In the fifteen or so years that I’ve been reading literature from Japan, there are maybe two or three books from that whole oeuvre that I’ve come back to again and again and discovered more in each time. One was Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry; another, most likely the one I have come back to the most, is Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human. The two books could not be more dissimilar. Oe’s story is epic in detail and unabashedly literary in its language and imagery, while Dazai’s novel is barely two hundred pages and constructed out of language so simple and spare there seems to be no room for further reduction. And yet I’ve come back to that short space again and again, and each time I do, I find something else that simply did not seem to be there before. I know I’m the one that’s changing, of course, and I suspect the day I sit down to read No Longer Human and find nothing in it any longer will be the day I no longer see any of myself in it. I hope that will be a happy day.
Human is the most unabashedly autobiographical of Dazai’s works, and for that reason one of the most difficult to stomach. His life story reads like Gothic drama: multiple suicide attempts, usually with a woman; indulgences in drugs and alcohol; bitter feuds with family and rivals; vomit and terror and finally death by his own hand. Small wonder post-WWII Japan took him to heart; he was a self-martyring embodiment of their collective misery. He also had the literary chops to back it all up, and wrote voluminously and brilliantly during his short but productive career. Most of his work was in short stories, and most of that material has never been publish in English (although all of it is available in the public domain in Japan). Only two of his novels have been translated: this one, and The Setting Sun, a story that is in its own ragged, exhausted way as hopeful and delicately observant as Human is introverted and tormented.
Before I encountered Human, the only other novel I’d read that came close to it was Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask. I found Mask to be well-written, but in some strange way terribly blithe and superficial. Mishima’s book revolved around his discovery of his homosexuality and the pretenses he used to hide it, but in the end it felt like he was simply swapping one mask with another, and the more I learned of Mishima as a person the more that seemed to be the case. Dazai, on the other hand, couldn’t even be bothered to invent a pretense to hide behind; there was no point in trying to conceal something that would just ooze out anyway in other forms.
Human is told in the form of a confession recorded into three notebooks that have been discovered by an unnamed third party. What we known of Yozo, the Dazai character, mostly comes from his own pen, but is bookended and given perspective by this other man. He has seen three pictures of Yozo, we’re told: one as a smirking little boy, one as a smug-looking college student, and a third as a burned-out husk of a man. The images alone, each in their own way, appall him, and this other-loathing is carried over into the self-loathing—or maybe self-incomprehension—that Yozo himself feels. His predominant feeling throughout life has been stark terror at the incomprehensibility of other people. Parents, teachers, friends, strangers, lovers, all of them are like puzzles that he has been condemned to solve but which have no solution.
It isn’t long before he hits on a solution of sorts: as a boy, he plays the fool, and before long that becomes his main way of responding to the world. Laugh and everyone laughs with you—but before long he has to weep anyway, and when he does, he weeps alone. He singles out a couple of moments of stark terror when each of his disguises are casually penetrated: once by a dull classmate who calls him on his clowning, the other by a lawman. In both cases the exact nature of what he’s called on is totally in consequential, but it doesn’t matter. His disguise has failed, and inwardly he has begun to collapse.
He does his best to find another disguise. In college he throws himself into a silly dalliance with a Communist cell as a way to feel important—or maybe just to have another audience that can laugh harmlessly at him. He enters into a relationship of the damned with not just one woman, but one after another after another, each one opening up new possibilities for him to ruin himself. His college friend Horiki introduces him to alcohol, which allows him to destroy himself in a wholly self-justifying way, and even gives him an excuse later on to trade up for morphine and sleeping pills. By the end of the story he’s become little more than a housepet, cared for by his extended family in a throwaway, hands-off fashion, unaware at how most every step of the way he was not so much the betrayer as the betrayed. “He was a good boy, an angel,” says one of the other characters who knew him, in the very last lines of the book, and we are left to reflect on how much distance there was between her understanding of him and his understanding of himself.
The book is bleak in a way that is both extreme and yet also strangely unforced. In Donald Keene’s introduction (he also did the translation), he stated that the overall effect was not that of a wound being gratuitously inflicted on the reader. I agree: it’s not what is being explored, but how and to what end. Dazai wasn’t just rubbing his alienation and misery in people’s faces but trying to show us how it functioned, and how his attempts to defeat it only worked against him. In one of my favorite passages, the young Yozo marvels at a bridge built over a railway station, thinking it to have been the product of someone’s urge to beautify their world. He loses interest in it when he realizes it in fact has a wholly boring function: to allow people to cross from one platform to the next. This revelation of fundamental human dullness, as he puts it, is intolerable to him, and he spends the whole of his life trying not to be a creature of such dullness. Unfortunately the only way he is able to do that is by becoming “disqualified as a human being” (the most literal translation of the book’s original title). Each step Yozo takes away from the insufferability of what being “human” means leads him to even greater torment, but never in a way that seems contrived. He’s not running towards anything—just away, always away.
The first time I read Human was around 1994 or so, when I was taking my first big plunge into the deep end of the Japanese literary pool. Mishima, Oe, Dazai, Kobo Abe, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Natsume Soseki—out of all of them, Dazai had the most immediate emotional impact. Mishima was the one who made it clearest that he was a Writer; Oe, the most striking; but Dazai made me bleed and weep and go back for more. When I came back to him at thirty-five, I saw even more than I had at twenty-six, and not simply because I had lived through no small amount of some of the terror he’d felt. I saw more because I had lived those eleven years with Dazai’s novel inside me, and it had allowed me to see that much more to begin with. Yozo was full of shame and disgust, but enumerated it all so precisely and with such unique abandon that the whole effect was different than the effect of any individual part of the story. Black humor follows great and dark anger throughout the story, and moments of tenderness flower from deserts of misery just as easily.
Both Oe and Dazai mined their own lives for inspiration, but to radically different ends. In Oe’s case, a great deal of his writing career was a kind of therapy: his son Hikaru was born developmentally disabled, and many of his experiences with the boy were translated into fiction. Hikaru has since become a composer of some repute, and Oe has also correspondingly broadened his artistic concerns away from the boy. Dazai mined his life most explicitly for this book, but echoes of the same self-destructive man reverberate through many other things he did: the brother of the main character of The Setting Sun is so very Osamu-esque in the way he embodies his death wishes (plural).
People seem to approach quasi-autobiographical works like this in the spirit of a journalist: Did this part really happen? Did that incident actually play out that way? When they know something has been based on “the facts” of a person’s life, they often try to gear their responses to mesh with those facts, and if the facts turn out to be fabrications, they feel betrayed. The one thing that Dazai could not make up, and which is on every page, is the connection he forges with the reader. Whatever the facts of his life were, he makes you care instead about the truth of his life, which is a lot harder for anyone to come to.