‘Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist’ by John Nathan (Review)

As a reader with a strong preference for novels, I don’t have a lot of time for non-fiction, and very few biographies have been covered at my site.  However, there are always exceptions, and when a new book comes along exploring the life of one of my favourite writers, I’m always happy to take a look.  That’s certainly the case for today’s choice, with a new release examining the man behind some of Japanese literature’s most famous works, and not always painting the prettiest of pictures…

Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist (review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is a biography of the man most Japanese readers would pick as the great of the modern era, Natsume Sōseki.  His life and works come under the microscope of American academic and translator John Nathan (who actually brought Sōseki’s unfinished final novel, Light and Dark, into English a few years back), and the book provides a fascinating insight into a writer who crammed an enormous amount of writing into just over a decade before his life was cut short by illness.

Nathan’s introduction sets the scene, and the early chapters provide the background.  Sōseki was born in 1867 (just before the Meiji Restoration and the opening up of the country to the west) and grew up as Japanese society evolved.  The period spanning the turn of the century saw an increasing number of western influences, and like Japan as a whole, the writer sought to combine these with traditional elements in his art and everyday life, which proved to be a delicate balancing act.

After briefly discussing his early life, including his being adopted out (a common custom at the time in Japan), and then moving on to his school and university life in Tokyo, Nathan looks at his time working as a teacher in Shikoku and Kyushu before dwelling on the shock of Sōseki’s depressing stay in London (a period I discussed in my review of The Tower of London).  However, the story really gets going on his return to Japan.  Giving up his academic life, he opts for an exclusive contract with the Asahi newspaper, where the serialisation of his novels make him a sensation not unlike a Japanese Dickens.  At this time, he also formalised his Thursday discussion sessions in order to manage his time more effectively, with a literary clique visiting every week:

The salon was not open to everyone.  Each of those welcomed had cleared a hurdle, Sōseki’s evaluation of the quality and promise of his writing.  More than a few were already, or on their way to becoming, published writers in their own right.  All were proud of their affiliation with the Master.  They styled themselves, and were acknowledged publicly to be, “students under the gate” (monkasei 門下生) belonging to the Sōseki school of writing.
p.118 (Columbia University Press, 2018)

Most of the names will be unfamiliar, but among the younger acolytes, a certain Ryūnosuke Akutagawa can be found…

As you’d expect, once Sōseki’s writing career takes off, there’s a lot here about his books.  Nathan provides lengthy summaries of some of the main works (especially Kokoro, I am a Cat and the two linked novels And Then and The Gate).  While Sōseki was not an adherent of the trend of ‘I-Novels’, there are many fascinating connections in these summaries to the writer’s own life.  For example, the main character’s Zen retreat in The Gate echoes Sōseki’s own experience in the mid-1890s, and just as was the case in Grass on the Wayside, his adopted father did come hounding him for money one day.  A more surprising link, though, can be found in I am a Cat , where the protagonist nags his wife about her bald spot – which turned out to be one of the writer’s pet annoyances.

In fact, this glimpse into the writer’s domestic affairs is a feature of the work.  The biography doesn’t shy away from taking a warts-and-all approach, with Nathan determined to provide the reader with the whole picture.  The mental issues that became apparent during Sōseki’s London stay plagued him throughout his life, and his tendency to become easily irritated led to a certain distance from his family members (ironic given his closeness to his many protégés).  A wonderful writer he may have been, but it doesn’t sound like he was an easy man to live with.

However, this irritability can also be traced back to his many health issues.  I’ve often heard about his stomach problems, but it’s a very different matter to read in great detail of the Shuzenji crisis, where during a stay at a hot-spring resort, he vomited up litres of blood and was thought dead for half an hour.  Even when he wasn’t at death’s door, he was rarely completely free of pain, and a later diabetes diagnosis just added to his discomfort:

On May 6 [1916], in a letter to an itinerant Zen monk, he wrote,”As always, I am distressed by my deplorable health.  I have the feeling I was born into this world in order to be sick…” (p.253)

That’s enough to make most people grumpy – in truth, it’s a wonder he wrote anything at all.

Another major focus of the work is the writer’s relationship with his wife, Kyoko, which doesn’t seem to have made for the happiest of marriages.  In addition to their arguments, often caused by his domineering nature, there are hints in the background of old loves and time spent with geishas:

The question that remains – the same question that occurs when considering the Kyoto sojourn the previous year – was whether Sōseki was merely enjoying himself flirtatiously, which seems clear, or whether he misbehaved.  Infidelity was not necessarily “misbehavior” in the social contract between husband and wife in Japan in 1916.  Even so, the absence of any unambiguous evidence of philandering in Sōseki’s life makes the question all the more intriguing. (p.250)

Despite Nathan’s obvious wish to find evidence of philandering, it’s (unfortunately for him) not forthcoming.  Neither is there any proof of same-sex relationship, even though Nathan makes a strong case for some attraction between Sōseki and his disciples.

Sōseki… is an enjoyable, intriguing work that, if anything, probably seems a little short.  It stops abruptly just after the writer’s death, and I doubt I’m the only reader thinking that it would have been nice to have one more chapter, with perhaps a touch more on reactions to his death, and his legacy.  Nathan’s style is never less than enjoyable, and while he mostly refrains from passing judgement on the writer’s behaviour (which some readers might be tempted to do at times), he does occasionally butt in, especially when it comes to criticising the titles of many of the books in English (I have to say that this is where our views often differ…).

Having read most of the works mentioned here, I’m definitely part of the target audience, but I suspect that anyone with an interest in Japanese literature will enjoy the book.  Not only is it a nice introduction to his work, but it also provides fascinating insights into a life cut short.  As such, Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist is a work to be recommended, an easy read about a great writer.  And if you haven’t read any of the master’s books – well, what are you waiting for?  They’re certainly worth a try 🙂

4 thoughts on “‘Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist’ by John Nathan (Review)

  1. Well, I’ll have to try one of th books first. I suppose a good biography is inevitably going to be warts and all, which can sometimes be a problem if it’s an author you love. Though here it seems to bring a bit more understanding which has to be a good thing!


    1. Kaggsy – It’s definitely enlightening, even for someone like me who already knows a lot about his life and work. I suspect that it will suit someone who has read a few of his books first, though 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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