For some of your novels, you’ve adopted an intellectual project — usually a poet whose work you read obsessively and integrate into the book. In Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! it’s Blake, in Somersault it’s R.S. Thomas, and in An Echo of Heaven it’s Kim Chi Ha. What purpose does this serve?
The ideas in my novels are fused with the ideas of the poets and philosophers I am reading at the time. This method has also enabled me to tell people about the writers I think are important.
When I was in my twenties, my mentor Jazuo Watanabe told me that because I was not going to be a teacher or a professor of literature, I would need to study by myself. I have two cycles: a five-year rotation, which centers on a specific writer or thinker; and a three-year rotation on a particular theme. I have been doing that since I was twenty-five. I have had more than a dozen of the three-year periods. When I am working on a single theme, I often spend from morning to evening reading. I read everything written by that writer and all of the scholarship on that writer’s work.
If I am reading something in another language, say Eliot’s Four Quartets, I spend the first three months reading a section such as “East Coker” over and over again in English until I have it memorized. Then I find a good translation in Japanese and memorize that. Then I go back and forth between the two — the original in English and the Japanese translation — until I feel I am in a spiral that consists of the English text, the Japanese text, and myself. From there Eliot emerges.
It’s interesting that you include academic scholarship and literary theory in your reading cycles. In America, literary criticism and creative writing are, for the most part, mutually exclusive.
I respect scholars most of all. Although they struggle in a narrow space, they find truly creative ways of reading certain authors. To a novelist who thinks broadly, such insight gives a sharper way of comprehending an author’s work.
When I read scholarship on Blake or Yeats or Dante, I read it all and I pay attention to the accumulation of differences between scholars. That’s where I learn the most. Every few years a new scholar puts out a book on Dante, and each scholar has his or her own approach or method. I follow each scholar and study that way for a year. Then I follow another scholar for about a year, and so on.
How do you choose whom to study?
Sometimes it’s a natural consequence of what I have been reading. For instance, Blake led me to Yeats, which led me to Dane. Other times it’s pure coincidence. I was on a promotional tour in Great Britain, and I stopped in Wales. I was there for three days and I ran out of books to read. I went to a local bookstore and asked the person working there to recommend some books in English. He suggested a collection by a poet who was from the area but warned that the book wasn’t selling very well. The poet was R.S. Thomas, and I bought everything they had. As I read him, I realized that he was the most important poet I could be reading at that point in my life. I felt that he had a lot in common with Walter Benjamin, although they seem very different. Both are concerned with the threshold between the secular and the mystical. And then I begin to think of myself as being in a triangular relationship with Thomas and Benjamin.
It sounds like when you travel you spend most of your time in your hotel room reading.
Yes, that’s right. I do some sightseeing, but I have no interest in good food. I like drinking, but I don’t like going to bars because I get in fights.
From “The Art of Fiction” interview no. 195 with Oe Kenzaburo, The Paris Review, Winter 2007