NATSUME SOSEKI (1867-1916) AND THE “HOURLY DEMANDS OF MODERN LIFE”April 7, 2008 at 12:27 am | Posted in Art, Asia, Books, Globalization, History, Japan, Literary | Leave a comment
“…from walking to rickshaws, from
rickshaws to horse-drawn cabs, from
cabs to trains, trains to automobiles,
automobiles to airships, airships to
airplanes—when will we ever be
allowed to stop and rest?
Where will it finally take us”?
Soseki, Kojin (“Wayfarer”) 1912/1913
“How could one fulfill the hourly
demands of modern life and live by a
Soseki, Sore Kara (“And Then”)
Soseki Natsume (1867-1916)
The Japanese novelist and essayist Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) was one of the greatest Japanese novelists of the modern period. In his fiction and essays he displays keen psychological insight into the personality of man undergoing the transition from traditional to modern.
Soseki Natsume was born Kinnosuke Natsume in Tokyo; he is known in Japanese literature by his pen name of Soseki. His parents were rather well-to-do townspeople, whose fortunes, however, declined after the Meiji restoration of 1868. An unhappy childhood, including a period spent with foster parents, and the realization that he was an unwanted child, left an indelible mark on Soseki’s imagination which he was to carry to the grave.
Of a studious disposition, Soseki early learned classical Chinese, with much enthusiasm, and English. Entering the university in 1884, he specialized in English literature. During his formative years Soseki was exposed to the growing conflict between excessive Westernization and Japanese nationalism, which no doubt resulted in his being at once very modern and very Japanese. Soseki mastered English to the extent of being able to read and write it with great fluency. At the time of his death his library included hundreds of English-language books on all subjects, many of them containing his marginal annotations in English.
Graduating from the university in 1893, Soseki took a post at Tokyo Normal College and in 1895 went to Matsuyama, where he found a position in the high school. In 1896 he moved to Kumamoto to the Fifth National College. Later that year a marriage was arranged for him with a young woman from Tokyo. In 1900 a government scholarship made it possible for Soseki to go to England for 2 years of study. Unfortunately, his stipend was not adequate for him to lead the life he would have liked. His loneliness in a foreign city, his concern for money, and his arduous studies all contributed to nervous disorders which were to haunt him for the rest of his life. It was even rumored that he had a mental breakdown.
After his return to Japan in 1903, Soseki was confronted with the floodtide of nationalism which was leading to the Japanese attack on Russia. Although he firmly admired the literature of the West, he did not indulge in excessive admiration or slavish imitation of all things foreign but, rather, sought to create something of lasting value based on the traditions of his own country.
Soseki resided in Tokyo, where he was given a lectureship at the Imperial University. During the 4 years that he remained there teaching, a chore for which he had little liking. Soseki began writing novels and acquiring a literary reputation. It was in 1907 that he abandoned the security and prestige of a university professorship to work for the Asahi Newspaper with the understanding that his novels would be published serially in that distinguished publication. From that time until the end of his life he devoted himself to writing, spurning official honors.
Career as a Novelist
Wagahai wa Neko de Aru ( I Am a Cat) appeared in 1905. An immediate success, it is a series of loosely connected episodes having as their narrator a cat, his master a shy, ineffectual schoolteacher with a delicate digestion. With delightful irony Soseki depicts an assortment of contemporary types caught in the struggle of daily life and torn between idealism and materialism. Botchan (1906; Young Master) tells of the adventures of a youth who leaves Tokyo to teach in a provincial high school in the south of Japan. It was perhaps partly inspired by Soseki’s own experiences in Matsuyama. The young master learns a bit about life, leaves the school, and returns to Tokyo, where he finds a satisfactory job. Kusamakura (Pillow of Grass), written in the same year in a poetic style, was described by Soseki as “a novel in the manner of a haiku.” It is an intensely impressionistic account of a painter from the city wandering in a mountain village. Nowaki (1907; Autumn Wind), written in rather a more serious vein, portrays modern people struggling with ideals and suffering intensely in the illusion of this world.
Soseki’s next three novels form a trilogy. Sanshiro (1908) tells of a youth’s disillusionment in first love and disappointment in life. Sorekara (1909; And Then) describes the plight of an educated young Japanese in early 20th-century society suffering from hypochondria and boredom. In Mon (1910; The Gate) Soseki deals with the quest for happiness and understanding of a middle-aged, childless couple.
