Pico Iyer Journeys

Natsume Soseki

How adjust to a world in which the climax of a scene—and sometimes the central event—is going to sleep? We’re going to have to adapt, maybe even invert our sense of priority and our assumptions about what constitutes drama, as most of us foreigners have to do when traveling to Japan. Soseki is an unusually intimate writer—the public world is only his concern by implication—and in Japan (again as in the England that I know) intimacy is shown not by all that you can say to someone else, but by all that you don’t have to say.

Thus the very fact that Sosuke and Oyone express so little to one another in the novel seems almost to intensify the depth of their shared past; their silences say plenty. While never showing the couple touching or quite baring their hearts, Soseki evinces a sense of closeness—you could call it love—so intense that when one of them falls ill, it becomes hard to read of the other’s fears. It’s everything that doesn’t get externalized that knits them together in a community of two: one central scene finds Sosuke returning to his home to discover everyone, unsettlingly, asleep; and in perhaps the novel’s most magical moment, Oyone simply walks around their house, watching her husband, then her maid in sleep. Much of the novel suggests the silent, only half-shared agitation of a couple, one of whose partners falls instantly asleep, and the other of whom tosses and turns, wide awake.

Indeed, it’s typical of the predicament, the devotion the novel turns around that one partner realizes that to wake up the other might be to cause suffering; yet not to do so may be to allow a worse suffering to develop. And the very arrival of any outsider, whether Sosuke’s aunt or his brother, somehow deepens the sense of intimacy between Oyone and her husband. Soseki was suffering from acute stomach pains while he wrote The Gate—they would lead to his death six years later—so perhaps it’s no surprise that even a wind in the novel is so strong it can “send people into depression.”

The fact of nothing happening becomes a source of almost unbearable tension in nearly every Soseki novels. His protagonists keep waiting to be exposed, or for something to explode (you can see again how Ishiguro might have learned to create suspense from Soseki, just by having a character try to outrun a past that’s always gaining on him). Since Soseki’s people are nearly always hard up, and bound by many conflicting obligations, they’re anyway paralyzed in a practical sense. And since they seem terrified of dependence on others—Soseki himself was raised by a family not his own, and appears never to have outgrown the unsettledness that brought him—their only way of claiming independence is by sitting in a prison they’ve made themselves.

The challenge of a novel like The Gate is to find a way to turn inaction into a kind of higher detachment, suggestive of the sage’s refusal to be swayed by the vicissitudes of the world. One of the first things that may hit a Western reader on entering the world of a Japanese novel—though of course you can find this in Edith Wharton, too—is how every character is effectively a tiny figure in a suffocating world of associations and obligations; where many an American novel might send its protagonist out into the world to make his own destiny, in Sosuke’s Japan he cannot move for all his competing (and unmeetable) responsibilities to his aunt, his younger brother, his wife and society itself.

Free will is not even an option; for Sosuke it would be all but heresy even to think of his individual longings. “For some reason I have become terribly serious since arriving here,” Soseki wrote, in his “Letter from London,” a year after his arrival in England. “Looking and listening to everything around me, I think incessantly of the problem of ‘Japan’s future.’ “ Its future, then as now, involves trying to make a peace, or form a synthesis, between the ancient Chinese ideal of sitting still and watching the seasons pass, tending to social harmonies, and the new American way of pushing forwards individually, convinced that tomorrow will be better than today.

It’s no wonder that so many of Soseki’s characters are prematurely old; this is an old man’s—an old culture’s—vision, in which the past has much greater vividness than the future. Yet his people don’t feel nostalgia towards what’s passed so much as skepticism towards the prospect of getting a new life. New Year’s Day, the central festival of the Japanese calendar, features in many Soseki books, as here, and it has resonance only because, for figures such as Sosuke and Oyone, there seems scant possibility of starting anew or turning a fresh page.

Scroll to top