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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

A Shameful Life

by
Dazai Osamu


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Shameful Life



Title: A Shameful Life
Author: Dazai Osamu
Genre: Novel
Written: 1948 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 141 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: A Shameful Life - US
A Shameful Life - UK
A Shameful Life - Canada
La déchéance d'un homme - France
Gezeichnet - Deutschland
Lo squalificato - Italia
Indigno de ser humano - España
  • Japanese title: 人間失格
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Mark Gibeau
  • Previously translated by Donald Keene, as No Longer Human (1958)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : grim but effective wallow in self-loathing

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 4/5/1998 Wolfgang Schneider
The Japan Times* . 25/10/2014 William Bradbury
The Japan Times . 10/11/2018 Damian Flanagan
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 27/7/1958 Donald Bare
TLS* . 1/5/1959 P.S.Rawson

(*: review of Donald Keene's earlier translation, No Longer Human)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Die Qualen sollen nicht bestritten werden; das Pathos macht sie aber nicht glaubhafter. (...) Daneben bietet das Buch eine Reihe überzeugender Episoden (.....) In solchen -- leider zu seltenen -- Passagen kann die geschmeidige, mit trockenem Humor geschriebene Prosa Dazais beeindrucken." - Wolfgang Schneider, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Although the events of No Longer Human bare similarity to Dazaiís own personal life, the blunt style -- without sentiment or nostalgia -- distances it from the tone of an actual autobiography. The novel has a timeless quality: The struggle of the individual to fit into a normalizing society remains just as relevant today as it was at the time of writing." - William Bradbury, The Japan Times

  • "Gibeauís take is lucid and readable, and has already garnered a translation award from the University of Chicago. But the book also raises issues about which the reader should be aware. (...) (T)he acute irony that this most exhilaratingly politically incorrect and provocatively offensive of texts is here given something of a politically correct makeover." - Damian Flanagan, The Japan Times

  • "(A) consummate work of art. (...) A true child of industrial Japan, feeling himself an exile from European culture in an alien land, he lies without hope in a continuous agony of self-contempt that destroys all basis for his existence. (...) A masterly prologue and epilogue are provided by a third party" - Philip Stanley Rawson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Shameful Life is a new translation, by Mark Gibeau, of Dazai's 人間失格, long familiar to English speaking audiences in Donald Keene's (still in print) 1958 translation, No Longer Human.
       The novel consists of three journals kept by Yōzō, the son a of a member of the Japanese Diet (the legislative body), as well as a brief Preface and Epilogue by the writer/editor who receives these journals a decade or so later and publishes them (though he never actually met Yōzō).
       The Prologue introduces Yōzō -- through the three photographs of him the narrator has seen, from three stages of Yōzō's life. Each short description he gives of them ends similarly, the narrator noting how exceptional -- and particular --, in different ways, each glimpse of this character is:

