‘Nowaki’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

Having read most of Japanese writer Natsume Sōseki’s major works, I’ve gradually been building up my collection by searching out some of his lesser-known books.  There are still a few I haven’t managed to get my hands on, but I’m getting there, even if it’s mostly a case of randomly spotting second-hand editions in good condition.  Funnily enough, though, today’s choice, despite being a minor Natsume novel, is in print (in fact, one of the most recent publications), and while it doesn’t measure up to his major works, it has all the hallmarks of the J-Lit master’s usual obsessions…

*****
Nowaki (translated by William N. Ridgeway, published by The Center for Japanese Studies at The University of Michigan) comes from an early part of Natsume’s career, after Botchan and Kusamakura, but before most of his other major novels.  In a way, it also marks a turning point in his career, the last work to be published before his serialisation duties at the Asahi newspaper began.

The story revolves around Dōya Shirai, a teacher and scholar who has retreated to Tokyo after failed attempts at teaching in the provinces, and Shūsaku Takayanagi, a recent graduate disillusioned in his attempts to make a living as a writer.  While the start of the novel sees them unaware of each other’s existence, they do have a connection, as Takayanagi happens to be one of the older man’s former students.  Their paths finally cross again when Takayanagi’s friend Nakano interviews Shirai for a literary magazine, allowing the young man to apologise for his earlier behaviour.  In Shirai, he finds a mentor, someone to give him the confidence to continue on his chosen path, but is his former teacher really the right man to offer advice about the real world?

After two brief chapters introducing the two men, the rest of the short novel follows them around over the course of an autumn.  The Nowaki of the title is an autumn wind, one that mainly brings bad luck in its wake; for Shirai, it’s endless money problems, while Takayanagi’s issues are rather more serious:

The leaves were of various colors.  Gazing at them, Takayanagi imagined that fresh blood exposed to the sun for a week and then painted on the backside of the leaves would result in this color.  The association with blood caused Takayanagi to break out in a cold sweat.  He gave an involuntary cough.
p.31 (The University of Michigan, 2011)

It doesn’t take a genius to pick up on the hints offered by this short paragraph, and Takayanagi’s health is to play a major role in the way the story unfolds.

Nowaki‘s reputation as a minor Natsume novel is close to the mark.  A little artificial in places, as well as simplistic and didactic, it has a fairly weak supporting cast, and the main characters function too obviously as mouthpieces for the writer.  Yet there’s still a lot to like about it, including the writer’s usual, wry, ironic humour.  Whether the story is veering towards tragedy or melodrama, there’s always the detached narrator commenting on events from a slight distance, lending issues some welcome perspective.

The main themes of the novel are also familiar.  Shirai is another of Natsume’s outdated intellectuals, ill-suited to live in modern society, and it’s his principles that forced him to resign from three comfortable middle-school posts.  In his own, calm, philosophical manner, he decries Japanese society’s shift from judgement based on a man’s character to that fascinated by station and wealth.  The new era has ushered in an age of capitalism, one in which knowledge is useless and principles are a luxury you simply can’t afford.

However, in Takayanagi, Shirai has found the one man who believes in the importance of the old ways.  Ashamed of how he and his classmates drove Shirai out of their rural school, the young man seeks help in working out how to live his life over the course of their conversations – and his mentor isn’t short of advice:

“Literature is life itself.  Pain, poverty, sorrow – all events and conditions in life are the substance of literature, and those who have been able to savor these experiences are qualified men of letters.  They are not men of leisure who can afford to wrack their brains over manuscript paper on their desks, searching for fine phrases with the help of a thesaurus.  Provided we are possessed of a sense of taste that is ripe and rich and can navigate life’s vicissitudes with the courage and sensitivity beyond the ordinary man, we are men of letters in the truest sense of the word.” (p.49)

There are more than a few hints of later works here, in particular Kokoro and the character of Sensei, but as the year passes, and the winds blow, Takayanagi’s health deteriorates, leaving the reader wondering whether his decision to follow his heart is the right one.

Of course, like other Natsume ‘heroes’, Shirai is plagued by mundane problems, including the archetypal nagging wife, severe money problems and ‘well-meaning’ relatives (here it’s Sorekara/And Then that immediately comes to mind).  Those around him fail to understand why he wastes his time writing esoteric texts nobody will ever read, and which don’t even bring in any money (at which point the story hits a little too close to home for my liking…).  The culmination of these attitudes is an alliance between his wife and his elder brother, who decide that the man of letters must be forced into seeing that the path of the modern world is the only way forward.

You’d think that all this is guaranteed to make the reader sympathise with Shirai, but part of the charm of Nowaki is that the writer’s main character, despite his unyielding nature, is a fascinatingly flawed man.  We see the other side of life in the form of the concerts and parties attended by the wealthy Nakano, and as Takayanagi finds himself surrounded by people “actively engaged in the pursuit of pleasure” (p.37), life outside the study often appeals more than the two writers’ spartan existence.  Natsume compels us to doubt Shirai and ask ourselves whether he’s right or merely quixotic; while there’s certainly a nobility in his insistence on an intellectual’s duty to shine a light on society, shouldn’t he yield a little to the prevailing (autumn) wind?

Nowaki is a little slight compared to the writer’s other novels, missing the mark occasionally, but it builds to a clever climax, with a twist that ties up loose ends while hinting at future developments (which certainly isn’t always the case with his work).  Ridgeway’s excellent afterword adds a little context to the work, and overall I was very happy with this addition to my personal library.  This certainly isn’t one for beginners (as always, I’d advise you to start with any of Sanshirō, Botchan, I Am a Cat or Kusamakura), but if you’ve already tried the big novels, you may well enjoy spending a couple of hours walking in the autumn breeze 🙂

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2 thoughts on “‘Nowaki’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

  1. As I haven’t read any of Soseki’s novels I’m not going to be rushing out to buy this, but I understand the pleasure of hunting down a writer’s less well-known work once you have read their major novels.

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