Paul Murray, biographer of both Lafcadio Hearn and his close contemporary Bram Stoker, has combined working as a writer with a distinguished career in the Irish Foreign Service, including a stint in Tokyo in the 1970s before eventually becoming Irish ambassador to South Korea.
Thinking the book would only take 18 months, Murray started this biography in 1979, at a time when Hearn was largely unknown in the West. In fact, it took 13 years, perhaps not surprising given just how prodigious a writer Hearn was and how substantial his surviving correspondence is. Murray shrewdly leads us into his fascinating story by describing Hearn as a slight, almost penniless young man struggling to make his way after emigrating to the United States from Ireland. Only at the end of the book are we returned to the traumatic circumstances of Hearn’s childhood, the psychological impact of which would be acutely felt in the delight in the macabre mostly vividly expressed in “Kwaidan,” Hearn’s retelling of Japanese ghost stories.
Known for his great sensibility and cultural sensitivity, Hearn also had a spectacularly irascible side. His 1890 letter to the owner of Harper’s Magazine stating exactly what he thought of him and his magazine is quite simply one of the greatest pieces of scatological invective in the English language. You only regret that Hearn did not so magnificently vent his spleen more often.
Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.
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