Book Review: Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe is probably my favorite writer. Each one of his works is filled with dense, emotionally charged poeticism, and even if a book of his is not particularly gripping, by the end I am always wowed. This book is no exception.

Although some changes have been made, most of the book is rooted in reality: the reader follows the narration of a famous Japanese writer called K, who has written the same books as Oe and who has a disabled son, also like Oe. O ROUSE UP consists of K interweaving the present as his son approaches adulthood with memories, the poetry of William Blake (which serves as an important metaphor), and his own work. The result is an episodic novel (it has been described as a short story collection by its author, although all the parts do cohere) with less narrative drive than some are used to but a powerful book nonetheless.

As an Oe fan, this book is almost everything I want from one of his books. His overt philosophizing, his strange language, his description of human relationships, his mythmaking, his ability to weave all of that into a good story are all present here. But though I don’t have many complaints with this book, I would not recommend anyone start Oe here.

Why? This is a work for those who have already been introduced to him and Japanese culture. When he compares Blake to his own books, I don’t think many who aren’t already familiar with Oe to get much out of it. When he talks about a band of young political youths who united under the famous writer M, you’re supposed to be able to tell that he is referring to Mishima and an offshoot of a militia he formed. Similarly, Oe often talks about his disabled son in his literature and if this is the first time the reader is hearing about their relationship, no doubt they will miss a lot.

If you’re already acquainted with a few of his books, this will probably be a worthwhile book. If you’re looking to get into Oe, there are much better places to start. NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS and A PERSONAL MATTER rank among some of his most accessible, with the former, his first novel, about kids abandoned in a village durig the second world war trying to forge a life for themselves, and the latter detailing a father whose son has just been born with a brain defect and the decisions he makes. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as reviews of those two will be posted soon.

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A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.