In William Finn’s March of the Falsettos, young chess prodigy Jason laments “I’m too smart for my own good / And I’m too good for my sorry little life.” This short, sharp, sad little novella is those two verses stretched to book length, albeit a book of barely ninety pages.
Written in 1939 and never translated into English until now, Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl (Joseito, 女生徒) is immensely simple in construction but packs more into individual sentences and paragraphs than many other novels do, even ones ten times this size, thanks to Dazai’s peculiar and powerful language.
Schoolgirl reads a bit like Dazai was given a writing exercise. Take the most banal story you can imagine — a day in the life of a teenaged girl attending middle school and still coping with the recent death of her father — and make the telling of it into a manifestly un-banal experience. This Dazai did, by having the character turn herself inside out in front of the reader and expose herself in all her conflicted adolescent contradiction. The mere act of getting out of bed is hellish enough, to say nothing of what she feels when packing herself off to class, or when praised by her mother for being so helpful around the house now that Dad’s no longer around.
The one consistent thread through her personality is her self-contradiction. “Maybe I am a little too happy,” she says on entering her classroom, mere moments after thinking “the truth [of myself] could be found in aspects of myself that I don’t like.” She oscillates, sometimes in the same moment, between a blissful and blessed contentment with the natural world and with dismay at and disgust with other human beings.
Dazai was always fascinated by the brutal contrast between what goes on under a person’s skin and what they demonstrate to their peers, their family and to society generally. He uses it here, and nine years later (at, regrettably, the end of his career) he would use it as the dichotomy that fueled No Longer Human: there’s me, and then there’s everyone else. Here, though, it has a different flavor: it’s the cry of a fly trapped in amber, unable to either completely submit to its condition or evolve into something more.
The limbo of being neither a child nor an adult is a peculiarly modern literary theme, one given that much more heft by the twentieth-century’s merger of both psychological realism and the confessional mode in various works. The Catcher in the Rye comes to mind as one obvious example, but there are others deviate from the obvious template: A Clockwork Orange, for instance, or Barry Hines’s criminally undermentioned A Kestrel for a Knave (the source of the outstanding film Kes). With Schoogirl the scope is narrower and the insights more abstract than those stories, but Dazai is able again and again to make one word do the work of twenty, and in the end I felt an “expanded” version of this story would have added only length and not depth.