William Faulkner and Three Japanese Novelists: Affinities and Parallels by Noboru Yamashita
In this essay I will take up William Faulkner and three Japanese novelists: Ryunosuke AKUTAGAWA (1892–1927), Osamu DAZAI (1909–1948), and Haruki MURAKAMI (1949– ). Akutagawa was slightly older than Faulkner and died young. Dazai is roughly a contemporary: Faulkner’s mature years are mainly 1930s–1940s, and so are Dazai’s. Murakami is writing vigorously now and is expected to win the Nobel Prize in the very near future. These writers are of different generations, but all of them are well-known as the representatives of each period. Although their concerns and ways of writing are different, they occasionally employ similar techniques, and they depict their conflicts with their times and societies and themselves.
1. Faulkner and Akutagawa
William Faulkner and Akutagawa Ryunosuke never met. Akutagawa majored in English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University in 1913 and died in 1927. Around this time Faulkner began to write, publishing Soldiers’ Pay in 1926 and Mosquitoes in 1927. But his books didn’t sell well, so even as an English literature major, Akutagawa definitely didn’t read Faulkner, and of course, vice versa. Yet their works share the same themes and use the same skills. To illustrate, I take up Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932) and Akutagwa’s short story “In a Bamboo Grove” (“Yabu no Naka,” 1922) as examples.
As I Lay Dying is the story of the Bundrens’ ten-day journey to Jefferson to bury Addie Bundren. Fifteen different people narrate 59 sections in total, with each narration being subjective and biased. As a result of such narration, this book has been labeled as “a kaleidoscope” (Rossky 186), a “multiple presentation” (Brooks 159), and “a polyphonic novel” (Lockyer 73-74). Similarly, in Light in August, characters talk from their own knowledge about three main characters: Joe Christmas, Lena Grove, and Gail Hightower. This way of narrating brings the same results: contradictions concerning information and indecisiveness of facts.
As we see from these two novels, Faulkner had an idea that truth is not easily found. Citing Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” he utters his idea of literary expression.
It was, as you say, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. But the truth, I would like to think, comes out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has his own fourteenth image of the blackbird which I would like to think is the truth. (FIU, 274)
In order to achieve such a purpose a writer has to adopt polyphonic voices, multi foci, or multi-layered narration. Akutagawa’s “In a Bamboo Grove” is generally known through Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon (1950). “Rashomon” is the title of an Akutagawa short story, but the film is mostly based on “In a Bamboo Grove.” Its original can be found in a 12th century book of tales Konjaku Monogatari (Tales of Times Now Past), but Akutagawa has retold it in a new way. Set in the late Heian Period, the story is about a young traveling couple. Deceived and led by a bandit into a bamboo grove, the wife is raped and the husband is killed. Later seven characters talk about the event. They are Woodcutter who found the body; Traveling Priest who met them on his way; Police who investigate the event; Old Woman who is the mother of the young wife; Tajomaru, the bandit; the young wife, Masago; and Dead Man’s Spirit (Masago’s husband). Each of them narrates from his or her own viewpoint and there are some contradictions or ambiguities in their narratives. There are two typical problems: “Who killed the husband?” and “Why was the husband killed?”
About the husband’s death, the criminal confesses that he fought and killed him, but the wife says she was asked to do so by her husband, while the husband tells that he committed suicide. As a result of these contradictions, you never know who is telling the truth.
The reason for the killing of the husband is also unknowable. The bandit says the wife wanted to choose one of them as a partner so he fought and killed the husband. The wife says that unable to bear her husband’s accusing attitude she tried to kill herself, but the husband ordered her to kill him instead. The husband insists that despite the wife’s plea the bandit didn’t kill him, and left, so he killed himself. Thus there are differing explanations of an event and readers do not know what really happened.
Akutagawa believed that the truth was not absolute and easily grasped. The technique of narrating an event by seven narrators was adopted to illustrate this assumption. It is a big wonder that as early as 1922 a Japanese novelist wrote such a modernistic fiction of the type Faulkner would later employ.
2. Faukner and Dazai
When he visited Japan in 1955, Faulkner spoke about common experiences of defeats in wars:
My side, the South, lost that war, the battles of which were fought not on neutral ground in the waste of ocean, but in our own homes, our gardens, our farms, as if Okinawa and Guadalcanal had been not islands in the distant Pacific but the precincts of Honshu and Hokkaido. Our land, our homes were invaded by a conqueror who remained after we were defeated; we were not only devastated by the battle which we lost, the conqueror spent the next ten years after our defeat and surrender despoiling us of what little war had left. (“To the Youth of Japan,” Faulkner at Nagano, 185).
