~written by Osamu Dazai
~translated by Allison Markin Powell
Osamu Dazai's novella Schoolgirl was one of his breakthrough works as an author. Dazai is best known for his short novels The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, both of which I have read and enjoyed, No Longer Human being my personal favorite. I was very pleased to learn that One Peace Books recently published a new translation by Allison Markin Powell of Dazai's earlier work and was even more pleased when I was offered a review copy of the book. Originally published in Japan in 1939, Schoolgirl has been translated into English at least two other times (once by Lane Dunlop in 1992 and once more previously by Ralph F. McCarthy in 1988), neither of which I have read, making Powell's translation the first I've had the opportunity to enjoy. Schoolgirl is also the first volume in One Peace Books' new Modern Japanese Classics series which will continue to feature novellas as well as longer works of literature.
Schoolgirl follows the day in the life of a Japanese teenager in the late 1930s from the moment she wakes up until she once again falls asleep. She tells her own story candidly, more for herself than for anyone who might be prying. I'm not always a fan of stream-of-conscious storytelling, but Schoolgirl flows naturally and remains engaging throughout the novella. As the story progresses, the girl reveals her desires from petty wishes to more substantial dreams, shares her frustrations from minor irritations to deepest grief, and exhibits a growing maturity in how she approaches her life. She is a girl on the brink of adulthood, intelligent and sincere and a little bit selfish, and not without her share of troubles and worry.
One of the things that makes Dazai's works so potent is the sense of authenticity with which his characters are imbued. They are likeable, imperfect, and completely believable as people. This is true of the titular schoolgirl as well. I found her to be charming and appreciated how honest she could be with herself. She's still in the process of growing up and finding herself. There were moments when I couldn't help but smile and think "Just wait until you're a little bit older, you'll understand better." She may be a fictional character, but I found myself wishing the best for her as if I actually knew her. Another thing that impresses me about the characters in Dazai's stories is that no matter how unlike me they are, I am still able to identify with them and care about them. I am in no way a late 1930s Japanese schoolgirl, but even though most aspects of our lives are different we still shared some similar thought processes and personal quirks. Dazai's writing can be surprisingly universal.
Although I haven't read any other translations of Schoolgirl in order to compare, I was quite happy with Powell's work on the novella. The accessible translation reads nicely, is almost poetic in places, and while I would exactly call it "bubbly," it is well suited as the voice of a precocious teenage girl. I did find myself interrupting my reading to look up references to pieces of literature mentioned with which I was unfamiliar, so it would have been nice if a few cultural notes would have been included as well. This additional information is not absolutely critical to the understanding and enjoyment of Schoolgirl although it does add some extra depth to the narrative. While Schoolgirl may not be as obviously tragic as some of Dazai's following works, echos of the story and the themes he deals with in it can be readily found later on. I am very glad that I finally had an opportunity to read one of Dazai's earliest successes. I'm also looking forward tremendously to seeing what other delights One Peace Books will be bringing readers as part of the Modern Japanese Classics series.