Pico Iyer Journeys

Natsume Soseki

When Soseki traveled to England, he complained that he couldn’t even “trust myself to a train or cab…their cobweb system was so complicated.” He felt patronized by the cleaning women and landladies who tried to explain their culture to him (already a teacher of English literature) and both pride and insecurity arose as he felt himself superior to people who (physically) were always looking down on him. But if you read the novels, you begin to suspect that this sense of imprisonment was simply something he took with him on the boat to England. Not only is his take on standoffish and ghostly England startlingly similar to a foreigner’s response—even today—to Japan; the England he evokes, of class distinctions and wraiths and people falling on hard times, is almost identical to the Japan he describes in book after book.

In his dismissals of the “lower class” barbarians he meets and the way his bleak London boarding-houses are so far from what English literature led him to expect, he sounds in fact very much like V.S. Naipaul half a century later; yet, much like Naipaul, Soseki, for all his unease in Britain, could seem a strikingly European figure when he went back to Tokyo, affecting a frock coat, a mustache and a love of beef and toast. It is one of the curiosities of Japan, ever since the Meiji Restoration, that its identity has been defined largely by an identity crisis; to this day, both Japanese and those foreigners who contemplate the country keep wondering if it’s leaning too much towards an outdated Confucian past or towards an unsteady Californian future. Is progress cyclical or linear–should people honor their ancestors or their ambitions?–sometimes seems the central question in Japan. Soseki is one of the first writers to make it the heart of his concerns, telling individual stories that seem to speak allegorically for something much larger.

Yet what a novel like The Gate only slowly discloses is that all the talk of nothing happening and all the meticulous avoidance of conflict and feeling speaks only for too much feeling in the past. Soseki had an uncommonly acute sense of the power of passion—“It is blood that moves the body,” he writes in his late novel, Kokoro—even if he chooses to concentrate on those moments when people live with the embers of what was once a devouring blaze. The problem is not that a character like Sosuke “hated socializing”; it is that, once upon a time, he was “exquisitely socialized,” a flamboyant “bright young man of the modern age,” whose prospects seemed “boundless.” It’s only his acting too strongly that has condemned him to a life of inaction.

It takes a while for a Western reader, perhaps, to see that in Soseki’s novels, as in Japan, external details are not just decoration; they’re the main event. It’s as if foreground and background are reversed, so that it’s the ads in the streetcars, the sound of laughter from a neighbor’s house, the talk about the price of fish that are in fact the emotional heart of the story. A man is robbed in The Gate and we read on excitedly to see what has happened. But when the victim is revealed, he “did not appear in the least ruffled” and sits at home with a palpable sense of well-being, talking about his dog who’s off at the vet’s.

It’s not hard to imagine that this is the character who’s found the peace that all Soseki’s characters long for, just by sitting apart from events and not letting them affect his joie de vivre. Indeed, his very confidence is rewarded by his receiving back the item that was stolen from him. By the end of the novel, though unmoved by Confucius and all talk of Buddhism, Soseki’s protagonist suddenly takes off on a ten-day retreat to a Zen temple in the mountains, and there discovers a world in which the fact of nothing happening can be a kind of blessing.

Nothing can be known or controlled, Zen training teaches; the only thing you can do is scrub floors and do your rounds and perhaps clear your head in the process. Enlightenment comes nowhere but in the everyday; self-realization arrives only when you throw self—and any idea of realization—out the window. Accept life and what it gives you and then you become a part of it.

It may seem strange that Japan’s favorite novelist was an anxious, passive, haunted character writing about nervous disorders and falling asleep and paralysis (even the dog at the vet’s is suffering from a “nervous ailment”). But it speaks for an inner world—and again this is evident in Murakami—that sits in a different dimension from the smooth-running, flawlessly attentive and all but anonymous machine that keeps public order moving forward so efficiently in Japan. Perhaps the novel has always been one way in which the individual can get his own back at the world; perhaps this is even one of the more useful souvenirs Soseki brought back from his life-changing stay in England. One of his most celebrated essays, delivered two years before his death , was called “My Individualism” and in it he spoke out about a “nationalism” that, only a generation later, would indeed become poisonous.

Nothing is happening on the surface of his characters’ lives even as so much around them seems a whirlwind of movement and perpetual self-reinvention. But each of these may be as deceiving as the other, as evidenced by the fact that, after a century of turmoil and convulsive change, Japan seems not so different, in its questions, from where it was in Soseki’s time. In Soseki, as in Japan, it’s the fact of nothing happening that makes for a tingle of expectation, a sense of imminent passion and, in the end, the kind of privacy that stings.

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