Blazing the Trail: An Interview with Peter Owen (Part Two)
By Steven Fowler.
Steven Fowler: I’d like to discuss your immense presence in introducing Japanese literature into this country.
Peter Owen: The first we ran with was Osamu Dazai. He was very good but has been forgotten now. We actually lost Samuel Beckett because we couldn’t afford to do both his novel and Dazai’s. This was a year or two before Waiting for Godot. We had the offer for Murphy. But at that point Beckett was unsaleable; no one had ever shown interest. He was way over 50. He had some reputation but never any sales. James Laughlin had published him, as he was very astute. My first editor was Muriel Spark. She read both, as I did. I decided on Dazai. We did have some success with his first book for us, No Longer Human.
SF: He is still highly respected and controversial in Japan, I believe. He tried to commit suicide a number of times.
PO: Like Yukio Mishima.
SF: Less successfully than Mishima. He’s still renowned in Japan.
PO: We did a few of his books early on, but I said to Muriel we can only afford to one or the other, Beckett or Dazai, and I prefer Dazai. I said, ‘Why the hell should I do Beckett? He’s never sold. He’s never going to sell.’ Of course that was one of my biggest mistakes. We just couldn’t afford to do another unsaleable writer at the time.
SF: Mishima followed Dazai?
PO: Yes. Confessions of a Mask. I met him in Tokyo after we’d bought it. This is one of our quite important books, I think, that’s been in numerous editions. We’ve done a number of reprints of that novel. The book still goes on, as it’s one of his best.
SF: What were your impressions of him?
PO: I thought he was terrifically nice, I really liked him. He spoke English, which amazed me. I had written ages before I arrived in Tokyo, and when I arrived at the hotel I suggested I’d like to see him – and there was a letter waiting in the hotel delivered by hand. I went out to dinner with him that night. I met him several times in Tokyo and in London. I had one of the last letters from him before he committed suicide.
SF: What was your reaction to Mishima’s suicide? It must have been a great shock.
PO: I was very surprised, because it was a side to him I had never seen, but in a way it made sense because he was very vain. He’d go the gym every day, even in London. He joined a gym for a couple of weeks and went there every day. He was worried about his looks. I think, too, he had written himself out. He’d written everything he’d wanted to write, and he though he was descending into middle age and then old age. Also he had these rather odd nationalist or fascist tendencies. He was a very complicated man.
SF: And gay as well.
PO: He was gay, yet he was married, I never met his wife. Someone told me he used to drink a bottle of whisky a day, but I never saw him drunk. In fact the really important Japanese writer for us was Shusaku Endo, who should have got the Nobel Prize.
SF: The year Kenzaburo Oe won?
PO: Yes, he never got it over Oe, who is barely readable and was a relatively unsuccessful Nobel laureate. Endo was being read internationally. We got publishers for him in every country, but the Japanese didn’t want him.
SF: Because he was Catholic?
PO: He was Catholic, and he was very candid about what his countrymen had done over the centuries. He had written about the vivisection of American prisoners of war in the forties, which was unforgivable to them. He was very critical of their politics and culture. I mean, he was passionately Japanese, but he was very critical of the social scene and what they had done. We were working towards getting him the Nobel. We travelled to Sweden and to Finland, and we met the Swedish academy at a lunch given by our Swedish publisher, and he went over very well. But I was told by the publisher that Endo would never ever get it because they try not to give it to Catholic authors – and of course the Japanese didn’t want a Christian to win it. I heard in later years he would definitely get the prize, but the Japanese apparently intervened and Oe was the alternative candidate. However, Endo was the more significant author.
SF: And Natsume Soseki.
PO: Yes he is a major international writer, their classic realist, the Japanese Dickens. We published Yasunari Kawabata, too. I met him with Mishima. I didn’t particularly like him; there was something about his manner. And I couldn’t speak to him – we needed an interpreter. We brought out a few of his books, although I personally didn’t think he was all that great a writer.
SF: Master of Go is a masterpiece.
PO: I was talking to Mishima twenty years before I met Endo. I said I believe he’d win the Nobel Prize, and he said no he wouldn’t. Mishima was very shrewd. He said it would go to Kawabata, and so it did.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Steven Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 1st, 2009.