‘Light and Dark’ by Natsume Soseki (Review)

You may have seen our current Golden Kin-Yōbi giveaway of the book on the left, but I was actually lucky enough to recently get a copy of my own.  Columbia University Press very kindly sent me one of these beautiful hardbacks of the master work of a great Japanese writer.  Unfortunately, he never got around to finishing it – although some beg to differ on that question…

Light and Dark (translated by John Nathan) is a novel Natsume Soseki was writing during his final, fatal illness.  The book, a meticulous psychological study of a married couple around the time of the First World War, first appeared in daily serial form in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and it consists of 188 sections, each around two pages long.  Very different to his early, humorous works, it’s generally considered Soseki’s masterpiece.

The main characters of the story are Yoshio Tsuda, a thirty-year-old recently married company worker, and his wife Nobiko, usually called O-Nobu.  What little plot there is centres on Tsuda’s stay at a small doctor’s clinic to undergo, and then recover from, minor surgery.  Before the operation, he visits a few friends and relatives, and he receives people in turn while he is convalescing.  Not a lot really happens in terms of action, but beneath the surface…

Soseki uses his story to probe at the mental state of his main characters, and he takes turns in following the husband and wife.  As each stumbles into social encounters, the bland words they utter are of less significance than the thoughts churning inside their heads – the writer is much more concerned with what’s going on inside than out.  A good example is a typical thought Tsuda has when ‘talking’ with his wife:

“Tsuda had the feeling that a failure to declare the absence of any particle of doubt would reflect on his character as a husband.  At the same time, to be seen as a pushover by a woman would be painfully distasteful.  Despite the battle for supremacy inside him between these two aspects of his ego, he appeared cool and collected on the surface.”
pp.106/7 (Columbia University Press, 2013)

Soseki, in a Henry James-esque manner, offers us an insight into each speaker’s thoughts and strategies – for this is all about games…

The main theme of the novel is married life and the way two people negotiate their roles and identity inside a marriage.  Tsuda and O-Nobu are recently married, but the two are not ideally matched; thus arises a battle for supremacy, one full of misunderstandings and conflicts.  While O-Nobu feels lighter away from husband, she is determined to possess him wholly, feeling that only she understands what is going on beneath his implacable exterior:

“Everything I have written in this letter is true.  I haven’t lied, or exaggerated, or gone out of my way to put your minds at ease.  If anyone doubts this, I shall detest him, disdain him, spit in his face.  Because I know the truth better than he.  I have described the truth beyond the superficial facts on the surface.  A truth that is understood only by me.  But this is a truth that will have to be understood by everyone in the future.” (p.178)

Both she and Tsuda profess to love each other; but what does that actually mean in a Japanese marriage… 

Their marriage is certainly not a relationship in isolation though.  They are surrounded by concerned (or interfering) family and friends, and in the Japan of the time, these are rather strong, heavy ties (in fact, more akin to chains…).  With many of these people, particularly Tsuda’s younger sister O-Hide, quietly despising O-Nobu, both Tsuda and his wife have battles to fight on several fronts.  This makes it even more important for the two to resolve their differences and show a united face to the Okamotos, Yoshikawas and Fujiis.

There is, however, an obstacle to this coming together, and Soseki gradually hints at a deeper issue.  The reader eventually guesses at (then is told of) Tsuda’s prior attachment to a woman who has since married someone else.  This strand takes us to the final pages of the book, where Tsuda goes to a spa resort in an attempt to revisit the past – whether to exorcise it or accept it we’ll never know…

Reading Light and Dark is not always easy work, but it’s a wonderful creation.  Where the surface is calm, with all the ‘players’ keeping an even, smiling countenance, beneath the facade a whirling pool of emotions is to be found.  It’s almost like a chess game with each player desperately trying to stay a few moves ahead of the opponent.  However, there is the occasional eruption, such as a confrontational scene with O-Hide and Tsuda, one which is wrought with emotion.

With slightly old-fashioned language, little plot and a slow pace, I doubt that this would be a book for everyone.  However, I found it excellent, and Light and Dark is a must for real J-Lit aficionados.  I’m a big Soseki fan, and this takes pride of place in my personal library

A welcome added extra in this edition is an introduction by the translator, John Nathan, in which he discusses the plot and his treatment of the translation.  He explains that the decision to keep as much of the style of language as possible was a deliberate one, and a decision which avoids homogenising the text (the James comparison was his too).

Interestingly, he also touches on the abrupt ending and informs us of four attempts in Japanese to complete the book (including one by Minae Mizumura, author of A True Novel), plus an attempt by Kenzaburo Oe to analyse how the story may have continued.  However, Nathan also suggests that perhaps Light and Dark is complete in itself – it’s not as if the ambiguous ending is rare in J-Lit  (e.g. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles or The Makioka Sisters).  My opinion?  You’ll just have to read the book and decide for yourself 😉

11 thoughts on “‘Light and Dark’ by Natsume Soseki (Review)

  1. Wonderful review, Tony, you make me really curious to read the book for myself. And I didn't realise that Minae Mizumura attempted to finish this book – I've got A True Novel waiting for me Oh, it's all so exciting coming back to my old first love, of Japanese literature. And I have you to thank for that!


  2. I've just written a post on “difficult” novels. I think many Japanese books can fall into this category – they can be inconclusive as you say, can invoke the “spiritual” in ways we westerners don't always understand. etc. I don't think I read one Japanese novel last year. I must try to rectify that this year. In fact, my reading of translated literature all up was woeful. In fact, my reading output was woeful. It all relates!


  3. Marina Sofia – While I loved 'A True Novel', I can't say I actually like the idea of modern writers 'finishing' incomplete classics…

    Good to hear that you've been inspired to rediscover J-Lit though 🙂


  4. Sue – They're only 'difficult' because they're not written in our cultural style like anything, it requires a bit of effort and patience to get the hang of them 😉

    As for my reading in translation – well, 117 from 130 (90%) tells the story…


  5. Tony, do you have a favorite Soseki? This one sounds OK and all but maybe not as interesting as some of the others of his I've read about. Care to weigh in with a rec?


  6. I bought the english translation of Light and darkness by Peter owen (Picador 1971). I had some dificulties in starting it and feel a bit frustrated as Soseki Natsume is one of my favourite japanese Writers.
    Walter Sarfatti


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