Dawn to the West

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

An enormous amount of literature, in all forms, has been written in Japan since the 1870’s, and this superb survey by the master of the field is the first effort by a scholar in either Japan or the United States to attempt a detailed overview of this rich and growing tradition. These two volumes represent a lifetime of reading and thinking both about Japanese literature and about literature in general, and it is impossible to imagine another scholar who could command either the sympathies or the skill to create a work of this high order.

Given the vast amount of material to be surveyed, Keene has chosen a format that is helpful to the reader at all stages. Each of the essays is more or less self-contained and includes its own bibliography, so that the reader seeking specific information on one poet, novelist, or movement need not go through the entire set of volumes to ferret out the references that may be needed. Each section of the book opens with a discussion of the general topic and then is followed in turn by lengthy essays on individual writers, for which a context has by then been provided. Books of this kind already exist for European literatures, but at this point in the development of Japanese literary studies in the Western world, a work such as this is of extraordinary value, both to the neophyte seeking some sort of general information and to the specialist as well, who will seek Keene’s view of his subject.

Keene’s style is highly approachable and may suggest that the structure of the book is merely anecdotal or informal. In fact, however, three implicit assumptions govern the construction of the entire work. The first of them finds close ties between linguistic possibilities and literary opportunity, and at several points Keene is able to show with great deftness, even to a reader who may know little or no Japanese, how closely the two intertwine. Second, Keene is careful to note the close and often unarticulated connections between a body of literature and the society that produces it. He is particularly skillful at explaining the role of literary relations among writers of like mind in Japan, the sort of society within a society that has helped until this day to shape the kinds of works accepted and promoted by the literary establishment. Third, he shows how literature grows out of literature, how each new text of importance can be seen to stand in a kind of dialectical relationship, and often a conscious one at that, to the preceding canon of accepted works. In that regard, such older authors as Bakin (1767-1848) and Saikaku (1642-1692) are shown to have cast long and impressive shadows on the work of a number of important authors early in the century. Most important of all, however, is the new relationship with European, specifically French, literature; indeed, on the basis of the evidence that Keene presents, one means to examine the period might well involve a study of the complex patterns of rejection and acceptance of French fiction, poetry, and theater among the Japanese intellectuals, who reacted in a complex fashion not altogether unlike American writers during the same period. Most of this literature was read in translation, and the history of what works came to be translated and the kinds of contacts that writers, scholars, and intellectuals maintained with foreign cultures constitute an absorbing thread running through the entire two volumes of narrative.

Because each of the essays can be read individually, the reader is able to absorb much of this information comparatively easily, and because of Keene’s thorough presentations, the first evaluations of such important writers, unknown as yet in the West, as the novelist Sat Haruo (1892-1964) and the poet Miyoshi Tatsuji (1900-1964) are now available in a trenchant and stimulating form. Essays on the great figures of the period, well-known through translation, such as the novelists Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) and Tanizaki Jun’ichir (1886-1965), consistently reveal a wealth of detail and subtle judgment that can inform even specialists in the field. Perhaps most important of all, Keene has extended his sympathies to provide lengthy and surprisingly generous discussions of two widely differing but important areas of Japanese modern literature that until now have received no attention outside of scholarly circles in the West, the so-called “I” novel, which probes the psychology of the author in an almost autobiographical fashion, and Marxist literature, both in its proletarian and its intellectual phases. Whatever a Western reader’s personal tastes may be, setting these two crucial areas of creative endeavor aside can only result in a false picture of the long period from the 1920’s through the 1950’s and even after, and the work that Keene has done here will surely stimulate other scholars and perhaps translators as well to look at some of this material, so far virtually unappreciated in the West.

By and large, it is through translations of fiction that modern Japanese literature has come to be known and appreciated in the West. For Japanese readers, however, poetry often takes pride of place, and in the second volume, poetry, drama, and literary criticism receive extended discussions that give a real sense of richness and depth to the literary accomplishments of the past hundred years in Japan. The sections on poetry are particularly strong, and since Keene himself is a fluent and skillful translator, the excerpts he includes...

(The entire section is 2234 words.)