I prefer Dazai’s stories to his novels. They are less bleak, a lot more playful, and wittier (I prefer frivolity: dancing on the edge of the volcano instead of fretting about it; or in his own words, “a grim determination in the artist hinders his performance”, 1945, p. 204). I still don’t see imagination in the grand creating ex nihilo sense, but plenty of it at the level of making old stories and his own experiences interesting to readers. I especially enjoyed “Taking the wen away,” one of the four stories from Otogi Zôshi and “The mound of the monkey’s grave” an elaboration of a Saikaku’s tale. There’s plenty of destructive pride even in characters that are not autobiographical (shishôsetsuka).
I agree with James O’Brien (or Phyllis Lyons, whom he may be paraphrasing in his introduction to the Cornell selected stories, The Saga of Dazai Osamu) that Dazai created a “permeable self” that “invites reader participation (especially with the writer obtrudes from folk tales he was recasting!)—in laughing at and grieving with the tears of the clown, who knows that people often come to undeserved grief “(p. 206). Dazai wanted to be the Japanese Raymond Radiguet (brash), but he more closely resembled the pathos of Paul Verlaine—as Dazai himself recognized.
I also ran down Donald Keene’s 1956 anthology Modern Japanese Literature to read “Villon’s wife” (‘Villon no Tsuma,” 1947). Like The Setting Sun, it has a strong female survivor (and a weak, dissolute male, the standard “Osamu” character, here “Otani”) who drinks excessively, runs up debts, and has affairs with other women. Rape barely registers. She has other problems, including caring for their retarded son, but by the end is making money of (The fifteenth-century Parisian vagabond poet in the story title is only a analogy or a prototype, based on misinformation or misinterpretation of François Villon by Dazai.) Dazai has her saying that it is alright to be a monster, “along as we can stay alive.” (It’s all wrong, but it’s all right?)
©2016, Stephen O. Murray