Chapter 5--Modern--NATSUME SOSEKI (1867-1916)

[This first paragraph opens the chapter on Soseki in my book.]  We now move to the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan opens itself to the rest of the world, and on into the twentieth century, when Japanese prose fiction suddenly becomes more impressive than it has been since the days of  Lady Murasaki during the Heian Period (794-1185)--and to Tokyo, the new capital and symbol of modern Japan.  To represent this period we choose an early twentieth- century novelist who does indeed catch its temper, in almost all its aspects, Natsume Soseki.

Soseki is generally judged to be the greatest novelist of the Meiji Period, when the influence from the West was arriving in Japan in almost overwhelming waves, and--in part because he was not long lived, died in his forties--his dates (above) are very close to the dates the Meiji emperor ruled.  While teaching a Saturday-morning seminar on Soseki my last semester at Washburn, I showed a video on the Meiji period in which Soseki was presented as epitomizing its strong appetite for, and ultimate frustration with, those influences from the West.

But he was not alone.  Futabatai Shimei (1864-1909) was the first truly modern, thus realistic, Japanese novelist, his The Drifting Cloud (1887-89), with its timid anti-hero, Bunzo, setting the tone for many of those to come.  And the author whose career offers the closest comparison to Soseki's (most would say he was the second greatest novelist of the period), was Mori Ogai (1862-1922).  He graduated as a doctor from Tokyo University and then went for advanced study in Germany, as Soseki, under somewhat different circumstances, was to do in England--both to be deeply influenced by European fiction, in Ogai's case, naturally, mostly German.  He later became surgeon general of the Japanese army, but continued to write.  The Wild Goose, a somewhat autobiographical novel, may be his best, but he is perhaps better known in Japan for a number of historical novels that capture a sense of how he and his generation saw the Japanese traditions of honor that he served in the military.   Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896) was the principal female writer of fiction of the Meiji Period.  Her Growing Up (1895) is the tale of children growing up in the Yoshiwara, the Tokyo pleasure quarters, particularly a boy and a girl who are attracted to each other (but he is fated to be a priest, like his father, she a geisha, like her sister), in what might be called a degenerate shadow of the floating world of the Renaissance, or early Tokugawa, period.  It is a story more in the tradition of Saikaku, so, in a sense, the last flowering of Tokugawa literature, but its realism is modern, and impressive.  Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943) based his The Broken Commandment on the moral problem of an untouchable Eta who is able to pass, like some blacks were able to do in this country, so was a pioneer social problem novel.  So others were beginning to write important fiction, as well, and all of these--very different from one another--are available, at least in these titles, in English translation. (1)

But, in the general critical judgment, Soseki remains the greatest Japanese novelist of the Meiji period, and closest to the center of what that period was all about--responding to the enormous possibilities and problems posed by the West after Perry's "black ships" had appeared in Japanese waters, embracing a wide range of knowledge from the West, but doomed to an identity crisis that would frustrate hopes of spiritual tranquillity.  And Soseki is most available to an American reader--at least ten of his novels have been translated into English (about as many as of Mishima's).

Soseki majored in English at Tokyo University (Ogai in German, Toson in Russian), and, after he had taught at the high school level out in the country for four years, he was then sent to England to continue his study of English literature, as young men in the Meiji period were being sent around the world to bring back whatever was found to be of value--for the Japanese to adopt/adapt/and become adept at.  He absolutely hated the experience in England, for he was a proud man living in poverty on a very limited stipend while surrounded by racial prejudice.  And, while he came back to the most prestigious position for teaching English literature in Japan (replacing the very popular lecturer Lafcadio Hearn at Tokyo University), he hated that, too--was a writer, with little of  Hearn's charisma in the classroom.  He began to publish serialized fiction in the most important Tokyo newspaper, the Asahi, and, just about the time he might have become a tenured professor, quit teaching to write fiction, and criticism, for the newspaper full time (at more money).  His novels definitely owe a lot to his years of study of the English literary tradition, but it is hard to point to any single English author as a model, as he found his way to speak in his own voice, adapting the Japanese language to his purposes in the process, as he explored a range of style and subject matter in his early, serialized novels of more variety than in most novelists' work, whatever their nationality.  His novels are all are set in Japan, and come to deal more and more with problems of the modern Japanese intellectual's psyche, always informed by mastery of his craft  and a rare intelligence.

Since his fiction was a part of his newspaper work, all his longer works of fiction were serialized, accumulating as they were published--as a high percentage of modern Japanese fiction has.  The first,  I Am a Cat, began as a single essay, turning on the clever idea of making the cat the narrator, the point of view character, as it comments on the foibles of the human beings it lives among.  His master is a college professor, so the satire on this character, and those who surround him, came easily for Soseki.  The essay was so popular that Soseki wrote more, and this loose set of satirical pieces accumulated until they amounted to a three volume collection in the English translation.

