Osamu Dazai: Schoolgirl

One Peace Books is a relatively young publisher specializing in Japanese literature, one of my many significant literary gaps.  As big a gap as that is, I had heard of (but never read anything by) Osamu Dazai, considered to be one of the finest Japanese novelists of the twentieth century.  So I jumped at the chance to read and review a new translation of Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl (Joseito, 1939; tr. from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell, 2011).

Review copy courtesy of One Peace Books.

The marketing materials for Schoolgirl arrived with a quote from USA Today: “Move over Holden Caulfield.  A new brooding teenager has arrived.”  This can be quite damning to a book, but considering that Schoolgirl was published 12 years before The Catcher in the Rye, I wasn’t worried and was more interested in the possible connections, which are evident early on.  Dazai apparently wrote a lot of first-person novels (which is its own genre in Japanese literature: the “I Novel”), and in Schoolgirl is one day in the life of a young Japanese schoolgirl trying as hard as she can to make sense of the world around her and still keep a hold of her individuality.

Her father recently dead, the girl in mourning has also lost her mother to a kind of depression:

She once said to me, “From now on, the joy in life is gone.  Forgive me for saying, but when I look at you, the truth is, I don’t feel much pleasure.  Without your father, perhaps it’s best if there is no happiness.”

This set of circumstances has forced the young girl to confront the gravity of growing older, though inside she still yearns to be a little girl.  The book progresses through her random thoughts which enlighten us as to her state of mind, contradictory as her tone and feelings often are.  Such contradictions gave the book an air of reality as the girl despises the idea of marriage, can’t wait to be a complacent wife, and then says, “I wish I could die like this, a girl.” 

Confused as much by the various people she interacts with during the day, the girl responds to them and then analyzes her responses.

The truth is that I secretly love what seems to be my own individuality, and I hope I always will, but fully embodying it is another matter.  I always want people to think I’m a good girl.  Whenever I am around a lot of people, it is amazing how obsequious I can be.  I fib and chatter away, saying things I don’t want to or mean in any way.

I have to say that I enjoyed this book, but that above passage contains one of the problems that continued to take me out of the story.  At one moment the girl will say something like, “Ugh, so vile,” as she did when looking at an older woman on a bus.  “Ugh, so vile,” while it doesn’t necessarily ring true as something a Japanese teenager would say in 1939 (then again, I don’t know), at least sounded like something a teenager would say.  However, I can’t see one saying “Ugh, so vile” and “it is amazing how obsequious I can be.”  They just don’t seem to flow well in this particular stream-of-consciousness, particularly when most of the translation favors short everyday words.  Here is another example:

No matter how you looked at it, I didn’t look cute at all.  I felt wretched.  Totally dejected.  I had slipped over here just to have my hair done, and now to feel like such a scruffy hen made me deeply contrite.

One of my least favorite sentences in the translation took me straight to the 1990s, beginning with “Pshaw . . . as if [. . .].”  And then it ends with a decent word made indecent:

Pshaw . . . as if a loud holler was going to cover my gutlessness.

And now for my least favorite combination of slang and heavy, abstracted vocabulary: 

His utter diffidence makes me want to throw up.

Such sentences were clunky, so to me this is, at least in part, not a very good translation.  I spent a good deal of time annoyed rather than engaged, even though the clunky sentences were relatively rare — it’s a very short book, so they stuck out a great deal.  That said, a little over half-way through the book evening arrives, and the schoolgirl returns home to her mother.  The emotional build-up we’ve experienced so far as she dealt with day-time events lengthens out and intensifies as the sun goes down.  I’m not sure if there were any bad sentences after this point because I was genuinely interested in the schoolgirl herself:

Tomorrow will probably be another day like today.  Happiness will never come my way.  I know that.  But it’s probably best to go to sleep believing that it will surely come, tomorrow it will come.

As the book closes in dream-like fashion (at which time the translation is going strong), we get this sad thought:

Sometimes happiness arrives one night too late.

3 thoughts on “Osamu Dazai: Schoolgirl

  1. kimbofo says:

    Thanks for this review, Trevor. I’ve only read a handful of Japanese fiction titles (all contemporary) and have come to the conclusion that I very much like the prose style and the detached manner with which Japanese authors seem to write. This one sounds interesting, although the translation seems a bit off. It reminds me of Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, which I read a year or so ago, which was about a group of teenagers who were alienated from society but spoke in American slang, which didn’t ring true. I mean, do teenage girls in Japan call everyone “dude”? I don’t know, maybe they do, but it just didn’t feel authentic to me, as if it had been translated with an American audience in mind.

  2. Trevor –

    Thanks for the review. I love that there is a genre called the: I Novel. ‘Schoolgirl’ sounds like an interesting book, though that translation sounds truly awful (they lost me at “Pshaw”). Do you know if it is a brand new translation, or a reissue of an older one? From your review I believe it’s new, but wasn’t sure.

    I haven’t read that much Japanese lit. Of the little bit I have read, sentences like the ones you give as examples seem to be the norm. Monkey Business – an English edition of a Japanese literary magazine put out by A Public Space was full of stories I found difficult to read because the writing was slightly different from what I was accustomed to. It felt consistently “off”, if that makes sense?

    Personally, I like the awkward word choices and sentence structure of Japanese translations. And I’ve always thought it would be interesting to see a straight, uninterpreted word-for-word translation of a Japanese sentence into English. To get at the skin of nuts & bolts of the thing, so to speak.

  3. How extremely disappointing.

    I have read a few Japanese authors, but actually hadn’t heard of this one. The prospect of a major author I didn’t know was quite exciting.

    It seems full of anachronisms though, even the cover. Some of the word choices feel very modern, others not so much.

    Of course we have no way of knowing if the translation’s problematic, or if the translation’s excellent but through being excellent reveals flaws in the underyling book. Hard to say.

    Still, I do note there’s a Modern Japanese Classics range. I’ll certainly see what else they’ve published under that imprint.

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