All his life Gustave Flaubert claimed that only the story counted and that its author should disappear without trace behind it, but however passionately a writer may assure that her or his work has nothing whatsoever to do with her or his life, such complete objectivity is an illusion. It’s impossible to achieve because nobody’s soul is an empty slate. Every word that a person jots down, be it on the spur of the moment or after long thought, be it in fiction or non-fiction, inevitably mirrors past experiences, education and views. To truly understand a literary work it can therefore be helpful to know the biography of its author, notably when the writings are complex or full of symbolism. In her critical study The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō Yasuko Claremont from the University of Sydney analyses the literary oeuvre that the recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in literature produced between 1957 through 2006 and links it with important events in the Japanese author’s private life beginning in his childhood.
As Yasuko Claremont illustrates, the writing of Ōe Kenzaburō – like every author’s – isn’t static but changes over the decades and often mirrors events that had a more or less important impact on him as a person, on his family or on society altogether. She also demonstrates by several examples that the works of the author, notably early ones like Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids and award-winning Prize Stock, clearly show the marks of his partly traumatic, partly spiritual experiences as a boy in a remote village surrounded by dense forests during and shortly after World War II and then as a young man in war-shattered Tōkyo where he studied French literature. According to the scholar these formative years quite naturally account too for the more constant elements in his opus, above all for Ōe‘s themes that are generally depressing as well as full of violence and despair in all their (cruel and destructive) manifestations. She states as well that his entire literary oeuvre is permeated with humanistic moral views that are clearly influenced by Western literature and philosophy, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, C. G. Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Mikhail Bakhtin and the Bible. Moreover, Yasuko Claremont finds the roots of the mythical abstractions that he uses throughout his career in the ancient legends that he heard in his childhood and that he internalised. The most obvious changes in Ōe’s writing the scholar sees in his approach to themes and characters. The three big stages of development that she identifies in the author’s long as well as successful literary career are a deeply Sartrean existentialism that saturates his rather bleak early work – e.g. the story Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids or the novella Seventeen – on which follows a more positive phase surrounding the principle of atonement – as in the novels A Personal Matter and The Silent Cry – that eventually leads the author to the concept of salvation in daily life – like in the novel Somersault.
Having read so far only one novel by Ōe Kenzaburō (»»» read my review of The Changeling on Edith’s Miscellany), it was difficult for me to follow the literary and spiritual path that Yasuko Claremont traced in such detail. It’s true that she integrated summaries of all the author’s important works into her study (not least because several of them aren’t available in English translation), but naturally it wasn’t the same as knowing the full text. Certainly, her target audience were other scholars and fans of the author with a comprehensive knowledge of his work. Nonetheless, this critical study of The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō was an interesting and as regards the novel that I read and reviewed also an enlightening experience that made me curious about the en-NOBEL-ed writer’s other works, above all the later ones that seem to be less bleak and less overtly violent.