations in Lippit varies -- unlike Rubin's book, numerous translators were involved -- and about half the titles are the same. But from the early period Lippit offers strong pieces set in the past that supplement the ones in Rubin, such as "Kesa and Morito," "Tu Tze-Chun" (1920), "Autumn Mountain" (1921) and "The Faint Smiles of the Gods" (1922). His anthology also contains Akutagawa's erudite but grim note of farewell.
The anthology by De Wolf offers a mix of the familiar, including new versions of "Tangerines" and "Kesa and Morito," and tales translated for the first time. Compared to Rubin and Lippitt, De Wolf devotes less space to the macabre early stories set in the past and more to the variety of styles in the author's career. There are a number of tales from the early period set in contemporary times, for example, including "The Garden" (1922). And "Winter" (1927), a late but masterful story that isn't obsessively autobiographical.
Shaw's anthology also contains earlier works well worth reading, such as "Mori Sensei," "Lice" and "The Wine Worm," as well as good versions of "The Handkerchief" and "The Ball."
This reader hopes that translators of future collections for this author will take the opportunity to introduce into English a few more of his still-untranslated works, among them "The Story of St. Christopher" (1919), which has been called a stylistic tour de force, "A Day in the Life of Oishi Kuranosuke" (1917), and "Lechery" (1921). Or maybe even something from his essays, like "Words of a Dwarf." Aside from the interest of his best writing, he stands out as one of the more sensitive writers of his time and place during a period of massive change. And not least, as a personality.