‘Grass on the Wayside’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

It wouldn’t be January in Japan without looking at a book by the great Natsume Sōseki, and today’s choice is one I’ve had on the shelves for far too long.  One of his last completed novels, appearing not long before the incomplete Light and Dark, it’s an intensely personal work (as much for me as for the writer), and what’s more, it’s a landmark review in one other way – this is the tenth of his I’ve written about 🙂

*****
Grass on the Wayside (translated by Edwin McClellan) is the story of Kenzō, a university lecturer in his mid-thirties.  Living and working in Tokyo, having recently returned from a few years abroad, he’s a rather nervous, slightly pompous intellectual who struggles to relate to others:

“That he might leave his desk once in a while and indulge in some sort of recreation never occurred to him.  A well-meaning friend once suggested that he might take up Nō recitation as a hobby.  He had grace enough to refuse politely, but secretly he was quite shocked at the man’s frivolity.  How can the fellow, he asked himself incredulously, find the time for such nonsense?  He could not see that his own attitude toward time had become mean and miserly.
p.6 (Tuttle Publishing, 1971)

Kenzō would love nothing more than to be left alone with his work, but it’s unlikely to happen – this is not a culture where an individual can remain cut off from those around them.

As a relatively successful man, Kenzō is responsible for helping his relatives out when necessary, including his asthmatic sister and her no-good husband, his elder brother and his wife’s parents (while his father-in-law was once a successful public official, he has come down in the world and now needs assistance himself).  To top it all off, while out walking one day, our friend sees a familiar face from the past.  The old man standing on the corner is Shimada, an important figure from Kenzō’s childhood.  What ensues is less a happy reunion than another claim on Kenzō’s time and finances…

Grass on the Wayside was written shortly before Sōseki’s death.  Suffering from stomach illness at the time, he was not in the most optimistic of moods, and this is reflected in the book.  It’s actually an extremely personal novel, and McClellan’s short introduction explains both the prevailing trend of ‘I’ novels of the time and the parallels between Kenzō’s story and the writer’s own circumstances. 

The main plot concerns the connection between Kenzō and Shimada.  Between the ages of two and eight (as was the case with Sōseki himself), Kenzō was adopted out by his family to Shimada, a situation which was not too uncommon in the Japan of the time.  While all legal and financial issues were settled when the boy was returned to his real parents, Shimada is nevertheless hoping to take advantage and squeeze money out of his former ‘son’:

Kenzō did not quite know what to say.  He looked at the tobacco tray he had placed in front of the visitor, and thought of the old man with the shoddy umbrella staring at him through the rain.  Kenzō could not help hating him.  He remained silent, torn between his sense of indebtedness and his hatred. (p.21)

A modern (Western) reader might wonder why he is unable to simply brush the claim off – unfortunately, both Japanese culture and Kenzō’s personality render that more difficult than it might first appear.

Like many of the characters in the novel, Shimada is able to take advantage of Kenzō’s weakness.  The lecturer may be intellectually able, but he’s certainly not a man of the world, and this causes most of his problems:

“The trouble with him, however, was that behind the obstinacy there was a rather indecisive streak in his character.  He simply did not have the courage to refuse outright to lend his signature; he was afraid of seeming too heartless.” (p.119)

However, his reticence to act is due not only to any perceived weakness, but also to a genuine moral dilemma.  Unlike his wife and brother, who are concerned about any possible legal claim, Kenzō is actually more worried about whether Shimada truly has a moral claim on his assistance…

The other main theme explored in Grass on the Wayside is that of marriage, and the novel provides great psychological insight into a standard (unhappy) relationship.  Both Kenzō and his wife are at fault (although by modern, Western standards, Kenzō is certainly the main offender); they are two people separated by minds and attitudes, observing basic formalities and little else:

“Her expression was blank.  I could have shown pleasure, she thought, if only he had said something kind.  Kenzō, on the other hand, resented her seeming indifference, and blamed her for his own silence.(p.34)

This miscommuncation is typical of the way they go about their daily life.  The two do attempt to get along in their bumbling way, but they are simply never able to open up to each other.

As mentioned, this is a late Sōseki, and the style and subject matter are typically dark and heavy, very different to the light touch shown in earlier work (e.g. Botchan, Kusamakura).  As a character, Kenzō has echoes of Daisuke in Sorekara/And Then (again, a much lighter book).  Both men are vacillating and western-influenced, unable to cope with the more practical, mercenary people around them.  In terms of style, however, Grass on the Wayside is more similar to the writer’s final (unfinished) work, Light and Dark.  The closing piece in Sōseki’s oeuvre takes the marriage themes introduced in previous works and examines them in exhaustive detail; the handling of Kenzō’s marital woes can be seen as a warm-up for the longer novel to come.

Grass on the Wayside is not a book for everyone, but Sōseki fans will love this.  It’s an absorbing, psychological tale – and a warning to the unwary…  I finished this on New Year’s Eve, around the time the story comes to an end, and Sōseki’s tale of a busy man, surrounded by family, stress and fatigue is, unfortunately, all too familiar.  Grass on the Wayside can be read not just as a novel, but as a warning to those who set matters intellectual above domestic affairs.  Consider it a warning heeded…

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8 thoughts on “‘Grass on the Wayside’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

  1. This being one of the less heralded Soseki novels in terms of the number of reviews I've seen of it compared to some others, I'm curious if you have a favorite novel by him. Any suggestions?

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  2. read recently Light And Dark, so definitely want to read this one now. thanks for presenting it. I wanted to read In Grove this month, but too many other book reviews scheduled, it will be later on in the year

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  3. Richard – This is a writer who developed a very different style as his work developed. Different novels for different moods… 'Light and Dark' is if you're in a Henry James frame of mind, 'Botchan' for a raucus Catcher-in-the-Rye type voice. My fave would probably have to be 'Kusamakura', though – delightful, profound and self mocking 😉

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  4. Am just reading Light and Dark now.
    For me too, Michikusa holds autobiographical significance. I read it when I was in my twenties and just returned from doing a Master's abroad, my marriage was falling apart, I was being forced to choose between family and intellectual pursuits. At least I wasn't adopted! Yes, you have to be in the right frame of mind to read this, otherwise it can be very depressing. Hard to believe that this is the same author as that of Botchan and I Am a Cat.

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  5. Marina Sofia – Soseki developed radically over a very short time period, more than any other writer I can can think of. I do appreciate his later, darker works, but I think the books where he was in transition between the light and the dark, as it were(!), are his best in many ways – e.g. 'Kusamakura' and 'Sanshiro'. Still trying to hunt down copies of the ones I haven't yet read…

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  6. Tony, having read The Gate I can now count myself a Sōseki fan too. It seems like there are plenty more of the same quality to look forward to. This seems to be similar in some ways to The Gate, inasmuch as it deals with financial responsibilities and exploitation; and also fostering. Thanks for continuing to inspire me to turn Japanese, at least once a year.

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  7. Séamus – Glad to hear you're a Soseki fan 🙂 'The Gate' is another of the later, darker books, so the tone would be fairly similar. However, I think these last few books have a slightly more psychological focus, where the plot really takes a back seat to the emotional relationships between the central characters.

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