Since starting the blog, I’ve read a good number of works by one of my favourite Japanese writers, Natsume Sōseki, and in virtually all of them the writer’s biography stresses the importance, and misery, of the two years he spent in London at the start of the twentieth century, before his writing career got underway. There aren’t many traces of this time in most of his works, set largely in Japan, but there are a few pieces both dating from and talking about the writer’s London days – and, luckily enough, someone had the bright idea of collecting and translating them for our benefit 🙂
The Tower of London, a book I’ve had languishing on the shelves for far too long, is the brainchild of Damian Flanagan, a translator and scholar of Japanese literature with a particular interest in Natsume. It brings together a variety of texts concerning the writer’s British adventure, including descriptions of his daily life, stories based in London and a selection of vignettes from his later work Short Pieces for Long Days (a book translated elsewhere as Spring Miscellany). There’s even an added bonus in the form of another writer’s story in which Natsume encounters an even more famous figure – but more of that later…
The collection begins with a couple of stylised diary pieces, both featuring the humour the writer would use in his early works. ‘Letter from London’ consists of three letters back to Natsume’s home country, which were joined together and published as one long piece in the Japanese literary magazine Hototogisu (The Cuckoo). It provides a fascinating insight into his life in lodgings, full of witty observations about his daily routine and the people who provide him with his accommodation, and showing an excellent eye for detail and characterisation (or caricature). This is especially true when it comes to the writer’s confused encounters with the maid (upon whom he bestows the nickname ‘Bedge Pardon’ for her habit of greeting most of his utterances with a Cockney request for him to repeat himself…).
We then move from this Dickensian scene to one that could have come straight from the pen of Jerome K. Jerome, when Natsume sits down to write his ‘Bicycle Diary’. This is a description of the tribulations of the writer’s attempt to learn to ride a bicycle, from his first, tentative steps (and falls!) to rolling down a hill unaided:
The length of the slope is over two hundred and forty yards, its angle of inclination about twenty degrees, the road width in excess of sixty feet with few passers-by and charmingly residential homes to left and right. Whether the British government, hearing that an Oriental celebrity would be practising falling from a bicycle, have specially ordered the Public Works office to build this road we will never know, but in any case, as a road for bicycles, it is a place beyond reproach.
‘Bicycle Diary’, pp.80/1 (Peter Owen Publishers, 2005)
Sadly, despite our hero’s best intentions, and his stoic indifference to his frequent encounters with the ground, these gentle rides usually end in disaster, invariably under the amused gaze of a local policeman…
The next pieces, a poetic mix of fact and fiction, have a more serious tone, though. ‘The Tower of London’ is a story fictionalising the writer’s visit to the famed London landmark. As he strolls slowly around the grounds, his imagination is aroused by the history surrounding him:
Just by its name alone, the Traitor’s Gate is already terrifying. From time immemorial thousands of criminals, buried from sight while living in the tower, were all conveyed from boats to this gate. Once they had left the boat behind and passed through, the sun of the outside world did not shine on them again. The Thames was to them the river Styx, and this gate was the entrance to the Underworld.
‘The Tower of London’, p.95
Natsume goes on to send us centuries into the past, conjuring up images of the Princes in the tower and musing on the legions of the damned for whom the tower was their final resting place. Even when a female visitor explains some of the features of the buildings to a small child, the writer turns the encounter into visions of poor doomed Lady Jane Grey.
The second of these stories, ‘The Carlyle Museum’, is slightly less dramatic, detailing Natsume’s visit to an old four-storey house honouring the memory of a writer whose reputation hasn’t quite stood up over the past centuries. As Natsume explores the old house (with the woman showing him around spewing out her memorised spiel in the background), he muses over the gulf between 1834 and 1901, both in terms of Carlyle’s reputation and the alteration in the neighbourhood, with the once rural locale now swallowed up by the metropolis. Of course, reading this in 2017, a century after the Japanese writer’s own death, makes it even soberer reading.
The third group of texts consists of extracts from the work Short Pieces for Long Days. Flanagan has translated those sections concerning Natsume’s time in London, and these retrospective vignettes, most of them three or four pages in length, look at the writer’s time in lodgings and his observations of London life. What makes these short pieces so readable is the dreamlike style – the content is mundane, but the handling is beautiful:
I am suddenly conscious of having drowned in a human sea. How wide that sea is, I have no idea. But, despite its width, it is an extremely quiet sea. Yet it offers no escape. If I turn to the right, the way is blocked. If I look to the left, the way is closed. Even if I turn around, it is full of people. So I quietly move forward. As if governed by a single fate, tens of thousands of black heads have seemingly agreed to proceed forward in synchronicity one step at a time.
In a collection of pieces with an underlying dark tone, we are shown a picture of a man lost in a sea of identical houses, the typical London fog and the occasional white giant striding past the cowed Japanese walker…
While the first pieces are full of humour, this is obviously not always the case. Flanagan reveals the writer’s underlying mood in his excellent introduction and notes, helping us to see the texts in a different light. For example, as funny as ‘Bicycle Diary’ is, Flanagan reveals that the only reason Natsume started his lessons was because those around him suspected that he was suffering from major depression and were desperate to get him out of his room. The introduction explores the background of the collection while explaining the many literary and historical allusions used in the texts, with an emphasis in parts on the writer’s tendency to take poetic licence in his writing. You see, as much as the content is based on Natsume’s experiences, the line between what happened in real life and in his mind is fairly blurred.
There’s more than enough there to satisfy any of the writer’s fans, but the addition of a wonderful extra caps off the book nicely. The last selection from Short Pieces for Long Days, ‘Professor Craig’ (a portrait of a Shakespearean scholar who gave Natsume private literature lessons) provided Japanese writer Futaro Yamada with the idea for his story ‘The Yellow Lodger’, in which Natsume becomes the centre of a devious murder case, one attracting the attention of a certain Sherlock Holmes! It’s a wonderful little story, and as you might expect, as well as being based on Natsume’s own work, it’s designed to make the master detective come off second best in the presence of the Japanese maestro.
The Tower of London is a wonderful little book, one I wish I’d read much earlier, and a collection of pieces I’m sure to read again. Credit must go to Flanagan for his all-round performance, including the translation. Even if there are some good versions of Natsume’s work around, I tend to agree with the comment:
Recent translations of his works have tended to range from the satisfactory to the woeful and have not been aided by flimsy analysis and being adorned with dust-jackets depicting cartoon characters. (p.36)
Still, this one certainly doesn’t fit that description, and the book itself is also rather attractive. All in all, it makes a fitting addition to any Natsume Sōseki library – including mine 🙂