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Akutagawa—the Writer, the Works

By The Editors

As we near the end of our discussion of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's The Mandarins this month, Michael Orthofer dwells a little on our ideas of the author and his work.

Earlier posts can be found here: a look at the titular story, Mandarins; the approach to storytelling in Evening Conversation; a conversation on the literary influences in The Handkerchief—Editors.

As we slowly wind up the discussion, moving towards The Life of a Fool and Cogwheels (which I figure will be the appropriate notes to end on), I'm still struck by how much a proper (?) sense of the author eludes me. Try as I might, Akutagawa remains something of a mystery-man to me. And though I'm generally not big on worrying about the author behind the texts I find myself looking for more of a hold here—in part because even after reading this collection, which comes after I've read quite a few different Akutagawa translations over the years, I still don't feel I know him or his writing that well.

The most obvious manifestation of this is that I'm not very confident I could recognize an Akutagawa-story just from the writing alone. Just when there seem to be some common elements, I come across a completely different story…Unpredictability of this sort is good too, but I find it somewhat frustrating as well. Quite a few of these Akutagawa stories are based on older stories, and they, in particular, have a very different feel from the contemporary ones. (Jay Rubin's chronological presentation of the stories in his Rashomon-collection—"according to the time of their setting rather than the order of their publication"—is looking better to me all the time—though even that hasn't made Akutagawa completely straightforward.) Kesa and Morita, with its soliloquies (with only very limited stage-direction to go with them) appeals to me, but I find it hard to fit in with many of the others; once again I wonder how differently those of us who are essentially unfamiliar with the historical and literary backgrounds (Konjaku monogatari, Genpei-seisuiki, Basho, etc.) are limited in how we can appreciate the text. The endnotes help a bit, but I imagine that true familiarity (not necessarily having read all of these, but 'knowing' them the way Western readers 'know'even the Shakespeare and Bible, Mozart, Rembrandt they haven't read/heard/seen) makes a big difference. How are you finding this? Less bothered by this than I am? (How helpful do you find the endnotes, by the way? Especially since they're tucked in the back—i.e don't have to interfere with the reading-experience if you don't want them to—I feel like I could have used a lot more. I think I can manage the stories without them, but I like the idea of getting at all the additional references if I want to.)

The outlines of Akutagawa's life seem fairly interesting (see my introductory post), but it's fairly difficult to find much beyond the summary-chronology in, for example, the Jay Rubin Penguin-collection. I'm a bit surprised that there doesn't seem to be a proper English-language biography available at this time—surely there's a lot of material in this life; at least there is apparently a forthcoming biography, listed in the Rubin-bibliography, by Carole Cavanaugh—doubly-appropriately titled Akutagawa Ryunosuke: An Abbreviated Life.

Among the information available online I found some of the Japan Times-reviews by Donald Richie of some interest regarding these issues. In the review of the Penguin-collection he writes:

In what is still the finest assessment of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's life and work, Howard Hibbett complained that for most, the author's name meant merely a collection of exotic, misanthropic stories, and that this ironist and superb stylist had had an ironic fate abroad. "He has been the most amply translated of modern Japanese writers, yet his work has been sadly diminished by both the hazards of translation and by the loss of a rich extraliterary context."

Richie writes that: "This is now amply remedied in Jay Rubin's most welcome edition," and I did find the supplemental material in that volume helpful, but I still feel like I'm missing some (most?) of the extraliterary context—and it frustrates me. I'm also wondering how much the different editions and translations add to the feel of not knowing exactly how to get a grip on him: I've read earlier translations of many of the stories in both Mandarins and the Penguin volume, and these constant slight differences I encounter really give an odd feel to the work as a whole. Has anyone else had that experience? In discussing The Life of a Fool and Cogwheels—both conveniently in both Mandarins and the Penguin volume—I'd like to look at some of the translation issues more closely too, but there is a question of how the previous translations have had an effect on how we see Akutagawa. In another review, about yet another Akutagawa-collection, Richie writes:

Another problem with the foreign translations, besides their sheer number, is that Akutagawa was translated early. As a result, these first translations range from the unscholarly to the appalling. One of their unwelcome qualities is that they insist upon the exotic—this being one of the few ways to sell Japanese literature in the early days. An unfortunate result is that Akutagawa is made to seem quaint and curious, a mere purveyor of the exotic.

Because they're short and spread variously about I think the different translations have a different effect than, say (because it's being much-discussed nowadays), the new War and Peace translations. The Constance Garnett point of reference is a useful one: she translated what seems like all the Russian classics, and her versions were generally the first available in English, making for a uniform presentation. That obviously had many weaknesses, but also made the Russians very approachable. Akutagawa, on the other hand, seems to have gotten tossed on the English-language market piece by piece over the decades, all sorts of different translators having all sorts of different cracks at bits of his work—and even now, when we've to some extent superseded those early versions (and both De Wolf's and Rubin's translations certainly seem solid enough), I wonder to what extent they still hang over Akutagawa and his reputation. Or is this just a case of me knowing both a bit too much and much too little and thus failing to concentrate on the only thing that matters, the stories in front of me ? (In my (weak) defense: I can't help myself.)

Published Nov 26, 2007   Copyright 2007 The Editors

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