‘Spring Miscellany and London Essays’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

While I’ve read and reviewed a good number of books by the godfather of modern Japanese literature, Natsume Sōseki, there are still a few minor works out there waiting to be covered, and today’s post sees me taking a look at one of these, a book that’s been waiting patiently for a couple of years now for its moment in the sun.  The reason for the delay is not so much a reluctance to try it, but the knowledge that it’s not entirely new ground.  You see there’s a fair amount of overlap with another work – but I’ll get to that later…

*****
Spring Miscellany and London Essays (translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu) is the first full-length translation of the writer’s 1909 collection, Eijitsu Shōhin.  The original book was a collection of twenty-five shōhin (or ‘sketches’) which first appeared, as did much of Sōseki’s writing, in the Asahi newspaper.  This accounts perhaps for the brevity of the pieces, with each running to around four pages here, short pieces that are gone almost before they’ve started.

The inclusions can be divided into three main categories.  Seven are short essays reflecting on the writer’s two years living in London, which by this time has begun to drift into a hazy past.  Most of these fictionalised experiences show dreamlike sequences with a befuddled narrator adrift in a foggy labyrinth full of streams of strange people – but let’s return to these later…

The second group of pieces are pure fiction, enjoyable slices of life from early twentieth-century Tokyo.  For example, ‘The Persimmon’ is a story of class issues cleverly interwoven into a short piece about two bickering children.  Then there’s ‘A Good Bargain’, a pithy first-person account of a trader’s ups and downs, focusing on the perils of ignoring the small print in business contracts.

Most of these texts are fairly easy to follow, but the master does occasionally wax rather more lyrical.  ‘The Heart’ is a story that starts simply enough, with a man watching a bird fly about on a sunny day, but it soon turns darker, with the protagonist being disturbed by a glimpse of a woman:

In silence, the face controlled me.  The woman turned round in silence.  I joined her and found what I had taken for a narrow little side street was an alleyway so narrow and gloomy that normally I should have hesitated to enter it.  But the woman did so unhesitatingly.  She did not speak.  However, she signaled to me to follow her.  I made myself as small as I could and followed her into the alleyway.
‘The Heart’, p.104 (Tuttle Publishing, 2002)

The story ends in mystery, leaving us wondering who the woman is, and just where she will lead the young man.

Among these short fiction pieces, there are some that are rather poignant and nostalgic.  One of these is ‘The Voice’, in which a lodger gazes out of his window at a garden in bloom, a sudden voice reminding him of his mother, and of his home town.  Meanwhile, ‘The Kakemono’ has an old man finally deciding to part with a treasured old scroll painting, with the story showing just what he learns from the experience.

*****
However, it’s the third group of stories that I enjoyed most of all, a number of fictionalised scenes from the writer’s own life.  ‘The Thief’, for instance, is a re-enactment of what happened when a burglar visited the Natsume residence one night, with the writer playing the story for laughs by showing how the large household wailed and moaned:

I found a policeman standing in front of the entrance.  “I hear you had a burglary,” he said with a smile.  “But was everything properly locked?”  “No, I don’t think so,” I replied.  “Well then,” he pointed out to me.  “It’s bound to happen.  Unless all the entries and exits are properly closed, they get in anywhere – you must make sure you latch each shutter!”  I assented, although with little conviction.  Faced with this policeman, I began to think it was not the burglar who was at fault but the householder who did not take sufficient care to lock up.
‘The Thief’, p.25

Another pleasant piece is ‘The Brazier’, which describes a day that starts rather gloomily, with the writer complaining of stomach issues, before ending on a much happier note.

However, Spring Miscellany is perhaps at its best when Sōseki offers glimpses into his mokuyō-kai, those Thursdays when he had an open house for literary disciples.  In ‘The Pheasant’, a newcomer joins the circle, a man low on money (like most of the visitors) but with a genius for unusual gifts.  The writer shows another side of his character here, his generosity both with money and time.

Perhaps my favourite story, though, is ‘New Year’s Day’, the piece that opens the collection.  Here, in a scene that could have come straight from the writer’s famous first novel I Am a Cat, we have Sōseki and a number of his disciples enjoying themselves over the New Year’s holidays.  It’s a wonderful little vignette, with our hero at his self-deprecating best:

We then recited, all together, a piece entitled ‘Toboku’.  It was a long time since I had learnt this piece, and I had practically never worked on it, so that I was, to say the least, unsure about certain passages.  Furthermore, my voice sounded stranger than I had expected.  When I had finished, the comments came thick and fast.  The young people among our listeners declared unanimously, as if they had agreed on this among themselves in advance, that I had been undeniably bad.
‘New Year’s Day’, p.14

If you think that’s harsh, just wait until he tries to accompany a song on a tambourine…

*****
There’s lots to like here, then, but as I hinted above, there’s actually even more than I’ve described.  The ‘London Essays’ of the title refer to a number of pieces added to the end of Spring Miscellany that I’m not going to cover in detail here – because I’ve already done so.  All these pieces (such as the wonderful ‘The Diary of a Bicycle Rider’, in which we experience the terrified Japanese literary legend pelting helplessly down London hills on a rusty old bike…), as well as the London stories from Spring Miscellany, are actually included in another collection, The Tower of London (translated by Damian Flanagan).  In fact there’s a lot of overlap between the two works, with only a couple of pieces included in Flanagan’s book (which brings together all of Sōseki’s London-themed writing) not included in the Tsunematsu translation.

In his introduction to The Tower of London, Flanagan hints that one of the reasons he decided to compile his own collection is the issues he found with the work of other translators – and you get the feeling Tsunematsu is meant here.  I have felt that myself on a couple of occasions, but while his work here isn’t perfect, it’s generally enjoyable.  Tsunematsu’s slightly pompous style actually suits the stories here and works better on what are generally lengthy monologues than with, for example, the dialogue-driven episodes of the humorous novel The 210th Day.  If anyone out there begs to differ, please let me know!

Spring Miscellany isn’t an essential Sōseki work, but it’s certainly well worth a look for anyone who’s already tried the obvious suspects.  However, I’m not sure it’s actually in print, so you may have to hunt around a little online for a second-hand copy.  At any rate, I certainly enjoyed my trip down memory lane, so it’s back to scouring the Internet in the hope of tracking down one of the few remaining Sōseki translations not in my possession – wish me luck 😉

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