Never in my life have I seen a child with such a peculiar expression.
[...]
Never in my life have I seen such a peculiar, beautiful man.
[...]
Never in my life have I seen a man with such a peculiar face.
       (Compare that to Keene's approach:
I have never seen a child with such an unaccountable expression.
[...]
I have never seen a young man whose good looks were so baffling.
[...]
I have never seen such an inscrutable face on a man.
       The journals then get right to the point: Yōzō's opening words are: "I have lived a shameful life", with the rest then an account of it, more or less focused on the three stages of his life as seen in the three photographs. From the first, Yōzō admits to a disconnect with 'human life', in all its manifestations. Sickly and fearful, he manages to fit in at school by taking on the part of the clown, which he proves fairly adept at. Behind the face of the clown, he is all misery, however -- and burdened by having been: "violated and exposed to the most desolate things by our maids and servants".
       Sent off to live with a relative when he goes to middle school, Yōzō befriends a boy who seems to be able to see through art least part of him, Takeichi. Takeichi predicts success for Yōzō in certain areas: "I bet girls will fall for you", he suggests, and, recognizing Yōzō's talent drawing and painting: "You'll be a famous artist someday". Takeichi isn't wrong about how Yōzō appeals to women -- they're drawn to him, regardless of how he acts -- but Yōzō sees this quality he seems to have as a curse, not a blessing: he never gets over: "the anxiety of being loved". As to his art: powerful it may be, but: "So dark and gloomy were these paintings that even I shrank from them".
       Yōzō would prefer to go to art school but of course can't stand up to his father and is enrolled in school in Tokyo "with the aim of making me a government official". He barely goes to class -- though he's sharp enough to pass his exams -- and instead leads a lazy and then increasingly dissolute life, helped along in this by new, older artist-friend Horiki. He also joins a Communist circle ("I think they called it the 'R-S' but my memory is vague") and becomes active in it, drawn to the illicit even as he is mystified and unconvinced by their activities. Marxist theory seems like simple common sense to him -- but, so he believes, doesn't get at the essence:
It was true enough, but there is more to the human soul than just that. There is also something incomprehensible, something terrifying. Desire is too weak a word for it, as is vanity. Even if we combine Eros and desire it's still not quite enough. I'm not sure what it is, but I am certain that the foundation of human society is not economics. It's something more, with the uncanny air of a strange and scary folk tale. Living in abject terror of that strange folk tale as I did, I was able to accept theories of materialism as easily as I accepted the fact that water runs downhill, but these theories did not liberate me from my dread of humans
       The second journal culminates in Yōzō participating in a love-suicide pact, in which: "The woman died. I alone was saved". There's a great deal of attention heaped on Yōzō surrounding it -- adoring women wishing him well; the media; the police (as he is arrested for assisting suicide) --, attention that he of course struggles with.
       The third journal begins with him holed up in a house his family have arranged for him to live in, watched over to keep him out of sight and trouble. He eventually escapes from this -- abetted by Horiki -- and falls in with Shizuko, a woman who works at a magazine and eventually arranges for him to draw cartoons for it. Yōzō becomes a kept man, watching over Shizuko's five-year-old daughter and then working on his cartoons; living with the generous Shizuko allows for an instant family -- but Yōzō can't handle it.
       Eventually, he finds another completely devoted woman to live with, Yoshiko -- a sweet soul who turns out to be too trusting. After initially giving up drink and briefly: "turning into something that resembled a human being" Yōzō soon again and again goes to dissolute extremes of drinking and then eventually drug-use, the breaking point having come with Yoshiko's own too-trusting fall. In his last desperation, he turns to his family again; there's no real salvation for him but, separated from the world he had sunk into -- both the tempter Horiki and the loving Yoshiko --, he can wallow in his self-loathing without dragging others along with him. Seeing what he's been reduced to, he realizes: "I had, utterly and completely, ceased to be human".
       The conclusion is set some three years later, the still only twenty-seven-year-old Yōzō living in distant, decayed isolation, attended to only by a hostile servant, no hope or future yet regained, still sunk in his own endless misery.
       The narrator's presumption then, in the Epilogue, is that Yōzō has likely died by now, at least a decade later, but he makes no great effort to find out. The three journals stand well enough as a document of a broken man; there could be no happy end, regardless.
       Yōzō's experiences, down to the Communist-sympathizing and the suicide-attempts, apparently closely mirror Dazai's own -- differing only in their endings, as Dazai was a suicide, killing himself shortly before A Shameful Life first appeared in print.
       It's hard to conceive of a more miserable protagonist. A Shameful Life is a grim tale of self-destructive behavior, its main character so filled with fear and caught up in loathing himself that he can't embrace, except for the briefest moments, the opportunities for normality that present themselves. Women who are completely devoted to him are willing to look past his bad habits -- which only seems to drive him further into them -- while his artistic talent should allow him some success if he properly dedicated himself to it (as even his hasty cartoons earn him a surprising amount of money). But he can't escape his essence: "Know thyself. Know they terrifying, strange, wily, villainous, crone-like self !" he thinks -- and he can't move beyond this certainty of who he thinks he is, the lowest of the low, unworthy of any happiness.
       A Shameful Life is dark and almost horribly grim, all wrapped in shame -- made bearable in part only by Yōzō not lingering too long on much of this, as the novel does skip along fairly quickly across his many stations of misery (and those very few bright spots). It is a novel of recognizing the self -- but the self here is such a devastated one, from its very beginnings, that it can see no way to improvement or salvation: Yōzō just ties himself ever more in these knots of his own making.
       It's not pleasant reading, but it certainly is powerful, and it is a fascinating psychological portrait, of someone trying (or rather, constantly failing) to come to terms with a self they find unbearable.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 November 2018

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Links:

A Shameful Life: Reviews (* refers to Donald Keene's earlier translatin, No Longer Human): Dazai Osamu: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Dazai Osamu (太宰 治; actually Tsushima Shūji (津島修治)) lived 1909 to 1948.

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© 2018 the complete review

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