If you asked the average reader what their favourite Natsume Sōseki book was, they’d… well, they’d probably just look at you blankly and make a polite escape as soon as possible. If you asked a reader interested in Japanese literature, they might mention Kokoro, I am a Cat, Botchan or possibly Sanshirō, and these are all great choices. However, today’s book, while another excellent novel, is unlikely to feature among these hypothetical responses – which is a shame, as it’s probably up there among my favourites. Let’s find out why 🙂
To the Spring Equinox and Beyond (translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein) begins by introducing us to Keitaro, a recent university graduate looking around (albeit not too diligently) for a job. With his idle nature and fleeting fantasies of making a new start overseas, he’s a typical Sōseki dreamer whose character is neatly summed up by a fortune-teller he visits:
“You are now vacillating,” she affirmed, looking directly at him.
He deliberately remained silent.
“You are undecided about continuing something or abandoning it. But that is to your disadvantage. Go forward, for even though it may seem unfavorable, it will turn out all right in the end.”
p.84 (Tuttle Press, 1985)
When he receives a strange task from a friend’s uncle, then, he decides to take it on, following an unknown man through the streets of Tokyo and observing his movements.
However, this is all just a prelude to the main story. As the novel progresses, the focus shifts from Keitaro to his friend Sunaga, and to his extended family, including the uncle the youth was inadvertently shadowing. Becoming more intimate with them, Keitaro begins to learn more about their history and troubles, including unfortunate deaths and tangled love affairs. He soon realises that his own life is fairly mundane compared with that of Sunaga, whose placid exterior belies a troubled heart.
To the Spring Equinox and Beyond is said to be the first in a loose trilogy of works, connected by ideas, not characters, which continues with The Wayfarer and culminates in Kokoro. It certainly has much in common with the latter book, particularly in its use of stories within stories to reveal a doomed love affair. However, there’s a sense here that the structure isn’t quite as set from the start, with the initial focus on Keitaro eventually seeming overdone, given that for most of the book his role is simply that of a listener. This probably arose from the serialised nature of the work; with the novel published daily in the Asahi newspaper, there was every chance of the writer’s changing the emphasis of the story as he went along. The unusual title could suport this idea, having little to do with the story – the translators claim that it was simply a prediction as to how long the novel, starting with the new year, would go for!
Nevertheless, the main story, when we get there, is excellent. Through Keitaro, we get to meet Sunaga’s slightly eccentric family, including his two uncles, Taguchi (a businessman with a penchant for practical jokes) and Matsumoto (an idler who shies away from the outside world). Sunaga himself is also an interesting character, a young man with a heavy heart. His gloomy demeanour comes from his firm belief that he is different from the other characters, a belief that is thrown into light late in the piece.
Sunaga’s cousin, Chiyoko, is slowly introduced, and she eventually comes to stand at the heart of the novel. She first appears when Keitaro catches a glimpse of her entering Sunaga’s house, and we also see her during the young man’s (fake) mission, when she meets the man Keitaro is shadowing. By the time we are finally introduced to her formally at her father’s (Taguchi’s) house, we know that she is to be an important figure. She’s a fiery character, strong and alluring, and like Keitaro, we can’t help wondering what’s happening between her and Sunaga.
This confusing relationship is the core of the novel, outlined in a long account narrated by Sunaga to Keitaro (akin to Sensei’s letter in Kokoro). The writer skilfully allows the story of the two young people to unfold, showing a strong woman held back by family ties and a weak man unwilling to move forward, sensing that he’ll never be good enough for her. One of the obstacles is his false pride:
“But if the woman is one so wavering between her suitors that she can only be won through that kind of painful competition, I can’t regard her worth the bitter rivalry. It’s far more satisfying to my conscience to have the manliness to allow my rival free play in the field of love and for me to gaze in loneliness at the scars of love than to have the pleasure of embracing by force a woman who would not willingly give me her heart.” (p.248)
This may all sound noble enough, but in true Sōseki style, these sentiments are intermingled with a healthy amount of cowardice, too. At some point, Sunaga will have to face up to this aspect of his character, and the consequences could be devastating.
To the Spring Equinox and Beyond is a pleasure to read, and that is due in no small part to Ochiai and Goldstein. Reading Natsume Sōseki in English can be a bit hit-and-miss (all translators are certainly *not* equal when it comes to the Japanese maestro), but this book is excellently written. The pace is leisurely, without ever becoming plodding, and it has a style that many English-language readers would enjoy, with shades of Henry James in some of the more psychological aspects and Dickens or Trollope in the more light-hearted passages. Readers will enjoy the descriptions of the Tokyo of the time, with its streetcars and rickshaws, streetlights and bath houses, flirtations and arranged marriages. This is a period of flux between traditional culture and western ideas, forming the perfect background for the writer’s work. It’s just a shame that the book seems to be out of print…
While introduced as the main character, Keitaro is merely the conduit for the stories the writer wishes to tell, one of many unfolding quietly in the metropolis that is Tokyo:
As for Sunaga, he tried bringing up topics that would humor Keitaro’s curiosity as much as possible. He described how the back street he lived on just off the streetcar line was divided by small houses and narrow lanes into cubes that formed a hive of nameless townspeople in almost each of whose homes a drama was being enacted which would never surface to society at large. (p.47)
What To the Spring Equinox and Beyond does is bring one of these dramas to the surface, allowing us to learn about the lives and loves of a typical young modern man. It may not have the tight structure and dramatic ending of Kokoro, but it’s an excellent novel in its own right that points ahead to what the writer will achieve in his last few books. As I said before, I highly recommend it – that is, if you can find a copy 😦