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An Evening Conversation

By The Editors

Plowing ahead, we have the next post in this month's book club discussion on Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Mandarins. In this post, Michael Orthofer discusses the discursive narrative of Akutagawa's An Evening Conversation.—Editors

I think it's worth lingering over An Evening Conversation, and not just because it is one of the previously-unavailable-in-English stories in the collection. Translator De Wolf says in his notes that: "it follows in a long Japanese literary tradition of rambling conversations among males concerning life, love, and art," and with that title one presumably shouldn't expect anything different.

It is a curious approach to story-telling Akutagawa takes here, in An Evening Conversation: not quite story-in-a-story (i.e. someone simply recounting a tale, the telling of the tale little more than a framing device), but also not quite just table-talk. It begins with Fujii definitely stepping in (or up), drawing attention to himself and making clear he wants to recount something, the story beginning with him making some fairly sensational claims and statements: "One can't be too careful these days. Even Wada's taken up with a geisha" he says, and then continues (after a paragraph setting the conversation scene—six middle-aged men, friends since their student-days, drinking hard on a rainy June night):

"Having made that shocking discovery," he continued to declaim, apparently warming to the subject, "I was struck by how times have changed.

Wada remains in the background as Fujii talks, Fujii "glancing occasionally at Wada," but Wada not letting himself be drawn into the conversation (or commenting on the banter at his expense). When he does finally jump in—"Nothing but a pack of lies!" he blurts out—the dynamics change completely. Unlike when Fujii was telling his side (or rather: part) of the story, Wada is more forceful and takes over the conversation. He eventually unleashes a lengthy monologue, and no one interrupts him. When he is done he throws down the gauntlet in a final flourish: "What say you all to that?"

Fujii's 'story' was like a feint. It seemed like it would turn into an account of someone taking up with a geisha, but it really doesn't amount to much. Yet it all foreshadows what comes in Wada's monologue, including someone like them taking a geisha as his mistress, and the idea of daring to impulsively follow one's heart (jumping off the merry-go-round …).

The man with the relationship with the geisha Koen is Wakatsuki, an old school friend of Wada's. Wakatsuki is described as both a businessman and a "haiku poet who goes by the nom de plume of Seigai"—and someone who cuts "a dashingly sophisticated figure." For years now he's apparently also been enjoying the company of—and at the same time educating (in the sense also of civilizing)—the geisha Koen, trying to improve her (as well as helping out her family)—but she's now taken up with another man, some "unmanageable ruffian." So much for Wakatsuki's efforts at making her more sophisticated …..

Wada explains why he's sympathetic to Koen:

Now Wakatsuki, like the men of the world he personifies, may, as individuals, be charming and lovable. They understand Basho; they understand Tolstoy. They understand Ike no Taiga and Mushanokoji Saneatsu. They understand Karl Marx. Yet what is the result? Of fierce love, the joy of fierce creativity, of fierce moral passion they are ignorant. All in all they know nothing of the sheer intensity of spirit that can render this world sublime.

It seems to me that Wada sounds particularly bitter because he is just a lesser version of this type of 'man of the world.' Indeed, the complaint is particularly interesting because Akutagawa's characters—and the whole assembled group in this story—tend to be so cerebral and philosophical, modern, educated and (to varying degrees) cultured men who hardly ever act out of passion. They're constantly mulling things over, rather than really doing anything—hardly ever daring to jump off the merry-go-round, as Fujii suggests they should.

(In his notes De Wolf sums up the story as one: ''about what Dr.Wada calls tsujin ('sophisticates, men of the world')," and calls Wakatsuki "the consummate tsujin," but aren't the six men drinking together similar? Aren't they, at the very least, tsujin-wannabes?)

To me Wada's account (and interpretation) is certainly as much an admission of his/their own failings as a criticism of Wakatsuki, and his closing cri de coeur—"As I contemplate life's value, I shall willingly spit on a hundred Wakatsukis, even as I honor and revere a single Koen"—sounds to me like one of almost self-loathing, since he knows he is nothing but a lesser Wakatsuki himself, and that a Koen remains always out of reach for him, even as he reveres her. (One reason for Fujii's remarks opening the story is surely to show yet another figure (from this circle) for whom Koen is unattainable (as she is for all of them): he thinks she smiles at him, when in fact she's smiling at Wada as they are going around on the merry-go-round). Or am I reading too much into this ?

Akutagawa's roundabout style and the limited action here—the merry-go-round anecdote is about as much action as he offers—and the emphasis on talk and speculation are quite a burden for any story. "Philosophy is philosophy; life is life …" Fujii observes, but Akutagawa manages the mix here pretty well. The first part of An Evening Conversation involves many of those assembled at the table. Fujii is leading the way, but there are constant interjections and the conversation shifts about; it's lively, even if not that much happens. Then, when Wada gets going, it's all him (talking about Wakatsuki and Koen) and much more thought-ful(l).

Still, I'm not sure it's entirely successful: there are six men assembled here, and three are little more than extras, plus the narrator, who really only plays a part in shaping the story (and making his presence felt) by recounting it. It's Fujii and Wada who are front and center, but the narrator, Kimura, Iinuma, and Noguchi … well, they get in a line or two, but really don't contribute much. I think Akutagawa wants to emphasize how the whole group is one of (middle-aged) men who are pretty much all talk and little action, but for most of those here that comes across only due to the fact that … well, they're sitting here. (Though I understand why Akutagawa wanted more people at the table than just Fujii and Wada.)

But where Akutagawa again shows his story-telling skill is in how he ends the story. Wada goes on for quite a while, and it gets pretty heavy here with this analysis and interpretation, and then he throws out that almost accusing "What say you all to that?" when he's done. The way Akutagawa undercuts all the drama with the final small reaction-scene he describes is beautiful (and a very nice humorous touch in a story that has gotten fairly serious).

Finally, I'm not sure how I feel about the point that human (or women's?)nature is unchangeable, at least as presented in the example of Koen. Wada seems to think its great that she remains true to herself and, while she goes along with Wakatsuki's attempts at bettering her, doesn't succumb completely to them—he's more impressed by honest passion than Wakatsuki's 'civilized' ideals, or at least he claims to be. But is this a good message, to have Koen exposed to all of civilizations highest glories and then for her to run off with some real low-life (the best that can be said about him is that he is: "vulgar but passionate")? Is Wada serious, or is he just in a 'the-grass-is-always-greener' kind of moaning mood, willing to admire the path he hasn't taken while also knowing he would never have the guts (nor, probably, really the inclination) to follow suit?

Published Nov 13, 2007   Copyright 2007 The Editors

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