Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Writing in the shadows of Japan’s literary giants

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We are not sure of the exact date, but we know it happened on a Thursday in the fall of 1915.

That morning, Ryunosuke Akutagawa was extremely excited, but also nervous and perhaps even a bit queasy. Then 23 years old and still a university student, he had yet to make his mark as an author. All he had to his credit were a few translations of short works by Anatole France and W.B. Yeats and a small number of original stories of his own, none of which had attracted attention. In short, he did not have much of a resume.

By comparison, the people he met later that day were confident intellectuals with established reputations — most were at least a decade older than him. They knew each other well and, for a while already, had been gathering weekly at the house of one of their peers to discuss literature and the arts, philosophy and politics. Joining them would have been an intimidating prospect even for a confident man, something Akutagawa definitely was not. But this was also a unique opportunity to meet the individual hosting this salon, the most celebrated author of his generation and a man Akutagawa deeply admired. His name was Natsume Soseki.

It turned out to be a mesmerizing experience. Akutagawa later wrote that he had been so impressed by “the master” — he always referred to Soseki in this manner — that he had been almost unable to relax. The encounter also marked the beginning of a relationship, unfortunately cut short when Soseki died the following year, which was extremely meaningful for Akutagawa. With the help of his new mentor he was able to republish “The Nose” (1916), which Soseki greatly admired, in a well-known magazine. This brought him fame almost overnight.

Though their friendship spanned only a few months, the lives of Soseki and Akutagawa cover a critical period in the history of Japanese fiction. In the twilight years of the Edo Period (1603-1868) the genre was in a sorry state, a mere shadow of its former grandeur. …

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