Revered: Kōbō Abe, Nobel Laureate Manqué

Luck + Death at the Edge of the World — Click to preview it now!

Luck + Death at the Edge of the World — Click to preview it now!

In each of my books there’s an About the Author page. It gives a few details about me, more oblique than specific. One part that is very specific, though, is a list of folks I find particularly inspiring. The current list goes like this:

He reveres, in no particular order: Vincent Price (actor, icon, gourmand), Salvador Dali (painter, human exhibit), Andy Warhol (painter, partyologist), Franco Mondini-Ruiz (installationist, magician), Kenzaburō Ōe and Kōbō Abe (novelists and madmen – the first won the Nobel Prize and the second ought to have), Ray Kurzweil (scientist, prophet), Tadanori Yokoo (poster artist, alien), and Jack Johnson (heavyweight boxing champion and maximum disturber of the peace).

In an ebook there isn’t really room to expand on this capsule description, so I’ve created a new page on this blog called Revered, In No Particular Order, that gets into the detail. The first installment dealt with artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz. The second deals with author Kōbō Abe.

The page is a work-in-progress, so be sure to visit from time to time and see what’s new. Here’s what I have to say about Abe.

Kōbō Abe (Nobel Laureate Manqué)

Japanese novelist, playwright, and provocateur Kōbō Abe (or Abe Kōbō, in the Japanese format) holds a very special place in my heart and my library.

Abe may be my favorite author of all. I normally accumulate books to read, not as fetishistic collectors items, but I do own a first American edition of every one of his books (at least all the ones that have been translated into English). Moreover, when I moved from Canada to Brazil and had to dispense with virtually my entire library of non-digital books, when space to bring anything with me was at a critical premium, those volumes were among the few dead tree books that made the trip.

Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe

Abe was the de facto head of a group of radical young artists–including writers, painters, architects, and filmmakers–called The Century Club, formed in the new freedom that came with the end of the American post-war occupation of Japan. He was a close friend and collaborator of another member Hiroshi Teshigahara (son of Sōfu Teshigahara, the legendary founder of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana).

Poster for the film of The Woman in the Dunes

Poster for the film of The Woman in the Dunes

Teshigahara made films from two of Abe’s novels, The Woman in the Dunes (book, film) and The Face of Another (book, film). The movie of The Woman in the Dunes won the Special Jury Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, with Teshigahara nominated for Best Director.

The Face of Another

The Face of Another

Abe’s writing is jarringly different from the kind of realistic, autobiographical writing that was common amongst Japanese authors of his generation. His writing has a magic realist flavor, often blending a notably fantastical element into an otherwise naturalistic narrative.

The Woman in the Dunes (1962, left) by Teshigahara and The Graduate (1967, right) by Mike Nichols. I'm just sayin'. (Click image to enlarge)

The Woman in the Dunes (1962, left) by Teshigahara and The Graduate (1967, right) by Mike Nichols. I’m just sayin’. (Click image to enlarge)

His works also tend to feature a prominent metaphorical construction or symbolic element.

In The Woman in the Dunes, a man who is wandering some dunes collecting insects is forced by some villagers into a sandy pit in the dunes from which he can’t extract himself. A widow lives there in the pit, spending her time endlessly digging up sand, which she passes to the villagers above to be sold, and the digging simultaneously saves her house, which is under constant threat of being buried. At first the protagonist tries to escape, but eventually he comes to make a life with the widow and to dedicate himself to the only task that’s open to him: the Sisyphean task of digging away the sand. Among other interpretations: he is like any of us, jostled by circumstance into a particular relationship with a particular person (when he might just as easily have ended up with someone else), and into a trade that seems pointless but in which he engages nonetheless, ultimately making his peace with both.

In The Face of Another, a man whose face has been badly burned is given a new, artificial face, modeled on the face of another man. He’s warned that wearing another person’s face might alter his identity, as indeed it does, with his physical alteration impinging on his inner self. Again, this might relate to any of us: the mask of public identity that we wear for the benefit of others alters and distorts our internal identity.

This is the kind of big, broad metaphor that’s easy to do badly, and for that reason is sometimes scorned, particularly by literary snobs. But just because something is obvious, and easy for a mediocre artist to screw up, doesn’t mean the thing itself is intrinsically flawed.

Just because talentless artists and as-yet-unskilled novices are instinctively drawn to paint faces doesn’t make portraiture any less valid an artistic endeavor. The Mona Lisa and Francis Bacon’s studies for portraits of Lucien Freud (1965 version, 1967 version) are just a couple of examples of a trite form being executed by a master.

The Woman in the Dunes, flanked by two editions of Inter Ice Age 4

The Woman in the Dunes, flanked by two editions of Inter Ice Age 4

When this big-metaphor approach finds its fullest expression, it results in works that have a particular kind of genius: bold and arresting. It’s the kind of effect achieved by Kafka (The Metamorphosis: guy wakes up an insect in a metaphor for alienation), Conrad (Heart of Darkness: guy voyages up a river into the heart of a wild continent while also journeying into the heart of man’s own darkness), or for that matter, David Cronenberg (The Brood: a woman gives literal, fleshy birth to her inner demons).

Abe is one of those who does it best–he is at the Kafka end of the scale.

But don’t take my word for it. Kenzaburō Ōe, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, has said that Abe ought to have won it as well, and he’s a pretty discerning guy.

Cover Designs by Christer Guillergan inspired by Abe (click image to go to the site)

Cover Designs by Christer Guillergan inspired by Abe (click image to go to the site)

Kōbō Abe is someone I return to over and over, and likely this reflection on him will likewise be something ongoing.

For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with Abe, this should be enough to get you started. For those of you who are, or who read this and find that you’re interested in him, you might want to check back or subscribe to the blog, since I’ll almost certainly add to his entry on the Revered page in the future.

Selected Links

  • The Scriptorium has an excellent page on Abe, including links to essays on his work.
  • The Horogai page also has a great Abe page with links to some fascinating material, inlcuding a detailed interview with his daughter and biographer, Abe Neri.
  • iBiblio has a wonderful Abe page, including a link to a very detailed timeline of his life.
  • The now defunked had a decent page on Abe which you can still read courtesy of The Wayback Machine.
  • Roger Ebert is, as usual, pithy and interesting in his review of The Woman in the Dunes.

You can watch an excellent, short documentary on Teshigahara the filmmaker and his buddy Abe the writer in three installments, below. (Be sure to turn on the “captions”on YouTube since some of the interviews are in Japanese–it’s the little red rectangle in the cluster of controls at the bottom right of the screen.)

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