Back to Japan

Two months of overly-planned reading, firstly my Victorian-slanted Rereading July, then my August German Literature Month, have led to my neglecting another of my favourite areas, the genre commonly known as J-Lit.  Fear not though, oh reader (not that you were, I’m sure), for today marks the return of Japanese literature to my little blog; and in this post, we will catch up with an old friend…

*****

Natsume Soseki is the most famous and popular modern Japanese writer (Haruki Murakami says so, and I am not inclined to argue), and I’ve read a few of his works over the past couple of years, so when I saw a copy of Sorekara (And Then) advertised for pre-sale on The Book Depository earlier this year, it was the small matter of two minutes before the transaction was finalised – apart from having to wait six months, that is…  I received the book just in time for my birthday and was able to settle down last week and read what I had already begun to describe as my birthday book – and very good it was too 🙂
Sorekara (translated – a good while back – by Norma Moore Field) is a sequel of sorts to Sanshiro, Soseki’s coming-of-age novel, despite the different characters.  Whereas Sanshiro dealt with a university student coming to grips with life and love, Sorekara introduces us to Daisuke, a thirty-year-old graduate with a cynical outlook on life and no plans for the future beyond sitting, thinking and continuing to live off his father’s purse.  The intellectual and (to be perfectly honest) somewhat lazy Daisuke is forced to deviate from his path of least resistance by two unrelated events.  The first is an attempt by his family to arrange a marriage for him with a woman from a family to whom Daisuke’s father owes a debt of honour.  The second is the return to Tokyo of a friend from Daisuke’s university days – along with his wife, Michiyo…
In Sorekara, the reader is bound to the figure of Daisuke, but this does not mean that we are meant to sympathise fully with him.  In fact, he is a very difficult character to get a grasp of, and while we can, at times, understand his motives and his aversion to the future his family wants for him, at others it is difficult to see him as anything other than a good-for-nothing, indecisive daddy’s boy.  Daisuke obviously considers himself to be an intellectual, and encourages this manner of thinking in those who surround him.  However, there are numerous occasions in the book where his supposedly-superior intellect founders in discussions with his family.  As his reasoning goes around in circles, and he blames his inability to make himself understood on the people who outsmart him, we begin to feel that Daisuke is not such a sympathetic character after all…

While Daisuke is initially an interesting recluse, the more we get to know him, the more pompous and irritating he becomes.  He looks down on his family (and at one point admits as much), yet he is, in truth, far inferior to them in many ways While ostensibly free, he is actually trapped in a gilded prison partially of his own making, at the beck and call of his father and brother, unable to even scrape a small amount of money together when his friend needs it.  His constant philosophising can grate, and his strained nerves, aggravated by certain colours (reminding me of the ludicrous Frederick Fairlie from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White), do not exactly endear him to the reader.

It is not until Daisuke’s self-assured persona begins to show cracks, and his facade starts to crumble, that the reader begins to feel more sympathetic towards him.  The catalyst for this is the return of Michiyo, a woman for whom Daisuke still has feelings, and who originally preferred our hero to his friend.  With all this going on in the background, it’s certainly a bad time for Daisuke’s father to start pushing his son into an arranged marriage…

Of course, with a writer such as Natsume Soseki at the helm, there is a lot more to Sorekara than just the tale of a spoilt rich boy.  It’s actually a reflection of the clash of conflicts between traditional Japanese culture and the newly-arrived western influences (which the author had, shall we say, certain reservations about).  While the university-educated Daisuke rejects the constraints of the old system, he is equally disenchanted by the rush towards a free society, with capitalism and all this entails.  He accuses his father of being stuck between the two systems and eras – in fact, it is Daisuke himself who is an unfortunate casualty of the shift from old to new.

Sorekara is probably not the best book for people to begin their acquaintance with Natsume Soseki.  While it is an absorbing story, it doesn’t have the humorous touches of I am a Cat and Botchan, and it is not as accessible as casual, airy works such as Sanshiro and Kusamakura.  Those who have already fallen under the spell of the “Japanese Dickens” though will enjoy the book immensely, whether they identify with the protagonist or not.

Where next with Natsume Soseki?  Well, apparently Sorekara, as well as being a companion book to Sanshiro, is the second in a loose trilogy, of which the third part is The Gate (Mon), a book which takes us into the next stage of the Japanese man’s life.  So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to see a man about a dog gate…

9 thoughts on “Back to Japan

  1. Thanks for this outstanding review, Tony, which taught me so much about an author I've never read. Glad you received it for your bithday; I have a lovely image of you celebrating it in a perfect way with a perfect book. The ringing endorsement by Haruki Murakami, for which I'm in the least inclined to argue either :), is another wonderful reason to read this book.

    (I know that Haruki's favorite American authors are Raymond Carver and John Irving, so I've made a steady effort to read more of those two men. They are indeed wonderful!)

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  2. An author on my TBR, that I've yet to get to (yes another), although thanks to Mel U, I've picked up The Oxford book of Japanese short stories & this writer features in it. Did you know he was a haiku poet. Also have you come across Oxford's VSI series, I've just finished Modern Japan.

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  3. Hi Tony, have you come across This collection, It's a PDF of this short story collection of several Japanese writers, that's copyright free, I found it thru Rise (in lieu of a field guide) who received the tip from Nihon, a fantastic Japanese literary blog.

    Paulownia: Seven Stories From Contemporary Japanese Writers (1918), translated by Torao Taketomo
    http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark%3A%2F13960%2Ft3rv0g978;page=root;view=image;size=100;seq=9

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  4. Belezza – Thanks 🙂 It was a good birthday present (to myself!). Speaking of birthday books, I'd like to get the Murakami-chosen collection 'Birthday Stories' at some point, as that has some of his favourite writers included (e.g. Carver and Irving).

    Colleen – Definitely! I'm fast coming to the end of the Soseki books available easily (i.e. stocked at the Book Depository), but I'm tempted to hunt down second-hand copies of other books because I just want to read everything of his 🙂

    Gary – Yes, he was a very talented man. I haven't heard of the VSI series, so I'll have to look at that. I did look at the PDF, but I'm a little wary about it for a few reasons – the translation doesn't look fantastic, and it'll be very difficult to read on my Kindle 😦 Thanks anyway 🙂

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  5. Gary – Ah, Very Short Introductions – them I know 🙂

    I lived there for three years, and I have a couple of history/society books – that's what got me into J-Lit in the first place. It is good to have background knowledge to back up the fiction, I agree.

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  6. I have read only Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki-I see this lack of reading of his works as one of the biggest of many holes in my reading of the Japanese novel-I hope to read at least two in the next year.

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  7. He's one on my completist list, too. I didn't know about the trilogy. I have read Mon (The Gate) and I associated it in a trilogy with Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside. Incidentally, NYRB is publishing a new translation of The Gate in Fall/Winter 2012.

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  8. Mel – He's a must-read (the comment by Murakami came in the introduction to an Akutagawa collection – which I hope to read soon). the ones I have enjoyed most are probably 'Kusamakura' and 'Sanshiro', but the two later ones I've read have also been very good – just a little darker.

    Rise – I think those two were meant to form a later (loose) trilogy. 'Sanshiro', 'Sorekara' and 'Mon' are meant to show three different stages in a man's life – but you can only trust Wikipedia so far 😉

    While that's good news about the NYRB version, there is another one available now, so I'm not sure I'll be waiting that long…

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