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Eschewing the cheerlessness of modern-market memoirs

by David Cozy

Those who have read Donald Keene’s 1996 memoir “On Familiar Terms” may wonder whether it was necessary for him to bring out another that covers much the same ground. One suspects that Keene published “Chronicles of My Life” simply because he had been asked to write a series of columns about his life for the Yomiuri Shimbun (they also appeared in English in the Daily Yomiuri) and that, having done so, he was reluctant to let them go to waste. “Chronicles” is, therefore, too much of a rehash to be called an important memoir, but Keene is such a skillful writer that, even though the tales he tells are familiar, the elegance of the telling makes them a pleasure to read.

CHRONICLES OF MY LIFE: An American in the Heart of Japan, by Donald Keene. Columbia University Press, 2009, 196 pp., $19.95 (paper)

No further evidence of Keene’s talent is needed beyond his success in convincing us, in the pages of this short book, that a life spent mostly in a “cloistered academic career” can be packed with the pleasure that comes from a passion for learning.

As a 16-year-old freshman at Columbia, for example, during a day at the beach, Keene asks his Chinese friend Lee to teach him some Chinese characters. Lee makes a horizontal line in the sand, the character for “one,” and goes on to teach Keene a few more simple ideograms. Most of us would leave it at that, but Keene, budding scholar that he is, pressgangs Lee into daily lunches at a Chinese restaurant where his friend guides him through a Chinese novel. “Each character I learned,” Keene writes, “was a precious postage stamp that I pasted in the album of my memory.” The album grew as he went on and, of course, came to be stuffed with Japanese language and literature.

Essential to his mastery of the language — he studied at the U.S. Navy Japanese School — were the dark years before and during World War II. This is ironic in a man who writes of his political stance: “The one belief I did hold to firmly was pacifism.” And although Keene served as an interpreter and translator during the war, one never doubts his commitment to peace. When he describes a photograph of himself interrogating Japanese prisoners “in a war-torn field” he sounds more bemused than proud.

Nor is his writing confrontational, and that is one of this book’s charms. As he takes us through his career as a literary scholar he grinds no axes, mounts no crusades. He describes being snubbed by a writer whom he had thought of as a friend, Kenzaburo Oe, but far from expressing resentment over such treatment, Keene says merely that his relationship with Oe “turned into an enigma.”

This is one of the very few unsuccessful relationships Keene describes. More typical are his accounts of friendships with luminaries such as Kobo Abe (“most of our time together was spent in laughter”), Bertrand Russell (“a beer together after every lecture”), and Yukio Mishima (“while eating, we laughed a great deal”). Keene’s friendships with the literati over the years form one of the threads he uses to guide us through his life.

The other is the literature he has produced: many important translations and works of literary history and criticism. “A record of my activities exists in the form of the books I published,” Keene writes. This would not be true for a less prolific author, but Keene, as he noted in his earlier memoir, resolved when young to publish a book a year, so his bibliography provides a fairly complete snapshot of how he was spending his time.

The balance between these two threads, his life and his work, shifts as the book nears its end. As Keene ages he meets fewer new and interesting people, and makes fewer discoveries in and about his adoptive home, Japan. It seems that as the memoir approaches the present, Keene has less from his life to write about, so he resorts instead to potted summaries of his work. Writing about his 2006 book, a study of the 19th-century painter Watanabe Kazan, for example, Keene gives us a couple of dense paragraphs on the history of Japanese portraiture.

It is telling that he never feels the need to resort to info-dumps of this sort when writing about the livelier times in his life. In an age when angst and abuse are considered to be the only hallmarks of authenticity in autobiographical writing, Keene’s book, even with its small blemishes toward the end, remains an enjoyable exception, an account of a man and his happiness. In this regard, Keene’s life, like his prose, is remarkable.