Pico Iyer Journeys

Natsume Soseki

Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too. There are few emphases in spoken Japanese—the aim is to remain as level, even as neutral as possible—and in a classic work like The Tale of Genji, as one recent translator has it, “The more intense the emotion, the more regular the meter.” As in the old-fashioned England in which I grew up—though more unforgivingly so—an individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away. That the relation of surface to depth is uncertain is part of the point; it offers a degree of protection and makes for absolute consistency. The fewer words are spoken, the easier it is to believe you’re standing on common ground.

One effect of this careful evenness—a maintenance of the larger harmony, whatever is happening within—is that to live in Japan, to walk through its complex nets of unstatedness, is to receive a rigorous training in attention. You learn to read the small print of life—to notice how the flowers placed in front of the tokonoma scroll have just been changed, in response to a shift in the season, or to register how your visitor is talking about everything except the husband who’s just run out on her. It’s what’s not expressed that sits at the heart of a haiku; a classic sumi-e brush-and-ink drawing leaves as much open space as possible at its center so that it becomes not a statement but a suggestion, an invitation to a collaboration.

The viewer or reader has to supply much of the decoration to a nearly empty room (or sentence), and so the no-color surfaces again advance a sense of collusion, which in turn leads to a kind of intimacy (“Kyoto is lovely, isn’t it?” is one of the most important sentences in Soseki’s novel The Gate, and the other protagonist’s response to it, quintessence of Japan, is to think to himself, “Yes, Kyoto was lovely indeed”). For the visitor who has just arrived in the country of conflict avoidance, the innocent browser who’s just picked up a 20th century Japanese novel, it means that the first impression may be of scrupulous blandness, an evasion of all stress, self-erasure. For those who’ve begun to inhabit this world, it means living in a world of constant inner explosions, under the surface and between the lines.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Soseki (his family name is Natsume, but he’s usually known by the pen name he gave himself, which means “stubborn”) is still, 96 years after his death, the Japanese novelist most honored in the nation’s classrooms and until recently featured on the back of every 1000-yen note (equivalent to our $10 bill). His protagonists are masters of doing nothing at all. They abhor action and decision as scrupulously as Bartleby the scrivener does with his “I prefer not to”; the drama in their stories nearly always takes place within, in secrets revealed to or by them. This creed of doing nothing is a curious one in a country that seems constantly on the move, but in Soseki’s world doing nothing should never be mistaken for feeling too little or lacking a vision or doctrine.

The Gate is a perfect example of this. On its surface, it’s just the story of Sosuke and Oyone, a determinedly self-erasing couple in a small house in Tokyo in the first decade of the 20th century, when the book was written. Sosuke, for reasons that furnish the gradual drama of his story, has all but stepped out of the official world, even though (and sometimes because) he feels such a rich sense of duty towards so many of its members. The book delights, as few of Soseki’s others do, in the everyday details of the late-Meiji landscape, from gas lamps to cigarettes and men in greatcoats to the sound of a wooden fish-block from the local temple. Yet its author, unexpectedly, goes out of his way to stress that his protagonists are living in “mundane circumstances,” as befits those who are “lackluster and thoroughly ordinary to begin with.” In a certain light, the entire story is about what never comes to pass: a character falls ill, and then nothing much happens; a long-feared reunion doesn’t come to pass; a search for spiritual revelation seems to reveal very little.

But look closer, and you see how everything is happening, between the spaces and in the silences. To take an example almost at random, Chapter 5 begins with Sosuke’s aunt, much discussed but always somewhere else, finally visiting his house, and exchanging pleasantries—you could call them platitudes—with her nephew’s wife. Nothing could be more ordinary or without effect. Yet notice that the aunt’s first comment is about how unnaturally “chilly” the room is, and recall that the external temperature, and especially the slow cycling of the seasons, are always telling us something about mood and tone in this book. Part of the beauty of the novel comes from the way that it very carefully begins in autumn, takes us through the dark and cold of winter and ends, in its final passage, with the arrival of spring.

We also learn, in the chapter’s opening paragraph, that Sosuke’s aunt (on whom his welfare seems to depend) looks strikingly young for her age; we’ve already been told that Sosuke—as his aunt likes to stress—looks unreasonably old for his. We read that Sosuke ascribes his aunt’s healthy appearance to her having only one child, yet even that thought underlines the fact that he and Oyone have none. As the laughter of kids comes down from the landlord’s house up the embankment—the location itself is no coincidence and sounds coming in from outside are at least as important here as the words that are never exchanged–Sosuke’s wife can’t help “feeling insignificant, even remorseful.” The aunt then says that she owes the couple an apology—which conspicuously prevents her from actually offering one—and refers pointedly to her son’s graduation from university (since Sosuke, we’ve already been told, owes much of his present predicament to having dropped out).

The whole scene might be taking place around me, every hour, in the modern Western suburb of the 8th century Japanese capital, Nara, where I’ve been living for 20 years. “Oh, you look so well,” a woman says to another, outside the post office, emphasizing, with a craft worthy of a Jane Austen character, that she didn’t before, and might not be expected to now. “It’s only because I have so little to worry about,” the other will respond, to put the first one in her place. “It’s hot, isn’t it?” the first will now say, perhaps to suggest that nothing lasts forever. “Isn’t it?” says the second, and no observer could find any evidence for the combat that’s just been concluded.

As Sosuke’s aunt, in The Gate, goes on about how her son is getting into “com-buschon enignes”, and on his way to profits so “huge” they could ruin his health, she’s drawing attention to the money she’s not giving to Sosuke, the success of her son by comparison and, in Meiji Japan, the fact that her progeny is eagerly taking on the Western and the modern world, and not stuck in his Japanese ways, and the past, as Sosuke seems to be. Sosuke himself, meanwhile, is characteristically absent, at the dentist’s office, taking care of a problem that his wife ascribes to age.

One magazine he picks up in the dentist’s waiting room is called Success, and in its pages he reads of the furious forward movement that is exactly what seems closed to him. He also reads therein a Chinese poem, about drifting clouds and the moon, and finds himself at once moved by the realm of changeless acceptance and natural calm it describes, yet excluded from its quietude, too. When the dentist appears—he also has a “youthful-looking face” despite his thinning hair—he tells Sosuke that his teeth are rotting and his condition “incurable.” He then removes a “thin strand” of nerve. Back home, Sosuke picks up a copy of Confucius’s Analects before going to sleep, but they have “not a thing” to offer him.

Nothing much has happened, you might say, if you consider the seven pages that have just passed. But we’ve learned more about Sosuke, his anxiety, his relations with his aunt, his premature sense of decay and his (and his culture’s) inability to commit themselves either to Success or to old China than any amount of drama could provide. Everything is there, if only you can savor the ellipses.

Scroll to top