The theme of loneliness is taken up in great depth in Kojin (1912; The Wayfarer) and Kokoro (1914; The Heart). The hero of The Wayfarer is driven to a state of near madness by the realization of his loneliness. In The Heart , Soseki’s most pessimistic novel, suicide is presented as the solution to man’s inevitable solitude. The Sensei ( Teacher )having suffered great mental anguish in life, at last finds the courage to be the master of his own destiny by removing himself from this earthly existence. Michikusa (1915; Grass on the Wayside), frankly autobiographical, sums up much of Soseki’s own resentment toward life. Its hero, his personality disintegrating, needs love but cruelly, rejects it and feels betrayed by those whose affection and loyalty he should have enjoyed.
Soseki’s health was deteriorating rapidly because of stomach ulcers by 1915. His last novel, Meian (1916; Light and Darkness), a most complex analysis of egocentric personalities of the modern age, was left unfinished at his death.
Kusamakura (Penguin Classics)
Natsume Soseki (Author)
A stunning new translation—the first in more than forty years—of a major novel by the father of modern Japanese fiction
Natsume Soseki’s Kusamakura follows its nameless young artist-narrator on a meandering walking tour of the mountains. At the inn at a hot spring resort, he has a series of mysterious encounters with Nami, the lovely young daughter of the establishment. Nami, or “beauty,” is the center of this elegant novel, the still point around which the artist moves and the enigmatic subject of Soseki’s word painting. In the author’s words, Kusamakura is “a haiku-style novel, that lives through beauty.” Written at a time when Japan was opening its doors to the rest of the world, Kusamakura turns inward, to the pristine mountain idyll and the taciturn lyricism of its courtship scenes, enshrining the essence of old Japan in a work of enchanting literary nostalgia.
About the Author
Natsume Soseki (1867–1916) is widely considered the foremost novelist of the Meiji era (1868–1912).
Meredith McKinney is the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. She teaches in the Japan Centre at the Australian National University.
Glenn Gould lived the “hermit lifestyle” after his retreat from the concert stage in 1964. Just a little later the English translation of Soseki’s book appeared, and the “Oracle from Toronto” considered it a great inspiration for his life as an artist. He used it as a subject in one of his radio programs and kept referring to it until the end of his life.
The subject of the Three-Cornered World (TCW) is the relationship between the artist and his environment. While the book’s Japanese title can be best translated as “Grass Pillow”, a symbol for a journey, the translator chose the current title based on the book’s statement that the artist inhabits a three-cornered world from which the one corner that is part of all non-artists’ life, the rationality, has been removed. Apart from the obvious interest that a Gould devotee may get out of reading the book that inspired the world’s greatest recording artist, this book is a remarkable bridge between the traditional Japanese literature and it’s modern counterparts.
The TCW describes a symbolic trip of the painting/writing protagonist up a mountain and his stay at a deserted inn, where he “interacts” with the innkeeper’s daughter. Soseki wrote in a very precise and poetic style and this book has been properly characterized as a word-painting. The initial trip up the mountain greatly reminded me of a similar trip in Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood”. During the ascent the artist reflects upon life, society and the artist. He puts forward the notion that an artist interacts with the “real world” as if it were a two-dimensional picture, that he himself is not really part of. Through interaction with characters he encounters during his trip and subsequent stay this notion is worked out in more detail and receives comments from the outsiders. In the second part of the book the artist is mesmerized by the innkeeper’s daughter, who is a favorite subject of local gossip. While I am not quite sure that the author intended to give the ensuing “distant interaction” humorous overtones, I thought that the lack of action following the lady’s sharing of the steamy hot tub downright funny. Yet, the girl becomes the symbol of the artist’s subject and the book ends in a beautiful finale stressing the importance of compassion in art.
In all this is a short, very worthwhile read. The story flows seemingly effortless in a way that reminds one of the famous liner notes that Bill Evans wrote for Miles’ Davis “Kind of Blue” album. All characters are truly three-dimensional and the writing style is fluent and evocative. I addition, this book gives a unique Eastern perspective on the relationship between art(ists) and society.