Next came Soseki's most popular novel, or at least his most popular character, in Botchan.  This novel has become as much a juvenile classic in Japan as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn have in this country.  The central character does also begin as a rascal of a boy, always in trouble with authority, but rejected by his parents, then becoming an orphan, with an older brother with whom he does not get along.  The only person close to him is his nurse--their affection for each other is real, and enduring.  But Bochan grows up and becomes a teacher in a rural community (the experience based on Soseki's own in those years shortly after he graduated from college--perhaps the happiest years of his life--though Botchan, almost an anti-intellectual, is certainly not modeled on Soseki himself).  He is still always at odds with authority figures, insisting on having his own way, based on traditional moral principles seen to be drawn from the samurai code.  The Japanese are obviously attracted to this temperament, the rebel on principal, though those impulses are strongly disciplined by Japanese society.  It is a safe bet that every Japanese high school graduate knows this novel, and can talk about the character.

The Three-Cornered World came soon after, and, in some respects, is my favorite Soseki novel.  It is almost as  loosely organized as I Am a Cat, but, in other respects, could hardly be more different.  Its subject matter is art, and in its style it is truly prose as art--a haiku-like novel, as Soseki called it himself.  It tells the story of an artist who is wandering, searching for something--but what?  In a sense the novel seems to be a romance, for the artist is attracted to a woman with whom he keeps crossing paths, but nothing ever comes of the relationship--so, thematically, the novel it is extremely ambiguous, and, no doubt, was largely experimental, as Soseki was testing his range as a writer.

After those three very different early novels Soseki became more and more interested in the realistic portrayal of the psychological problems of his own class, the Meiji intelligentsia.  Kokoro is generally seen as his masterpiece, as it examines patterns of responsibility.  It is a three-part novel, tracing the story of a relationship between a young man and an older man that he calls Sensei ("teacher," but suggesting the more spiritual, more characteristically Oriental, relationship of master and disciple, for Sensei does not teach the young man anything in particular, rather introduces him to the moral dilemmas of life).  In the first part there is the meeting of the young man and Sensei, and the young man's gradual winning of the older man's respect.  In the second the young man goes home to his rural home and simple parents, but realizes how far he has left them behind in his intellectual quest.  Drawn back to Sensei, he leaves as his father is dying, and will carry the guilt of that action as Sensei has carried the guilt of killing his best friend for most of his life.  The last part is a long letter from Sensei the student reads on the train telling him the story of that earlier relationship and betrayal, and informing him that Sensei will have committed suicide before he gets back to Tokyo.  So what he inherits is this malaise, the modern intellectual's sense of his own failure and culpability--almost in spite of himself.  I have taught the novel three or four times, and American students like it (it is provocative of good discussion and good papers).

[See Doi on the Amae in Soseki (and the homosexual strain) in this novel and others.]

Grass on the Wayside has a more particular attraction for me, for I see more of myself in it.  It is the most autobiographical of Soseki's novels, a study of a university teacher who is disillusioned with his life, and has problems with the wife and family he has been alienated from by his very commitment to his study.  In Soseki's case, after he came back from England he felt almost as much a stranger at home as he had been abroad.  And all of his later novels deal with different aspects of disillusionment and frustration in modern Japan, usually on the part on an intellectual (though these protagonists are very different from one another in character and goals), the frustration often coming out of his very achievements.

In part because he had the high visibility of the newspaper medium, perhaps, Soseki became very influential on novelists who knew they were following him (they followed him in education, as he is the first in a series of great novelists who were all Tokyo University graduates), so the novelists we will be considering for the next few months, different as they are, will all know that they are following in his footsteps.  I admire them all.

But why do I now consider Soseki my favorite Japanese novelist?  Perhaps the thing I like best about him is his pride.  He made his own decisions about what he should do and be, and lived by them.  When he was asked, late in his career, which of his novels he would most like to see translated into English for American readers, he said, "There are none of my novels that I care to have Americans read."  In spite of this, I like to think that I see a lot of myself in him (and why do we read fiction, after all).  Another clue to why I like him so much I discovered as I was going back through this material to prepare this short essay (some years ago now).  It is that he did when he was 24 what I was doing then, translated Kamo no Chomei's Ten Foot Hut into English, (2) and I think you can see something of the world view and values expressed in that medieval work echoing through his life and work--at least, in this case as well, I like to think so.

(1)  See Donald Keene, Dawn to the West (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1984), for a full discussion of each of these authors--and a 50-page chapter on Soseki, pp. 305-54.

(2)  Edwin McClellan, Two Japanese Novelists, Soseki and Toson, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont, 1971, p. 6.
 
 


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