The defeat in the Civil War brought a radical change for the American South, and the defeat in World War II had a similar effect on Japan. Writing about the defeat and aftermath of war became an important focus of Faulkner’s career. In Japan it was Dazai who experienced and wrote about the great changes brought by war.
Faulkner’s early works, especially The Sound and the Fury (1929) and “A Rose for Emily” (1932), are related to the themes of the fall of the planters and landowning class as a result of the Civil War. Later works like the Snopes Trilogy deal with the industrialization and the rise of the poor whites in the New South. Thus the main themes of Faulkner’s works are founded on the great changes that the South suffered.
In real life Faulkner’s great-grandfather was a successful soldier, landowner, and businessman, but his father did not succeed in his jobs and the Falkner family of his day was not very prosperous. This decline is reflected in the collapse of the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury. The story of the Compsons presents a typical case of the downfall of the planter class brought by the changes the Civil War and subsequent events.
The Japanese novelist Dazai had a similar kind of experience. He was a son of landowning class and his father had been a congressman of the Imperial Parliament. He grew up in a rich family, but in his youth, because of the defeat of the war and democratization of Japan by American policy, the rich family suffered the loss of land. As a result of urbanization and industrialization, Japan lost its old way of living and was confronted with new problems. This was the time when Dazai became a writer. He wrote about the chaos of Japanese society, fell into depression, and finally killed himself.
Dazai’s two novels deal with these problems. His 1947 novel, The Setting Sun, is about a fallen noble family. After the war, because of their economic distress a family has to move to a small local house, selling their mansion in Tokyo. The heroine Kazuko’s father has been dead for ten years and her mother is now sick. Her brother Naoji comes back from war alive, but he is powerless with his inner conflicts. The mother dies shortly after and the brother kills himself. The heroine who was once divorced, decides to live as a single mother. The mother-sister-brother triangle in this work is much akin to that of the father-sister-brother of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Moreover, while the men of Dazai’s novel are weak and cannot face the hardship of new life, the women decide to live in the changing world. Thus The Setting Sun and The Sound and the Fury have thematic affinities and parallels.
Dazai’s other novel, No Longer Human (1948), is more private. The hero, Yozo, is much akin to the writer himself. The story traces the process of the hero’s downfall by liquor, drugs, and women. Like Quentin Compson, Yozo is suffering a psychological obsession. Whether it is in Japan or in the United States, people especially of an upper class who experienced a radical change after war had the same kind of trauma. Both Dazai and Faulkner were located in such distressing situations and inevitably chose to describe obsessed characters.
3. Faulkner and Murakami
Faulkner of course never read Murakami’s novels, because it was in the late ’70s that Murakami began to publish. And while Murakami never mentions Faulkner’s influences, I believe that he read Faulkner intensively and extensively. For instance, one of Murakami’s short stories is entitled “Naya wo Yaku” (“Barn Burning,” 1983), and two of his works use the same kind of point-counterpoint technique that Faulkner uses in The Wild Palms.
The Wild Palms consists of two plots (“Wild Palms” and “Old Man”) that are narrated alternately. “Wild Palms” presents a pathetic “love story” of Harry Wilbourne and Charlotte Rittenmeyerm while “Old Man” tells a tall convict and a pregnant woman’s comic natural disaster story. Although they make up one novel, these two stories seem to have almost nothing in common concerning times, places, and characters. But if one reads the novel closely, the reader will find some connections between the two plots. Such common symbols as bloodshed, books, water, deer, knives, rats, tobaccos, doctors, prisons are woven into the both plots and play key roles. The themes of abortion and childbirth are also contrasted. Moreover, the times and places of narratives are to be united at the end of the novel. Near the end of the plot, the tall convict of “Old Man” is returned to Parchman in 1927 and has 10 more years added to the remaining 8 years of servitude. So when Wilbourne of “Wild Palms” is sentenced to 50 years in prison and sent to Parchman in 1938, the convict is still there. Thus the two stories, even though they are seemingly independent of each other, are related and conjoined.
