Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao
Written in 1939 but only now translated into English for the first time, Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl—a slim, precocious novella narrated by a schoolgirl of indeterminate age—was stylish and provocative in its time. Almost three-quarters of a century later, its prescience seems eerie; hardly anything about this book seems to have aged, least of all the narrator herself, who is perfectly preserved somewhere along the road to adolescence. Though she’s still young enough to entertain herself with nonsensical songs and inventive daydreams as she walks home from school (“I thought today I will try to pretend that I am from somewhere else, someone who has never been to this country town before”), she’s old enough to know her childhood is fast coming to a close. “It made me miserable that I was rapidly becoming an adult and that I was unable to do anything about it,” she reflects.
Schoolgirl takes place entirely in the course of one day, and from the very moment the narrator first opens her bleary eyes in the morning, it’s apparent the day will be an emotional roller-coaster: “Mornings seem forced to me. So much sadness rises up, I can’t bear it,” she laments. Her morning deliberations are particularly dreamy and metaphysically indulgent:
At the moment, I had the odd sensation that I had been staring like this for a very long time, and would be staring from now on, just like this, sitting here in the doorway to the kitchen, in the same pose, thinking the same thing, looking at the trees out front. It felt as if the past, the present, and the future had collapsed into one single instant. Such things happen to me from time to time.
She is a whimsical narrator, given to flights of fancy and sudden mood swings; her inner world is largely ruled by her imagination and impulses. But there is an edge to her idle thoughts. As the day proceeds, the narrator increasingly turns her attention to more pressing questions about the world around her and her place in it.
Here, it becomes clear that Dazai is interested in hazarding a critique of the restrictive social rules and expectations of his time. Despite the specificity of his critique in these passages, the book’s modern relevance is also particularly visible. Much of his narrator’s most keen speculation takes place on modes of public transportation; in its frank chronicling of the petty indignities of mass transit Schoolgirl feels particularly ahead of its time. The narrator gapes at strangers on the bus (“There was a disgusting woman on the bus”). She judges them (“Ugh, so vile”). She watches her own compassion for the world shrivel up in the face of jostling crowds. “Maybe I should not take public transportation,” she wonders. The act of commuting puts her face-to-face with the end of her childhood (for one, the other passengers competing with her for a seat treat her as nothing less than a grown-up) and as she studies her fellow passengers, she finds little of inspiration.
What’s hard to discern in this critique is Dazai’s attitude towards women. His narrator prefers not to think about her gender (“[my] body had no connection to my mind,” she complains, “it developed on its own accord”), and instead, busies herself with abstract thoughts about the nature of life. Though there is an androgynous quality to many of her daydreams and observations, the narrator, as the title suggests, is decidedly female, and (as she turns the corner into adolescence) just beginning to confront many of the particular difficulties her gender poses. There are simple girlish pleasures in her life—she secretly embroiders flowers onto her underclothes and sneaks off to get her hair done with a friend—but her innocence has already largely eroded. On the train, she keeps her eyes and her thoughts to herself (“if I so much as grinned at them, I could very well be dragged off by one of these men, falling into the chasm of compulsory marriage”). When a group of gruff laborers mutter obscenities at her, she crumples inside. “I felt like I was about to cry,” she says. “I wish I would hurry up and grow stronger and purer so that such a trifling matter would no longer afflict me.”
This idea of “impurity” is one she mentions several times; it’s a recurring source of anxiety. “Being female, I am all too familiar with the impurity found in women, it sets my teeth on edge with repulsion,” she observes, at one point. Is Dazai being wry by having his young narrator internalize that there is something inherently foul about being a female—a kind of “unbearable raw stench that clings to you”? It’s hard to say. The other adult females of the book—the narrator’s mother, teacher, and sister—are reserved, unreachable and unknowable, lost to the solemnities of their duties in life. The narrator’s conclusions about the nature of womanhood are the result of speculation, not intimacy. If there is an alternate model for the schoolgirl to aspire to, Dazai never reveals it to his protagonist—or, for that matter, to the reader.
Schoolgirl has been compared to Catcher in the Rye, and the parallels are obvious. For Schoolgirl’s young observer of the world, almost everything is depressing (she might say “lousy”), from her crippled dog (“I cant stand how poor and pathetic he is, and because of that I am cruel to him”) to her mother’s friends. The narrator’s father has recently died, and though she only considers the loss briefly, it clearly weighs on her:
I go about saying how pained and tormented, how lonely and sad I feel, but what do I really mean by that? If I were to speak the truth, I would die.
Schoolgirl was first published more than a decade before Catcher in the Rye, but many of its preoccupations—the dislocation of adolescence, the stifling weight of cultural expectations, the unreliability of adults, the difficulty of authentic expressions of individuality—are remarkably similar. Where Schoolgirl contrasts sharply from Catcher, however, is in how its narrator responds to the tumult of adolescence: Where Holden outwardly rebels, Schoolgirl’s narrator sticks closely to the script expected of her from her mother, teachers, and friends, even though it is entirely at odds with the dictates of her inner monologue. Her angst lives silently inside her.
This gulf explains, in part, the indecorous—almost alarming—amount of self-loathing in her narration. In a day where she serves food to her mother’s guests, gives her mother a massage, and does her laundry, she can’t stop thinking about her “impurity and shamefulness.” “I’m such a horrible girl,” she adds at one point. The hyperbole of her teenage angst is at least in part a stand-in for a larger struggle between the individual and society: “The truth is that I secretly love what seems to be my own individuality . . . but fully embodying it is another matter,” the schoolgirl confesses. Dazai’s narrator has the intelligence to make startlingly perceptive observations about the world around her, but her own feelings about her relationship with the world are unreliable; they vacillate wildly, and she lacks the ability to fully articulate every up and down. This disconnect is part of what makes Schoolgirl so fascinating. It’s also what casts an ominous shadow on the narrative: Like his narrator, Dazai was a deeply sensitive and conflicted youth, but he did more than daydream about death. Dazai attempted to kill himself several times, and in light of the multiple suicide attempts that fill Dazai’s biography (eventually, Dazai did successfully take his own life), it’s hard not read his young narrator’s overwhelming self-hatred as a confession of something darker in the author’s own psyche.
It’s this strange mix of social critique, capricious daydreams, and haunting biographical references that make Schoolgirl such a potent work, and Allison Markin Powell’s translation keenly reflects the inner contradictions and disruptiveness of this swift story. Some readers have complained about the “combination of slang and heavy, abstracted” language Powell’s translation uses (“clunky” griped one blogger), but what could be more fitting to capture the awkward movements of an intellectually ambitious but emotionally immature teenage mind?
“Hey, you’re getting to be so mundane,” an acquaintance of the narrator remarks at one point; apparently Schoolgirl’s anxiety-saddled narrator is a less-than-charming social companion. To a modern reader well-versed in works depicting teenage despair, her inner life may seem “mundane” too. As ahead of his time as Dazai was, seventy years later Schoolgirl’s anxieties and lurching emotions sound very familiar. But while there is little to shock the modern reader, there is plenty to marvel at. Schoolgirl’s protagonist isn’t acting out an expected rebellion; she’s silently grappling with thoughts and feelings she has no real outlet for. “You won’t see me again,” the narrator taunts in the book’s final line. It’s the one observation she makes that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
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