A Shameful Life by Osamu Dazai is a novel framed within discovered journal entries meant for a previous lover of the character Yōzō, which describe his distance from society, his previous suicide attempts, and his drug/alcohol abuse. The story begins with Yōzō’s childhood where he realizes he needs to make everything he says a joke to disguise his disconnection from the world. From this, he meets a schoolmate, Takeichi, who gives him two predictions: that women will fall for him, and that he’ll be a great artist. He tests into a great higher school, though when he attends, he can’t seem to concentrate (he also meets one of his friends, Horiki, at this school who brings him into the Leftist party). Along the way, he meets a woman, Tsuneko, who decides to commit suicide with him, but Yōzō survives and she doesn’t. He’s kicked out of school for being part of someone’s suicide, and he goes to back to a friend’s house, Flounder’s, where he recovers and tries to pick up the pieces. This is when he starts to seriously draw his cartoons, which get picked up by Shizuko, his next girlfriend and a connection to large magazines. But even then, Yōzō drifts to another woman, Yoshiko, who is seen as innocent and virgin, so Yōzō decides to be with her. However, one night when he and Horiki are talking, they find Yoshiko with another man. Yōzō drinks so much and his health is deteriorating. He decides to kill himself with sleeping pills, but it doesn’t work. At the end he is taken to a mental hospital, and he charges himself with the question, “I’d never, not for a moment, gone mad. Ah, but I suppose that’s the sort of thing a lunatic would say.” At the end of his stay, he’s taken back to his brother’s place where he attempts suicide again, but the sleeping pills are replaced by laxatives.
It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Dazai’s life and Yōzō through the failed suicide attempts and the drug and alcohol abuse. It’s a novel that both feels confessional and reserved. Yōzō sees himself as different from society, and that he tries to disguise that through clowning around. And in part, some of Yōzō’s behavior may be explained through the slight references to his childhood servants doing bad things to him. The framing of the novel is also really interesting, with the journal entries being bookended by a random traveler looking for food. It’s a terribly sad novel, one that feels achingly close to Dazai’s life and for that reason, I found its portrayal of the human experience to be exacting.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.