The Books of My Numberless Dreams

An obsessive intellectual project

Posted on: February 2, 2008

INTERVIEWER

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?

OE

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.

INTERVIEWER

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.

OE

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.

INTERVIEWER

How do you choose whom to study?

OE

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.

INTERVIEWER

It sounds like when you travel you spend most of your time in your hotel room reading.

OE

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

9 Responses to "An obsessive intellectual project"

Here I am, reading away at this and shaking my head in amazement because this guy’s regimen runs rings around just about every scholar I know or have heard of . . . and then I reach the concluding lines . . .

Good to know Oe is a human being after all.

Thank you for this.

“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.”

Which baffles, slightly. R.S. Thomas? The poet who wrote an elegy to his wife in which the late, lamented dear was compared to an expiring budgie? (Larkin referred to him as “Arsewipe” Thomas).

It never fails to elicit gails of mirth around here, when I read said elegy out, in a profound voice (about once a year) to my beloved:

“…And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.”

Well, the rest of the interview was quite interesting, I thought.

Thanks for this. Oe sounds like a doood! Read, read, read all day and then get sloshed in your hotel. BUT don’t venture to the bar or you will lamp someone!

I like Oe’s project – all that intense studying. Seems to me the only real way to inhabit a writer’s space. I would take small issue with the interviewer who says that in American literary criticism and creative writing are mutually exclusive….huh?

And I’d love to know what Oe would fight about.

Verbivore’s right – it would be nice to know what Oe is talking about there.

Also, John B., I could introduce you to some scholars with exactly comparable “regimens”. They’re not all phonies!

John B., I admit that I was not so amazed by his regimen. I was very impressed but figured that that was the sort of thing great writers do on a regular basis, being not entirely of this world.

I’m glad you liked the last bit. I liked the absurd ending it gave to the excerpt.

Steven A. but he won the Nobel Prize! That quote you gave does end rather oddly and I didn’t like the bit that came before about death taking her out for a dance.

Went and looked for one of his “Selected Poems” to see what I could see and while the few that I glanced at left me fairly unmoved, I took to “Song”.

Wandering, wandering, hoping to find
The ring of mushrooms with the wet rind,
Cold to the touch, but bright with dew,
A green asylum from time’s range.

And finding instead the harsh ways
Of the ruinous wind and the clawed rain;
The wild creatures and their pain.

Mark Ha! The author photo that they used in the interview made him look like someone’s fun grandfather.

Verbivore I didn’t understand what he meant by that, really. Surely there are fiction writers who read lit crit…maybe they aren’t assign any in MFA programmes? Yeah, I just don’t know.

Amateur Reader aha, I deliberately left it on that tantalizing note to encourage readers to go out and seek what would induce Kenzaburo to engage in fisticuffs.😉

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