Thursday, June 19, 2014

June 19, 2014

June 19, 2014

Some years ago, working at Book Soup, I was shelving books in the bottom row, which is ground level, when all of sudden a book from above fell on to my head - it was “No Longer Human” by Osamu Dazai.  I thought this was a sign from above, and therefore bought and read the book.  The narrative of a young misfit in a very structured society, had a profound affect on me, and it put serious ideas that I should be a writer as well as a publisher.  Some point out that there are no such things as accidents, but even though it looked like the hand of fate played a role in all of this, I feel I was just lucky to be hit in the head with this book.

At the time of this “accident”, I was a big fan of Yukio Mishima.  I liked everything about this guy - his fascism, his dandyism, his writing, and the fact that he appeared to be a creature who re-invented himself to be Mishima.   The one writer that he hated was Osamu Dazai.  Due to the fact that he was popular and respected in the Japanese literary world of course, but also that in his eyes, Dazai was a weak character.  Keep in mind, Mishima had to re-invent himself from a weakling (in his eyes) to a super figure.  Dazai was the total opposite of Mishima.  For one, he was very much a failure with respect to his wealthy family.  He became a Communist, a failed student,  a drug addict, drunk and worst, he tried to commit suicide numerous times, and once organized a double- suicide with a 19-year old bar hostess named Shimeko Tanabe, in which he survived the suicide attempt, but she died.

Mishima, right after he wrote “Confessions of a Mask” (an incredible book by the way) was invited to a large ‘literary’ party that was in honor of Dazai.   He never met him, and on top of that, there was nobody there except individuals who were highly influential in literature at this exclusive party.  Mishima went up to Dazai, among the crowd that surrounded him, and told him to his face - my name is Mishima, and I don’t care for your work.” Everyone around Dazai was shocked to hear such a pronouncement from a fledgling writer to an older literary figure - Dazai just looked at him, and laughed.  He told everyone right at that moment “He is only saying that, because he loves me.” This statement struck Mishima hard, in fact he told this story to friends, right before he committed his famous suicide.

Of course, this made Dazai more enduring to me, and eventually I read everything possible by him that were translated into English.  My favorite two books by him are “Self Portraits, ” which is a collection of his short stories and “Return to Tsugaru.” The latter basically started out as an assignment for him to go back to his home town and to document the environmental facts of that area.  But with him, you get a memoir of sorts as read as a travel guide.   The thing is, like the “Self Portraits” book, it reads like little memoir pieces, is actually fiction.  The fact that he could use his sad, pathetic life, and turn it into a charming piece of writing, had a major effect on my own aesthetic.  Dazai opened me up to a much larger world.

On one of my many trips to Japan, I went out of the way to go to his studio near Mount Fuji, and it was a very expensive trip for me.  Taking a taxi from a small town to his location cost around $100, but it was worth it for me to see one of his manuscripts under glass as well as viewing Mount Fuji from his studio.   He wrote this remarkable short story called “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji” which is about how the great mountain oversees so much of the culture of Japan, and how it can even affect a writer.  The last paragraph of the story is about how Dazai, or the main character, was stopped by a pair of tourists who wanted him to snap a picture of them with Mount Fuji in the background.  Dazai agreed to do it, but unknown to them, he brought the camera lens up and shot the mountain instead of the tourists.  To me, this was such a fascinating comment on an iconic piece of property as well as a mountain’s importance to people.

As time went on, his life got messier and messier. It was obvious he was heading to a point of no return.   He met a young war widow who had lost her husband after 10 days of married life.  Her name was Tomie Yamazaki.  He ran off his wife and children to be with her, and eventually they had a child out-of-wedlock.  It was with her, that he finally committed suicide - and their bodies were found a week later in a canal near their home.  There is a theory that he was actually murdered and forced to drown by Tomie, and then she killed herself by drowning, but that is just a rumor.  I have been haunted by a photograph of both of their bodies by the river.

Every time I put pen to paper or push a letter off the computer keyboard I think of Osamu Dazai.   From time-to-time I have been asked by a magazine editor for my photograph for the use in a publication, and I usually just send a photo of Dazai, because I honestly feel he represent me more than I.
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