Murakami also uses this point-counterpoint way of writing. In Pinball, 1973 (1980) he first adopts this skill: the story of “I” and that of a man called “the Rat” are narrated one after the other. (One is reminded that Charlotte’s husband in The Wild Palms is called “Rat.”) In his masterpiece entitled Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) Murakami again uses this technique. The novel’s 40 chapters are split between the parallel narratives. Odd-number chapters contain the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” story, describing a scientist’s experiment to control the human mind; and even-numbered chapters are devoted to “The End of the World” story, whose protagonist has no memories of his former life and is forced to “read old dreams” from unicorns’ skulls.
The two stories develop independently but, as in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, common symbols (in this case, unicorns’ skulls, libraries and librarians, conflicts between groups, paperclips, and music, including the song “Danny Boy”) appear in both narratives. Judging from the endings of both narratives, the hero of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” is reborn in “The End of the World” and the escaped shadow of “The End of the World” comes back to a real world of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” as a man again. Both stories are not only connected, but continued forever as a circle. This connection is symbolized as “Two fishes in a circle, each with the other’s tail in its mouth” (“Hard-Boiled World” 212).
Murakami adopted Faulkner’s point-counterpoint method and further developed it into a new style. This style is not a mere pretension, but is necessitated to express his theme of man’s life—love (life), death, and rebirth. The problems of our postmodern society lie both in excessive science-worship and total human isolation. In capturing the real phases of humans in a world of over-developed science and brain science, Murakami upgrades Faulkner’s narrative techniques to fit postmodern demands. His effort brought an improved form of narration as a cyclic point-counterpoint tale. Faulkner’s The Wild Palms may well have served as his model.
The three Japanese writers I selected for this essay are highly valued in the history of Japanese literature and are still widely read. Each of them struggled with the problems of Japan and Japanese culture under radical changes. Similarly, William Faulkner wrote about the South and Southerners in transitional times.
The radical social changes the Southerners experienced were not particularly theirs, but shared by most of the people of the world, especially of the developing countries. After the defeat of the war, the Japanese people built up a new nation, overcoming the devastation. During the period of recovery and creation, Japanese writers and readers found a predecessor who had been writing about the same issues. Faulkner’s reception of the Nobel Prize in 1950 and his visit to Japan in 1955 ignited a Japanese interest in Faulkner’s works. The same phenomena spread over the world. Not only in Europe and Japan but in such developing countries in Asia as Korea, China, and India; in Latin American countries; and in Russia, Faulkner is still avidly read. The main reason comes from the fact that he is writing about a universal theme of human conflicts under radical social changes.
Since the Meiji Revolution in 1868, Japan has been pursuing its modernization and democratization. The revolution was one fundamental change and the defeat in the Pacific War was the other. Akutagawa in that transitional period shared the ideas and methods of international modernism in his writings. Dazai, through his own experiences, wrote down the distress of people in a chaotic society after the defeat. Murakami as a successor of Faulkner, freely using and upgrading Faulkner’s techniques, described the human problems in postmodern conditions. These Japanese writers, each by his own concern, earnestly struggled with the hardships of Japanese. That is what Faulkner did in the 20th century American South. By reading Faulkner, we can re-discover human hearts in conflicts and renew our courage to deal with the difficulties of our world. That’s why we continue to read Faulkner in the 21st century.
Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Trans. Jay Rubin. Introduction by Haruki Murakami. Penguin, 2006.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. Yale UP, 1963.
Dazai,Osamu. The Setting Sun. Translated by Donald Keene. A New Direction Book, 1956.
---. No Longer Human. Trans. Donald Keene. A New Direction Book, 1958.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. Vintage International, 1985.
---. Light in August. Vintage International, 1985.
---. The Sound and the Fury. Vintage International, 1990.
---. If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. Vintage International, 1995.
Gwynne, Frederick I. and Blotner, Joseph L. eds. Faulkner in the University. UP of Virginia, 1959.
Haruki Murakami, Pinball, 1973. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, 1985.
---. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum. Vintage Books, 2003.
Jelliffe, Robert A. ed. Faulkner at Nagano. Kenkyusha, 1956.
Lockyer, Judith. Ordered by Words: Language and Narration in the Novels of William Faulkner. Southern Illinois UP, 1991.
Rossky, William. “As I Lay Dying: The insane World” Ed. Dianne L. Cox, William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” : A Critical Casebook. Garland, 1985.