Pico Iyer Journeys

Natsume Soseki

Literary critics will tell you that Soseki was almost unique among the writers of his day because he was sent on a Japanese Ministry of Education program to live in England at the age of 33, and brought back from his two years there an even more pronounced taste for the 19th century European fiction he’d already mastered at home.  They will remind you that he was born in 1867, a year before the Meiji Restoration changed the face of Japan, releasing it from more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation (since 1635 or so, it had been illegal for any Japanese to leave the nation). They will note that he became the defining novelist of the Meiji Period in part because he embraced in his life the central question of the day, which was how his country could combine “Japanese spirit, Western technology,” as it called it, trying to elide through slogan-making what could be whole centuries of differences. The great novelists who would follow later in the century–Yasunari Kawabata, Junichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima–would all, in their different ways, be writing about how Japan had already lost its integrity and its soul to the West.

Soseki’s time in London was famously miserable—he felt himself “a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves” and almost lost his mind amongst what seemed to him cold people and strange customs—but after his return to Japan, he took over Lafcadio Hearn’s position teaching  English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University, the country’s Harvard (and Soseki’s alma mater, where he had been only the second Japanese to graduate in English Literature). He left the university in 1907, after a series of nervous breakdowns, and then published nearly all his 14 novels in nine years before dying in Tokyo, where he had been born, at 49, in 1916, four years after the Meiji Period ended. He dabbled in stream-of-consciousness narratives, Arthurian tales, satires, detective stories and travel pieces, yet even the titles of his books often stress the fact of nothing happening. Sorekara simply means “And Then,” while Kokoro is an enigmatic word for “Heart.”

A little as his life-story suggests, the man himself seems at once profoundly Japanese and something of a rebel; over and over in his books we meet a quiet maverick who, because of some moment of passion that he feels he must spend his life atoning for, has all but opted out of society, and abandoned every trace of initiative. His withdrawal from action marks him as a failure in Japanese terms, but it may also suggest his deference to “the iron laws of karmic retribution,” as the protagonist puts it in The Gate—and even a pride at not participating in a world of ambition and exploitation. Soseki’s wounds are never far from the surface of his books—the hovering around a gate through which his characters will never pass, figures in dire financial straits with holes in their shoes and leaky ceilings, an obscure sense that that there is “guilt in loving.” His characters defect from Japanese society without quite arriving anywhere else.

The Gate puts us into its prevailing mood—and theme—with its very first paragraph. A man is lying on his veranda in the autumn light of a regular Sunday, and almost immediately we are in the relaxed, undramatic world of day-to-day life, while also feeling an edge to things, allied perhaps to that character’s “case of nerves.” The novel seems to abound in casual descriptions of Tokyo in 1909– we hear the “clatter of wooden clogs” in the street, see the ads in a streetcar (“WE MAKE MOVING EASY”), read of posters advertising a new movie based on a Tolstoy story. But of course none of these details is casual, and all intensify the sense of restlessness and regret that haunt the man in his room.  The more Sosuke keeps insisting on how his is a life of no consequence—the more the author keeps stressing that the couple are “thoroughly conventional and unexceptional”—the more we may wonder what all this deliberate stasis is concealing.

Thus the novel quickly establishes itself as a story of absences and withholdings, about all the things that aren’t spoken about, but that keep on ticking away in the background like the couple’s grandfather clock. The prematurely old and settled young couple, going through their unchanging motions, look at Sosuke’s brother Koroku, ten years younger, and feel the impatience and drive they’ve lost. They carefully step around everything they’ve been thinking about—the fact that Sosuke longs to find what you could call the courage of his non-conviction and that their lives seem already to be behind them. Soseki builds a powerful kind of tension precisely by giving us so little (and this is all evocatively conjured up in this new translation by the late William F. Sibley, whose first draft, completed just before his death in 2009, was prepared for publication by his friend and colleague Edward Fowler).

Observant readers of Haruki Murakami may recognize something of the highly passive, though sympathetic soul in the Tokyo suburbs bewildered by everything that seems to happen to him, or that appears to have abruptly vanished from his life (Murakami has named Soseki his personal favorite among the “Japanese national writers”). Others may recall how even Kauzo Ishiguro, though writing in English and having left Japan at the age of six, wrote his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, about people from Nagasaki, a few years after the atomic bomb there, going through a whole book without mentioning it. The central fact of their lives is the one they never speak about.

But perhaps the best way into this world may be to turn to some of the movies of Yasujiro Ozu,  one of the defining artists of 20th century Japan, whose films are famously quiet, shot at tatami level, with a camera that seldom moves, in long, slow takes, about those pressures that are never explicitly addressed—and draw their titles often from the seasons. In Japan, as is often noted, there are separate words for the self you show the world and the one that you reveal behind closed doors; where we regard it as a sin to be reserved at home, the Japanese take it as much more cruel to be open in the world. This reticence has little to do with trying to protect oneself, and everything to do with trying to protect others from one’s problems, which shouldn’t be theirs; it’s one reason Japan is so confounding to foreigners, as its people faultlessly sparkle and attend to one another in public, while often seeming passive and unconvinced of their ability to do anything decisive at home.

“Under the sun the couple presented smiles to the world,” Soseki writes, in one of his most beautiful sentences here; “under the moon, they were lost in thought: and so they had quietly passed the years.” At one point Oyone asks her husband, “How are things going for Koroku?”

“Not well at all,” he answers, and with that they both go to sleep.

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