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Why Does Natsume Sōseki Still Resonate with Readers?

Literary scholar John Nathan's biography of Natsume Sōseki puts his great accomplishments -- and many shortcomings -- in superb literary and historical context.

Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist
John Nathan

Columbia University Press

May 2018

Other

While his later novels are considered the better works, I – like many others – first came to know Natsume Sōseki through his whimsical satire I Am a Cat. The first novel he wrote, it was originally serialized in a literary journal in 1905-06, and offers the wry first-hand observations of a cat musing judgmentally on the affairs of the human beings around him.

While the sardonic style of the narrator is unmistakably Sōseki , the tone of this work is much lighter than his later novels, which grapple in various ways with the existential angst induced by Japan's rapid modernization and engagement with the West in the late 19th century. It's also less well-known to his English-speaking fans that Sōseki was an accomplished poet, especially of haiku; he wrote over 2,000 verses.

All the varied accomplishments of this man who's often considered Japan's greatest writer, together with his many shortcomings, are put in perspective and context by literary scholar John Nathan. Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist provides a literary biography of the finest sort: an engaging, reasonably paced narrative of Sōseki 's life punctuated by just enough literary analysis to render the book intellectually important as well.

Sōseki accomplished a remarkable amount in his short life (he died before his 50th birthday), although this was no doubt in part thanks to the turbulent nature of the times. A society in flux provides immense opportunity for those who venture to engage with its anxieties, and Sōseki dipped his pen deep in the ink of a rapidly changing social and political landscape.

In 1900 he travelled to England, essentially ordered abroad by his government -- despite his protestations – as part of Japan's efforts to understand and master the mechanics of western society. Sōseki was assigned to pursue further mastery of English language and literature. His sojourn was in many ways a source of misery for him. He was horrified by native English speakers' lack of knowledge about their own language and their poor usage of it. He also found them cold and unfriendly. He complained about the paltry size of his government stipend. He decided it was too costly to socialize and too much of a waste of time to attend classes, and so devoted his time to hunting through second-hand bookstores (he amassed over 400 books during his stay) and secluded himself in his room, where he spent his time reading.

His eventual return to Japan – the Education Ministry received a cryptic cable in 1902 warning "Natsume has gone mad" and his return was arranged – reads like a classic case of reverse culture shock. He was still critical of the West, yet newly resentful of his own country too. Like other writers of the period he was to grapple with themes of Japan's modernization era and cultural engagement with the west in fiction for the remainder of his life. These were central issues in Japan of that period: how to reconcile a changing society with a sense of one's own identity, rooted in traditional culture? Japan was adopting dramatic social, technological and political changes in order to enable it to engage as equals with the western world, yet how much should it adopt without sacrificing Japan's deeply honed sense of self? And how to adopt a balance of western ways without beginning to feel a sense of inferiority about one's own culture? These were the issues Japanese intellectuals – as well as everyday residents – grappled with during the period.

In literature it often emerged in more subtle ways, for example the ubiquitous conflict over personal desire (for love, particularly) versus one's traditional obligation to the family. Many of Sōseki 's stories feature characters who grapple with this conflict.

There was a lot not to like about Sōseki, particularly his behaviour toward his family. He was deeply cruel and bullying toward his long-suffering wife Kyoko, and his children grew up resentful and fearful of their distant, unpredictable and sometimes violent father. This was an entirely different side to the one he presented to colleagues and students, for whom he could be incredibly warm and father-like. Indeed, his children later resented that was more of a parent to his students than he was to his own offspring.

Yet much of his behaviour was no doubt related to his surprisingly open struggle with mental illness. He was remarkably frank about this, especially for the era, and even shows an incipient pride in the unique insights it provided him. In the preface to his study The Theory of Literature (1907), one of his few non-fiction literary works, he wrote:

"In England, people observing me said that I was suffering from neurasthenia. I have heard that a certain Japanese wrote home to Japan to say that I was insane… I will say, when I consider that this nervous condition and insanity have enabled me to write I Am a Cat and to publish Fugitive Stories and Quail Basket, it seems appropriate that I should express my deep gratitude to these afflictions. Assuming there is not some radical change in my personal circumstances, I assume this nervous condition and insanity will afflict me for the rest of my life. And since, so long as they persist, I hope to publish any number of Cats, any number of Fugitive Tales, and any number of Quail Baskets, I pray that my illnesses will not abandon me…"

Image: PIRO4D ( CC0 Creative Commons / Pixabay)

Sōseki was also notable for his cautious embrace of the professional literary life, at a time when there really was no such thing in Japan. He abandoned the academy despite his established position as a university professor, in order to devote himself to writing fiction full-time for the public newspapers. Indeed, in a somewhat comical turn of events, the Japanese government awarded him an honourary doctorate in recognition of his literary accomplishments, and the horrified Sōseki attempted to reject it, determined to simply be known to the public as Natsume Sōseki, not Dr. Natsume Sōseki . The bewildered government refused to allow him to return it, insisting that once appointed a doctor by the government the standing was permanent whether one liked it or not. The ensuing correspondence over the matter offers a subtly hilarious reading of two equally obstinate institutions: the Japanese government and Natsume Sōseki.