There are many themes examined in The Three Cornered World, the most predominant being the interior thoughts of the painter-poet on his vision quest. Much mush has been written of the Japanese poets’ concern with nature, but here, for all its landscapes and mountains and moons and spring airs, we see what that nature poetry is truly all about. Nature in Soseki (for, among other things, Soseki is creating, not only a novel, but expressing a theory of aesthetics) is not an object apart from the artist (Who is different from most people) it is a sense object, and nature is not the thing, but the source of sensual awareness. Japan is a sensual country, and the Japanese are a sensual people. The Japanese, for all their supposed rigidity and formality, are deeply emotional and intense, and are the most avowedly aesthetic (Not rational, not formal, but artistic) culture that our species has produced. The Three-Cornered World examines this theme of the artist in the world and connects this theme to a more general concept of the artist as a person aware of the world’s artists–at least the asthetics of China and England–in a manner that suggests the importance and value and uncertainty of the life of the artist. While Soseki longs for a Buddhist escape from the “Real” world, at the same time, his artist is at his most absurd, even silly, when he acheives that escape from the real world. No matter what, the man is never more alive, more real, than when he is with the incredible O-Nami, and he is never more in the world than when thinking of her. As with many real Japanese women, no man worthy of living would fail to fall in love with her, as Soseki’s protagonist certainly does. I did.
Natsume Soseki (Author)
Ten Nights’ Dreams
Natsume Soseki (Author)
This famed collection of ten connected stories or dreams has a surrealistic atmosphere. The author, Natsume Soseki, is a novelist and scholar of English literature. He ranks with Mori Ogai (1862-1922) as major figure in modern Japanese literature. Among his works, Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I am A Cat) and Bochan (Master Darling) are especially known to almost every Japanese and are read even by primary school pupils. His portrait is printed on the Japanese 1,000-yen note.
This is a very short volume of short stories, 10 stories only four to five pages a piece, that Soseki wrote in 1908. They are supposedly based on his dreams, but it seems that most likely, he took early notes, that they are pure fantasy. The stories have a very dreamy, magical quality to them, and as the experienced reader of Soseki knows, this is something that is quite absent from his more serious works. The stories main themes center around death and suicide, but they can also be quite mundane as can be seen in The Eighth Night which the reader only sees what the Narrator sees from the perspective of sitting in a barber’s chair.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Natsume Soseki is a novelist and scholar of English literature. He ranks with Mori Ogai (1862-1922) as a major figure in modern Japanese literature. Among his works, Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I am A Cat) and Bochan (Master Darling) are especially known to almost every Japanese and are read even by primary school pupils. His portrait is printed on the Japanese 1,000-yen note. Soseki was sent to England as a government-sponsored student when he was a teacher at the fifth Higher School in Kumanmoto Prefecture. It was at the time that japan gave up its national isolation policy and was emerging as a modern state. He experienced this historical turning point during his stay in London. On arriving in London, one of the first things he saw was the returning soldiers from the Boer War being mobbed in the streets. One year later began the twentieth century and the British Empire faced the death of Queen Victoria. In 1902, Japan and Great Britain signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. A sense of scepticism toward the progress of civilization was fostered by Soseki’s reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, among other things. His interest in Natural Science arose through his friendship in London with a Japanese scientist, Ikeda Kikunae. He was in a position to compare the states of two different nations and to see the Japanese civilization from another perspective. When he began writing novels, his experience in England was naturally reflected in his works. On returning home, Sosecki replaced Lafcadio Hearn at the First Higher School and at Tokyo Imperial University where he lectured on literary theory. Eventually he gave up teaching and began writing for the Asahi Shimbun where he spent many years before his death.
Paperback: 78 pages
Publisher: Trafford Publishing (June 8, 2000)
Natsume Soseki (Author)
The Wayfarer is one of Soseki’s major mature works. It tells the story of Ichiro, his wife Onao, and his brother Jiro, who are involved in a peculiar triangle. Ichiro suffers from his excessively cultivated intellect and introsective sensibility. He has his share of passion toward Onao, but like her, he is incapable of its true expression because he is incapable of discarding his self. Neither Ichiro nor Onao knows an easy compromise; and because of the old traditions they live within, divorce is impossible. What makes the situation worse still is that in their society their Strindbergian battle cannot be brought out into the open; it is a constant duel of two minds which allows for no finality. When Ichiro declares: “To die, to go mad, or to enter religion – these are the only three courses left open to me,” it suddenly become apparent that his is the pllight of modern man in hopeless isolation from his own universe.
Natsume Soseki (1867-1916)