Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human / A Shameful Life) by Dazai Osamu
- Japanese Original (modern kanji & kana)
- Ningen Shikkaku - original (Aozora Bunko) / No Longer Human - Donald Keene, 1958 (Archive.org) / A Shameful Life - Mark Gibeau, 2018 (publisher catalog)
- Content warning
- This page contains the following sensitive topics (hover to reveal): child sexual assault
- Reading status
Entry 01 - 2023/11/09
Since I'm getting back on the modern literature grind, I suppose the most natural course of action is to read Ningen Shikkaku. (I don't usually do this, I'm going to refer to this title with the romaji name since there are multiple translations. This might become a custom for my future modern lit posts, though.)
I say "back on," because this isn't my first time in this side of town. For a period in middle school, I became very interested in Japanese classics, and during our trip to Japan I bought「斜陽」(Shayō / The Setting Sun) by Dazai and「羅生門・鼻」(Rashōmon, Hana / The Nose) by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. I had originally only gotten them as a sort of supplementary material for Bungo Stray Dogs, but boy, was I hooked by Shayō! Not that the Akutagawa works were bad in any way, of course; it was probably just too challenging for younger me. Anyways, I had become very invested in Shayō. I wrote many notes on stickies that I still keep in my copy, and even made my summer book report and poster assignment for Japanese School about it.
However, we became unable to return to Japan for several years due to the pandemic, and while I did have the interest I lacked resources so I didn't buy any books after that. It's also hard to find books like those at a good reading level! That blank shifted my autistic attention elsewhere, so for the most part my classics streak had died down.
Fast-forward to earlier this year; I came across the Kajii Motojirō short story「桜の樹の下には」(Sakura no Ki no Shita niwa / Under the Cherry Trees)—I will talk more about it at a later opportunity—which led to my discovery of the amazing Aozora Bunko that reignited my interest in classics. Aozora Bunko is a site that collects Japanese literature whose copyrights have expired and makes them accessible to everyone online. It's almost a crime that I didn't know of this site several years earlier! The collection is so vast and full of works that I was eyeing for a while but was too intimidated to purchase or read, such as Dogura Magura, Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I am a Cat), and this Ningen Shikkaku, and even works that I didn't even know I had wanted to read. And here I am, reading Dazai and writing about it again.
Thoughts on "The First Notebook"
(I will be using Keene's translation for the English portions here, since it's more readily available to me.)
I had nearly forgotten how much I love the style of Dazai's writing. This is somewhat due to the time period in general; it's different from nearly any writing you'd see today—of course, this is from 1948 (happy 75 years!). It has a retro feel to the way kanji and katakana are used/spelled, especially. Comma usage is also much more frequent. Dazai's style, at least in what I've read from him so far, really puts these commas to use.
つまり、わからないのです。隣人の苦しみの性質、程度が、まるで見当つかないのです。プラクテカルな苦しみ、ただ、めしを食えたらそれで解決できる苦しみ、しかし、それこそ最も強い痛苦で、自分の例の十個の禍いなど、吹っ飛んでしまう程の、凄惨な阿鼻地獄なのかも知れない、それは、わからない、しかし、それにしては、よく自殺もせず、発狂もせず、政党を論じ、絶望せず、屈せず生活のたたかいを続けて行ける、苦しくないんじゃないか？ エゴイストになりきって、しかもそれを当然の事と確信し、いちども自分を疑った事が無いんじゃないか？ それなら、楽だ、しかし、人間というものは、皆そんなもので、またそれで満点なのではないかしら、わからない、……夜はぐっすり眠り、朝は爽快なのかしら、どんな夢を見ているのだろう、道を歩きながら何を考えているのだろう、金？ まさか、それだけでも無いだろう、人間は、めしを食うために生きているのだ、という説は聞いた事があるような気がするけれども、金のために生きている、という言葉は、耳にした事が無い、いや、しかし、ことに依ると、……いや、それもわからない、……考えれば考えるほど、自分には、わからなくなり、自分ひとり全く変っているような、不安と恐怖に襲われるばかりなのです。自分は隣人と、ほとんど会話が出来ません。何を、どう言ったらいいのか、わからないのです。
I simply don’t understand. I have not the remotest clue what the nature or extent of my neighbor’s woes can be. Practical troubles, griefs that can be assuaged if only there is enough to eat—these may be the most intense of all burning hells, horrible enough to blast to smithereens my ten misfortunes, but that is precisely what I don’t understand: if my neighbors manage to survive without killing themselves, without going mad, maintaining an interest in political parties, not yielding to despair, resolutely pursuing the fight for existence, can their griefs really be genuine? Am I wrong in thinking that these people have become such complete egoists and are so convinced of the normality of their way of life that they have never once doubted themselves? If that is the case, their sufferings should be easy to bear: they are the common lot of human beings and perhaps the best one can hope for. I don’t know ... If you’ve slept soundly at night the morning is exhilarating, I suppose. What kind of dreams do they have? What do they think about when they walk along the street? Money? Hardly—it couldn’t only be that. I seem to have heard the theory advanced that human beings live in order to eat, but I’ve never heard anyone say that they lived in order to make money. No. And yet, in some instances. . . . No, I don’t even know that. . . . The more I think of it, the less I understand. All I feel are the assaults of apprehension and terror at the thought that I am the only one who is entirely unlike the rest. It is almost impossible for me to converse with other people. What should I talk about, how should I say it?—I don’t know.
