There is a fine essay in the October (I believe) Isis (2008) tracing Hemingway references in the song Moonlight. Dylan’s early comments on Hemingway support the author’s argument that there is a substantive, thematic link we can forge between Dylan’s gothic song about love and some kind of violence in a dark and threatening world, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms, both of them narratives of love inextricable from war. Dylan’s admiration for Hemingway’s experiments in how much can be borne by the fewest words influenced Dylan’s own experiments in how much can be borne by metered and sung language. This is what I want to be reading: close attention to Dylan’s work that brings him further into the kinds of canons people conventionally elevate. Hemingway is already becoming superannuated, more often elevated in convention than in honest response. Good enough: I want my Dylan conventionally elevated, if only because it will bring him routinely to the attention of enervated intellectuals who may be refreshed and awoken.
Hurrah for the author of that article, who forged strong links in the chain of a particular cultural lineage. And now for something slightly different:
“You know Tomi in Shinogawa, don’t you? He’s a brother who helped me out once. Well. this fellow’s the bookie at Tomi’s place, a guy called Kiyomasa. Seems he’s a good man, but from what I heard caused some kind of trouble that put him on bad terms with the younger men. So they asked if we couldn’t take him in here in Asakusa till they get it out of their system…”
“…A good bookie makes all the difference in a gambling joint–it’s up to him whether a session comes alive or falls flat….”
“…As I said before, there are some men who are like the paneling in a john, however old they get, and there are others who become the main pillar of the house while they’re still young. Age just by itself doesn’t carry any weight.”
A dying man summons a doctor, and instead of treatment, requires an audience for his confessions. “I’m 73, doctor. I’ve done pretty much as I pleased all my life, and I don’t expect to be cured at this stage.” The doctor is attentive, and the story he takes in and then relates to us is detailed, engrossing, personal. Ichiji Eiji’s life in the Japanese underworld is a tale of love and theft: debt and schemes, escaping on the run, good luck and bad, characters who follow the code or don’t, women seduced and lost and remembered. John Bester’s translation is an unadorned and generically colloquial English, if there is such a thing. Reading Confessions of a Yakuza can link you to a way of life that is exotic and familiar, a world that is obsolete and immediate, a single life that is long and eventful and ends soon enough.
Confessions of a Yakuza is on its own a voyeuristic treat, and paced so briskly that a long life truly does end too soon for the reader. Also, on my own I enjoy 20th century Japanese literature enough that I probably would have read this for no ulterior reason. This made me a good reader for our purposes here: I was captivated enough by the book that the bits shoplifted for Love and Theft really wrenched themselves out of their own context and whacked me hard. I wasn’t just skimming the book waiting to find Bob Dylan lyrics. the I counted 5 phrases that ended up in Floater, one that ended up in Po’ Boy, two in Lonesome Day Blues. If I missed anything, I’m happy to be corrected.
Old men and their lives. There’s something odd and charming in imagining Bob Dylan reaching out to this dying Yakuza, hearing in his saga the kind of drama we imagine might affect him–you know, gamblers and women, honesty outside the law, the simple hard work of going where your own luck and your own bag of tricks can take you. The singer of Floater seems to be the aged version of the singer of Tangled Up in Blue–he also lies or sits in sunlight coming through a window, and then his life pours through him. Tangled Up in Blue gives us a young man who abandons cars and love in romantic dark nights, who manfully hauls in fishing nets while poignantly recalling the one woman he’ll never escape, who loses himself in a reverie of Dante while getting high with the stripper who knows his name, who is brutal and selfish and loses more love, who confesses he doesn’t understand the plots of anyone else’s life. He ends up as restless and alone as he began, but there will be more chapters to his tale.
The fellow in Floater can’t do much better than his own second cousin. He is timorous as he mutters about going out in the wind ( a breeze can turn into a squall, you know). He won’t be intimidated by anyone old or young, goddammit. Contemplating the new grove of trees sends him reeling through the years, back to the generations who scattered over the country making homes for themselves, starting a history that would end up as the singer’s fragmented, irritable, searching memories. His grandparents’ dreams and hope lost even to the imagination and sympathy of their grandson, who refuses to recall his own dreams and hopes. Finally, love in this song is the nuisance of having to kick someone out–someone who wants you to give something up. What is it that this singer won’t give up, tears or not? What’s he treasuring that he won’t give up? The song, by the way, ends with a line right from Confessions of a Yakuza.
Oh that crazy enigmatic sponge, that Bob Dylan. Just when you want to set him as a stone in the rushing river of American history, of American traditional forms of music and poetry, you have to deal with Japanese gambling dens. Sure enough, someone like me with enough time on their hands can construct arguments and conclusions about why a Japanese gangster *belongs* in Love and Theft. That is fun to do, but not the real work: hearing whatever lives there are to be heard in the songs.
Confessions of a Yakuza, by Junichi Saga, tr. John Bester, is published in paperback by Kodansha Press. I got my copy through Amazon’s used book service. For serious fans who want a very special experience of uncanny glimpses of songs, I urge you to read the book straight through.