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Leopard

Leopard

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5 Modern Japanese Novelists , by Donald Keene

Five Modern Japanese Novelists - Donald Keene

In 5 Modern Japanese Novelists (2003)  Donald Keene (b. 1922) discusses some of the many Japanese authors with whom he had friendly relations: Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, Abe Kobo, and Shiba Ryotaro. Though there is distinct overlap in this book with the more formal and extensive discussion of the life and work of the first three in his invaluable Dawn to the West

 

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/536716571?book_show_action=false

 

there he did not treat the work of Abe and Shiba at all. Moreover, in this book Keene's tone and treatment are rather informal, and the book is strewn with distinctly personal anecdotes. As he writes, "I hope that this book will be read by persons who might be daunted by the bulk of my [ Dawn to the West ]." My advice: read this book to whet your appetite, and then start reading his 4 volume history of Japanese literature at your own pace and in any order you like. There won't be a quiz afterwards.

 

In any case, Keene smoothly embroiders personal anecdotes involving the authors onto a rich cloth of insights into their lives, personalities and texts. Translations of extended passages by the five writers are added to the weave, as well. The result is charming and informative.

 

Here is one of many interesting stories Keene tells in this book, this one about Mishima. On the night of June, 1970, that the American security treaty with the Japanese came up for renewal - a renewal that the Japanese Left was vociferously opposed to - Keene and Mishima drove around Tokyo looking for demonstrations, because Mishima had formed his little band of samurai to "defend the Emperor" against their violence. But Tokyo was quiet, filled with bored and fully accoutered riot police. Keene thinks that Mishima, realizing that he was not going to die a hero's death at the Imperial Palace's gate, resolved then that he would have to die the only other honorable death available to a samurai - seppuku. That August, Mishima gave Keene the manuscript of the final chapter of the final volume of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy to hold until a certain day, November 25, when Keene was to turn it over to Mishima's publisher. November 25 was the day Mishima had chosen to die by one of the most excruciating forms of suicide known to mankind.

 

Keene translates the last literary work Mishima composed before his suicide, a tanka.

 

Storm winds at night blow

The message that to fall before

The world and before men

By whom falling is dreaded

Is the mark of a flower.

 

Shortly after writing this, Mishima wrote three letters to old friends, one of whom was Keene. Keene describes the contents, from which I'll mention just one point. Though Mishima said he wanted to die as a samurai and not as a writer, in this final letter Mishima asked Keene to do everything he could to assure that the English translation of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy be published in the USA after his death, for he had been informed that American publishers lost interest in foreign authors after their decease...

 

Keene also has an insider's story on why Kawabata, instead of Mishima, won the Nobel Prize in 1968. Hint: it doesn't involve experts on World Literature objectively arriving at a carefully considered opinion. In addition, he suggests that that particular Nobel award was a contributing factor in both men's suicide - Mishima's "because he failed to receive the recognition he desired above anything else in the world,"(*) and Kawabata's because the prize was "a burden he found too heavy to bear." In fact, after the award Kawabata was not able to finish any of the pieces he started. He was THE Japanese Nobel Prize winner; indeed, he was the only Asian awardee since Tagore decades earlier, who was the first. Heavy indeed...

 

There are many interesting stories about all five writers in this book. How can one resist?

 

(*) Keene and Mishima were very close - Keene probably knows what he is talking about here.