One of the most interesting aspects of this biography is the colourful cast of characters that populate it. Sōseki maintained a respectful distance from his professional peers – those writers and intellectuals who were equally renowned during his lifetime – yet cultivated a much closer relationship with a large circle of students who would form the next generation of Japanese intellectuals and writers, many of whom would later consider themselves his 'disciples' or students. From weekly literary salons at his house, to finding publishing opportunities for his 'followers', to offering them advice on their romantic lives (he even intervened and helped prevent a couple of suicides), Sōseki's circle undoubtedly played an important role in keeping his literary legend alive in the decades to follow.

In many ways then, Sōseki's biography also becomes the story of this burgeoning literary community, and the many characters who populated it. From his close youthful friendship with Masaoka Shiki (considered the father of modern haiku) to the fatherly mentorship in his final years of a young Ryunosuke Akutagawa (who became an acknowledged master of the short story form in his too-brief life), Sōseki 's biography brings to life an exciting literary moment full of creative and fascinating characters.

Japan's continuing obsession with Sōseki emerges in interesting and varied ways. In the '80s, comics artist Jiro Taniguchi teamed up with Natsuo Sekikawa to produce a fascinating series of graphic novels centred around Sōseki titled The Times of Botchan. The series, which eventually encompassed ten collected volumes (the first four of which are available in English translation), was based on the book Meiji kenken hikyu roku by Seigai Ota. Botchan was one of Sōseki i's novels, and as the title implies, the series is more interested in the times which produced it as opposed to the specific details of the author's life. In fact, the series deliberately takes liberty with historical fact. Meetings and occurrences are invented or blended together in ways which never actually transpired historically. The series depicts Sōseki hanging out and talking with writers and intellectuals with whom he rarely or never engaged. But the point of the series, as the authors go to lengths to explain, was never to provide anything resembling a historically accurate, chronological narrative. Their goal was to convey to the reader a sense of what the period was like – the immense foment of intellectual ideas, the clash of cultures, the struggle to chart the best possible course for Japan's modernization during this complex period. In order to do so, the authors put historical figures in conversation with each other and weave together historical incidents in ways that are not historically accurate but produce, overall, a stronger and more authentic understanding of the period and the issues and conflicts that defined it.

The series is ambitious in its aims and exposition; perhaps too ambitious. It packs so many characters and incidents together that it's likely bewildering for the average reader who may not be familiar with all of the historical actors, or the significance of different historical events. The authors provide minimal background; but for the reader who's familiar with the history and the characters, or who does the background reading to support the series, it's a deeply entertaining and rewarding piece of creative work.

In an afterword to the fourth volume, Sekikawa argues that contemporary Japanese "attitudes and inclinations" were formed during this period of the Meiji era. He argues that the period was far more influential on Japan than even the post-war years, insofar as it was the period during which contemporary Japanese cultural attitudes were formed.

"The paradigm for our times lies in the Meiji period," writes Sekikawa. "This is where the root to Japan's distress lies as well as several other things that have been lost to our time (most of them good); it continues to exude a light which is hard to extinguish. It is a vigorous scene that ushers in a group of free and honest people."

This is a critical point for Sekikawa – he implies that while the fundamental struggles which define so much of Japanese culture developed during the Meiji period, the people of that period engaged with those conflicts and issues more openly and honestly than the Japanese of subsequent, more recent decades.

"I knew when I read these texts [by Sōseki and his contemporaries] that in the Japan of the Meiji period there were genuine words and, considering it from another angle, looking at society and scrutinizing my own work, I doubt there are genuine words in present-day Japan… When did Japan begin to lose genuine words? What was the cause? Will the moment come when words will again find the place that belongs to them?" he writes.

Sekikawa is right – it is Sōseki 's incredible ability with words, and the perceptive, insightful and honest expositions of people and society to which he applies them, that's probably behind his continued popularity.

Nathan, who also produced a masterly literary biography of Yukio Mishima among other works (Mishima: A Biography, Little, Brown and Company, 1974), offers a portrayal of Sōseki which is at once very human and accessible to a broad readership while at the same time remaining scholarly and engagingly intellectual. Witnessing the emerging relationship between Nathan and his subject, the reader comes to feel a personal connection with Sōseki as well, with his struggles and with the coterie of other writers and thinkers that surrounded him at this pivotal point in Japanese history. Nathan is sensitive to modern interpretations of Sōseki and his work, considering some of the more recent and radical interpretations of his novels, and reflecting on the incipient queerness of the spaces in which Sōseki moved and wrote.

If Sōseki speaks to us still, it's probably because many of the struggles which defined his life and time remain charged with potency for the present, even though the specific contours of those struggles have changed in the intervening century. In Kokoro (1914), one of his most famous novels, the Sensei character puts in words the sentiment of growing and all-encompassing loneliness that pervades all of Sōseki's works to some degree:

"Having to suffer this loneliness is the sacrifice we make, all of us, for having been born into this age of freedom and independence and self."

A century later, in a technologically transformed world, how true this lament still rings, 100 years after Natsume Sōseki first wrote it.

No wonder Sōseki's work still speaks to us.

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