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A guide to the work of Kenzaburo Oe, novelist and Nobel laureate

Oe, who died on March 3, was one of Japan’s most important contemporary writers. Here’s where to start with his work.

Kenzaburo Oe in 2012. Oe, the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1994, died March 3 at 88. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Kenzaburo Oe, one of Japan’s most prominent postwar writers, died March 3. He won the Nobel Prize in 1994 for what the committee called his creation of worlds “where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”

Oe (pronounced OH-eh) characterized his process as one of continual revisiting and elaboration: “I try to fight the same opponent one more time.” His work circled tirelessly around a few essential ideas, namely the life of his son Hikari and the bombing of Hiroshima. He called his style “peripheral,” since it turned away from conventional values of equanimity and artful vagueness; instead his prose was ornate, maximalist and direct in its examination of ugliness and suffering.

Here’s a brief guide to Oe and his writing.

Start with …

The keystone: “A Personal Matter”

Oe is best known for this 1964 semi-autobiographical novel, a dark comedy about a callow young academic who decides to leave his wife after their baby is born with a brain herniation. “A Personal Matter” is the first of what would become several novels about the life of Oe’s son Hikari, who appears under his own or other names (Eeyore, Mori, Kikuhiko) throughout his father’s fiction. The experience of parenting a child with a severe mental disability is what Oe called one of the central, structuring pillars of his work.

The nonfiction classic: “Hiroshima Notes”

Though Oe is primarily known as a novelist, “Hiroshima Notes,” an essay collection from 1965, is one of his best-selling works. Drawing on interviews with survivors and the doctors and nurses who cared for them, the book also offers a stark portrait of the American and Japanese governments’ efforts to suppress the bleakest aspects of the bombing’s aftermath.

The one Oe himself might have recommended: “The Silent Cry”

“The Silent Cry,” from 1967, tells the story of two brothers who return to their family’s village with the aim of selling their childhood home, only to find themselves entangled in its dark past and reenacting their ancestors’ disturbing acts. “It is a work from my youth and the faults are apparent,” Oe told an interviewer. “But I think it’s the most successful, faults and all.”

For something different: “Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!”

The novel “Rouse Up” traces a father’s revisiting of an old and impossible promise: to demystify all the complexities of life for his son Eeyore, who is about to turn 20. The narrator, K, finds a lifeline in the work of the mystical romantic William Blake, using the poems to bridge the gap between them.

Kenzaburo Oe, lyrical novelist and Nobel laureate, dies at 88

To learn more about Oe’s life …

Read his interview in “The Paris Review.”

“I don’t think I’m that interesting to listen to,” Oe told Sarah Fay in 2007. “I haven’t seen many great things. I haven’t been to a new world. I haven’t had many strange experiences. I have experienced many little things. I write about those small experiences and revise them and reexperience them through revision.” Yet their conversation makes for a beguiling read, as Oe was disarmingly candid on topics from his prose (“very difficult, very twisted, complicated”) to his daily habits (how he coped with insomnia: four whiskeys and two to four cans of beer — which, he allowed, tended to decrease his reading ability).

Read the New Yorker’s profile of Oe from 1995.

The profile was occasioned by Oe winning the Nobel and telling anyone who would listen that he planned to stop writing fiction after the release of his son’s music, David Remnick reported at the time: “because the mission he set for himself thirty-one years ago — to speak somehow for his severely brain-damaged son, Hikari — is no longer necessary.” Oe published another novel, “Somersault,” four years later. The profile provides an unusually intimate view of Oe’s life, including his tense relationship with the novelist Yukio Mishima, and hints at the political activities he would undertake in later years.

Listen to his Nobel lecture.

Oe riffs on the speech given by the first Nobel laureate in literature from Japan, Yasunari Kawabata in 1968, to offer his own meditation on what it means to be a Japanese writer — “born and brought up in a peripheral, marginal, off-center region of the peripheral, marginal, off-center country.”

And once you’re done reading, here’s more:

Listen to Hikari Oe’s music.

Drawings of Hikari’s musical compositions appeared in some of Oe’s books, and after the head of Nippon Columbia took an interest, Hikari became a popular classical composer, mostly for piano, flute and violin. The music “is entirely accessible,” one reviewer wrote in 1995, “and while the early pieces are appealing primarily for their simplicity and charm, some of the later, darker ones are extremely moving, with haunting melodies and striking elegance and economy of development.”

Watch Juzo Itami’s movies.

Itami, Oe’s brother-in-law, inspired his novel “The Changeling” (2000). The movie that made Itami internationally famous was his “noodle western” from 1985, “Tampopo,” in which a ragtag band tries to save a single mother’s failing ramen restaurant. But if you’re looking to explore the connection between Itami and Oe, you’ll want to seek out “A Quiet Life,” about a young woman left to take care of her younger brother after her mother and writer-father take off for Australia.

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