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Literary Influences and East Meets West

By The Editors

Michael Orthofer continues with yet another post for this month's book club, on the next of the stories from Ryunosuke Akutagawa's collections Mandarins.

We began the month with an introduction to Akutagawa's works; a look at the titular story, Mandarins; and the approach to storytelling in Evening Conversation. We continue with a discussion of literary influences in The Handkerchief—Editors.

The Handkerchief begins:

Hasegawa Kinzo, professor in the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial university, was sitting in a rattan chair on the veranda, reading Strindberg's Dramaturgy

I have to admit that I'm a sucker for reading-in-fiction, i.e. when authors place books in their characters' hands, or have them refer to their reading, or to specific books in general. I think it's a great way of placing a character, revealing something about him or her through the books of interest to them. (Haruki Murakami is someone who does this a lot too, though in his case it is often also music that plays that role.) In this opening to The Handkerchief it's the book-reference that really gets me interested and curious—and that almost immediately gives a third dimension to this character.

You'll have noticed that Akutagawa is a book-referrer: it's something he does in many of his stories. We just saw it in An Evening Conversation, where Wakatsuki (and his type) was described (and denounced) by Wada very much in terms of his reading and knowledge: "They understand Basho; they understand Tolstoy. They understand Ike no Taiga and Mushanokoji Saneatsu. They understand Karl Marx." Coming from both a different time and culture I think it's worth considering these references more closely; in An Evening Conversation the authors Wada cites are presumably those one would expect a cultivated man of the times to be conversant with. It dates the story, but it also gives a good sense of the intellectual climate in the Japan of that time.

Cogwheels (a story we'll be looking at at greater length towards the end of the month, if I have my way) perhaps goes to the greatest lengths in making the fiction-connection, the narrator constantly turning to books and finding his reality mirrored therein: picking up Madame Bovary he finds that: "in the final analysis I was myself but another Monsieur Bovary," or when he wants to distract himself from his fears by reading Dostoevsky and then instead only finds them reinforced. And when he peruses Strindberg's Legends finds:

The experiences described there did not vary significantly from my own

Even more straightforwardly, in The Life of a Fool (another story we're going to look at at greater length) the protagonist reads Strindberg's Confessions of a Fool(!) and finds:

The lies Strindberg was telling in writing letters to the countess, his lover, were hardly different from those he himself was writing.

I have to admit that I particularly like seeing the Strindberg-references. We're all familiar with Strindberg-as-dramatist, but he also wrote a lot of fiction, including some pretty wild and intense stuff (Inferno, The Red Room, etc.), and it's this that Akutagawa seems particularly drawn to. Strindberg's prose is a peculiar type of fin-de-siècle writing that's long fallen out of favor— somehow the intensity seems to grab readers differently than in his staged texts. The fiction also tends to be very emotional and confessional (and, often, ruthlessly (hence also unpleasantly) honest)—much like what Akutagawa does in some of these stories, though never at anywhere near the same fevered pitch: from the annoyed narrator we encountered in Mandarins to Cogwheels, there are a lot of Strindbergian echoes here. (If Strindberg had written it, however, the narrator would probably have blown up at the girl in Mandarins once his irritation reached a certain level …..)

Akutagawa cites quite a variety of foreign authors and works in these stories, most of which are 'classics.' Strindberg's Dramaturgy, as read by law professor Hasegawa Kinzo in The Handkerchief, is among the obscurer works. (In fact, it's unclear exactly what book this is; presumably a collection of writings about the theatre, as, as far as I can tell, Strindberg didn't write any 'Dramaturgy'-book.) Even at the time when the story was written the choice of this book, and the prominent first mention, must have made it stand out. And it's not just a prop: Akutagawa quotes two different passages from it (one defining 'Manier' (p.37), the other 'mätzchen' (p.44)), and this Dramaturgy is part of the story from the first paragraph to almost the last. (I imagine it was the 'Manier' and 'mätzchen'-ideas that set Akutagawa off, but it's telling that he anchors the story so firmly in the Strindberg.)

(Hasegawa Kinzo is another of these very hard to pin down Akutagawa characters: a law professor reading Strindberg—but, we also learn he: "was by nature indifferent to the arts, especially drama.")

Many of the stories have an East-meets-West element, but this one more than most intertwines Japanese and Western culture (not least by having the professor's wife be an American). Another major element in the story is the Gifu lantern hanging on the veranda—which the professor considers: "representative of Japanese civilization." And he often imagines himself: "becoming a bridge between East and West." There are constant reminders in the story, too, as for example the mother who comes to visit him has a "quintessentially Japanese face," while her son had studied German law and had written about Ibsen and Strindberg …..

Most impressively, near the end, we find:

There were nonetheless implications in what he had just read that impinged on his après-bain serenity. Bushido and its Manier

So he packs in French and German (via, don't forget, the Swedish), as well as Japanese (and we get the added punch of all that in English, which makes it even more apparent). Nice.

And Akutagawa again has a nice touch with his ending, as in the final paragraph, right after this, we find the professor shaking his head, as if to say 'No! Enough!'—and to unjumble all this and get back down to basics.

Among the things that I'm wondering is: is Akutagawa's extensive use of (Western) literary references one of the things that makes the stories appealing to us? There's comfort in familiarity, and when he pulls out Tolstoy or Wilde or Ibsen (or mentions The Magic Flute or Van Gogh, for that matter) it's obviously easier for Western readers to relate. I'm still unsure about the exact effects of this on my reading. I'm trying to compare it with how I deal with his Japanese literary references (of which there are also many, and which I generally have to rely on the end-notes to understand), but I think I'm so sucked in by the Western reference that I can fit in the added exotica (i.e. the Japanese stuff)—perhaps not entirely appropriately, but after a fashion.

Or is it the case that many of his references are to a literature that isn't that familiar any longer? Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, sure. But Strindberg's fiction, Radiguet's dying words? Isn't that as foreign as the Japanese authors he refers to?

Any thoughts and impressions? How much is Akutagawa a Western-oriented author? A cosmopolitan author of that age? One of the things that strikes me is how he is able to utilize Western references without abandoning his own culture, while none of the authors he cites were able (I think) to see beyond European (and a dash of American) culture: the Far East remained purely exotic, while Akutagawa seems to have internalized the Western culture of the day. (In this sense he strikes me as very modern: it's really only in recent years that this type of trans-national literature has become commonplace.)

Published Nov 17, 2007   Copyright 2007 The Editors

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