The entire highlighted portion in this paragraph is functionally a single run-on sentence. This is only a few pages into the book, and it already clearly shows how unstable Yōzō is, his rambles emanating absolute confusion and fear towards humanity.
However, at the same time, it's not neccesarily as hard to read as English classics with similarly long sentences. I believe this is part of the beauty of both Japanese as a language and Dazai's style of writing it. Because Japanese, especially that of this time, doesn't have as clear-cut grammatical rules about commas as English (well, as the child of a grammar teacher, I do know a disproportionate amount about English grammar via my mother's ranting). Aside from a few rules for things like lists and suggestions to prevent confusion about adjectives, comma placement is mostly based on the rhythm of the sentence. Especially in works like these, it provides a distinct cadence; I could even call it poetry.
These kinds of rambles found in Dazai literature are my absolute favorite. While it does give a deep sense of dread, it's strangely comforting at the same time, and this juxtaposition is just fantastic for me.
I found Yōzō to be much more relatable—or maybe "understandable"—than I had initially expected. I recall having read just the prologue somewhere at least a few years ago; I expected him to be a sort of strange person whose antics the reader would observe with curiosity. God, was I wrong!
His remark about hunger was what stood out to me the most:
I have had not the remotest idea of the nature of the sensation of “hunger.” It sounds peculiar to say it, but I have never been aware that my stomach was empty.
I completely understand this! Not to the extent of never having experienced hunger, but I have a very hard time recognizing when I'm hungry. I can never notice when I should eat until my stomach is physically growling, and sometimes even then I wouldn't feel—as in sense in my mind alone—"hungry." During those days, I wouldn't recognize the state of my body until I've forced myself to make or buy a meal (because I should put something in my body before my 1PM class, or something like that) and there is food sitting right in front of me. During periods of depression, this was much worse for obvious reasons. I've learned relatively recently that this reduced (in Yōzō's case, complete lack of) ability to percieve hunger is one of the lesser known characterists of autism.
My apprehension on discovering that my concept of happiness seemed to be completely at variance with that of everyone else was so great as to make me toss sleeplessly and groan night after night in my bed. It drove me indeed to the brink of lunacy. I wonder if I have actually been happy.
This portion also rang a bell. I think this one's a bit more obvious so I won't explain much. In short, this sense of alienation from every other "regular" person—as if either everyone else is crazy and you're the only sane person, or you're the insane one—is a familiar feeling to many autistics, often in those who haven't yet realized that they might be autistic. Again, this is also coming from my own experience.
Will I end up keeping track of every autistic moment in this book? Who knows.... —Just kidding! There are way too many. I'm getting a feeling that every single sentence in the book will be very, very autistic.
Hover to reveal hidden text.
It took me by shock how suddenly and bluntly the abuse was stated. I can't comment on this portion as much as I'd like; I think I lack the knowledge and vocabulary on the matter to properly convey my thoughts and feelings.
I think that Yōzō's reaction is something that is very much real—not telling anyone because he feels like it would be futile, and that people of higher power will simply tidy it up in a way that's convenient for themselves. I have a personal connection to this feeling (though, god, not anything as horrible as this!), and so it was very vivid and sort of alarming for me. The matter-of-factness of his writing cuts deep into the reader where it hurts and leaves an impact. Yōzō doesn't even consider telling anyone, because he had just accepted as fact that he wouldn't be able to get any help; it's incredibly saddening.
On a much more lighthearted note: I have the sense of humor of a child, so I giggled at the fact that I came across the word おチンポ (peepee). I really didn't expect that.
The different translations
I found out, as I was preparing to write this entry, that the title I knew as No Longer Human (by Donald Keene) had a re-translation: A Shameful Life (by Mark Gibeau). I read about some of the differences in this Ganriki article, and it looks like pretty interesting stuff!
I and many other Japanese people have felt it a bit strange that 人間失格 Ningen Shikkaku, literally "failure to qualify as a human," would be translated to "No Longer Human," so this was a bit refreshing for me. It looks like A Shameful Life also more closely matches my style of translation, which aims to be faithful to the writer's original style and format as much as possible (which is probably also due to our time periods). (This reminds me of the 図書 magazine article「君子、危うきに近寄らず」by Kameyama Ikuo. It's not available anywhere online, and it's only in Japanese, but it has some interesting commentary about Kameyama's Russian translation work.)
I'm considering comparing the two English versions sometime after I finish this read-through. It most likely won't be very thorough, but I'm very curious what differences in style the new version has. It's not at all often that I get to look at multiple same-language published translations of the same book from different times, so it may be a good learning opportunity for me as a translator.
Great, great thanks to Keene and Gibeau (beforehand) for their work. I know I haven't said many positive things about Keene's, but I'm sure I'll find very good things in both! And of course, Keene's contribution to the fame of this novel in the West is immesurable regardless of my opinions on his style.
2023/11/10 Revised entry 01
2023/11/09 Posted entry 01