Monday, February 01, 2010

Akutagawa Ryunosuke

I hope this to be growing biography of one of the best writers in the world. I am addicted, I cannot be cured. I do not want to be cured. And for those who can read Japanese, I will put up a link to Aozora Bunko, where His works are stored, easy to browse. Do not read it in English if you don't have to. There is something in his writings (short most of it, I don't count the reports from China) that makes the reader unable to turn back from the path leading to further reading. Even in his weaker works he managed to do better than some other writers in their best.
Yes, I lost my objectivity and sense of literary criticism, but when it comes to Akutagawa Ryunosuke, it is like Rimbaud Arthur - one cannot criticize them in my presence.

 ***In wind reeking of duckweed, a butterfly flashed. Only for an instant, on his dry lips he felt the touch of the butterfly wings. But years afterward, on his lips, the wing's imprinted dust still glittered***

Name in Japanese: 芥川 龍之介
Since there is no possibility to put a diacritical mark for a long vowel, I will write without it, although I'm strongly opposed to writing like this, or I will try to import it from Word.

Born: March 1, 1892
Died: July 24, 1927 (age 35)
Place of Birth: Kyobashi district of Tokyo
Father: Toshizō Niihara
Mother: Fuku Niihara (née Akutagawa)

    He was named Ryūnosuke (Son of Dragon) because he was born in the year, month, day and hour of the Dragon. He was adopted by his maternal uncle Akutagawa Dōshō, because his mother began to show symptoms of mental illness (she was suffering from schizophrenia, and thus it became an obsession of Akutagawa Ryunosuke during his entire life). In 1913 he entered Tokyo Imperial University to study English Literature and he began to write.
In 1914 he, with a group of friends started to write for Shinshichō translations of W.B. Yeats, A. France as well as their own works. In the following year Rashomon was published in Teikoku Bungaku. It was based on twelfth century story (from Konjaku Monogatari to be precise), but Akutagawa imprinted on it his own mark - psychological insight and twist. This showed his genius as a writer. He stated once that he was not interested in describing current affairs, behaviour, and political issues (fate would mock him later when he was sent to China), but instead he is very interested in inner feelings. Especially those dark passions that drive man mad. With one word, one sentence perfectly put he was able to convey the perfect image of momentum. Like the quote I put at the beginning.

In 1916 Hana, his other novel was published in Shinshicho, and was highly praised by Natsume Sōseki. It was thanks to Sōseki that Akutagawa became more known. He saw the great talent of young man. Then Akutagawa continued to write short stories based on stories from Heian period, Edo and early Meiji period, and his interest lied in ugliness of life and redeeming strength of art and beauty. Among them are:
Gesaku zanmai ("A Life Devoted to Gesaku", 1917),
Kareno-shō ("Gleanings from a Withered Field", 1918),  
Jigoku hen ("Hell Screen", 1918),
Hōkyōnin no shi ("The Death of a Christian", 1918),
During all this time, Japanese writers were more into naturalism, and Akutagawa was strongly opposed to it. He took his stories from legends and ancient compilations, and gave them a modern twist, especially psychological. he was interested, as I said earlier, in dark side of human psyche.
   In 1921 he was sent to China as a reporter from Osaka Shinbun. This marked starting point of decline of his health. He spent there 4 months and suffered from various illnesses ( he hadn't strong immune system in the first place, as a kid he was rather frail and not well built), from which he'd never fully recovered.
In 1922 his the most famous novel was published: Yabu no naka ("In the Grove").
   Later years are marked by his deteriorating mental and physical health. His writings are based on his diaries, and madness, or rather fear of madness is a leitmotif.
Despite that, this time is known for his passionate debate with Tanizaki Jun'ichirō on "what's more important in the story". Akutagawa was strong supporter of lyricism, while Tanizaki was on the side of structure.
[short digression: I'm not a big fan of Tanizaki, I can't understand all the praise he gets, I don't like his style, and I don't like his novels. He was considered as emotional writer, and by this, literary criticism means: hedonism. Yes, he was writer of sensuality and earthly pleasures. I have nothing against. i simply don't like his style].
In 1927 he published Kappa based on folklore belief in creatures called kappa. Actually these creatures were his obsession from childhood.
Haguruma ("Spinning Gears", 1927), Aru ahō no isshō ("A Fool's Life"), and the Bungeiteki na, amari ni bungeiteki na ("Literary, Much Too Literary", 1927) are his last works, based mostly on his own mental condition, and portray an alienated and immersed in psychosis characters. He started to suffer from hallucinations, and was afraid that this is the same state his mother had been suffering.
On July 24 the same year he was given the Veronal by his personal doctor Saito Mokichi. Before that, he attemted to commit suicide, but he failed. His dying words (almost a legendary ones) are: ぼんやりとした不安, which can be translated as "vague uneasiness".
   In 1935 a prestigious prize of his name was established by Ken Kikuchi, his lifelong friend. Akutagawa Prize (芥川賞)is given to a promising writer.

In the next post, I will try to give few links to his works.