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Mini Modern Classics (1) Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

In Books on March 31, 2011 by Miche Tagged: , , , ,

Akutagawa in PenguinI was wrong to say I’d never heard of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. I’d just forgotten the name; he was the author of Rashōmon. Indeed, the stories in this little book are contained in a collection I already own, but I hadn’t got round to reading them before today.

Digression: I’m not sure what the demarcation is between Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics, and it seems Penguin is equally unsure. Akutagawa is one of several authors in this series whose works are black-clad Classics.

There are two stories here, both first published in 1918. The Spider Thread is a brief parable about a sinner whose chance of escape from hell is thwarted by his selfishness. The main story concerns a misanthropic, obsessive painter at the court of a great lord in mediæval Japan. Commissioned to paint scenes from hell, he tortures his apprentices by making them model for him: he commands one to strip, then binds him in chains; he contrives for another to be attacked by an owl, and dispassionately sketches the man’s pain and terror. But there is one vital scene he can’t complete, because he can only paint what he has seen. His lord makes certain arrangements, and the result is a climactic scene of shocking cruelty.

The narrator is a courtier who tells the story partly from first-hand witness and partly through hearsay. The tone is conversational and at times almost rambling, with chatty asides such as “how shall I put it?” and “I am afraid that… I may have reversed the order of my story.” I expected to read this little book in about 40 minutes, but I found myself lingering over it to prolong the pleasure. The translation by Jay Rubin is, so far as I can judge these things, very good indeed (but it’s in American spelling – would it have killed Penguin UK to change color to colour?).

I will read more Akutagawa soon. But next up: Kingsley Amis.

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