Sôseski Nastume’s Nowaki

Sôseski Natsume’s Nowaki was serialized and then published as a book in 1907, the year after his enduringly popular Botchan and two years after I Am a Cat. Nowaki begins, like Botchan, with a middle-school teacher from Edo (Tokyo) unable to adjust to rural students and their parents. Dôya is a stern moralist who believes he has a message for the youth of rapidly modernizing Japan and works on a treatise while scrambling to support himself and his wife editing a magazine and doing piecework back in the capital.


Takayangi, who had been one of the students who drove Dôya out of one of his rural teaching jobs, graduated from the Imperial University with a degree in literature and is also scrambling to make ends meet (translating a geography textbook from English) and frustrated not to have any time to work on a novel, is the book’s protagonist. His affluent college classmate Nakano and Nakano’s wife try to help Takayangi out, especially when he contracts tuberculosis and his doctor recommends a stay on the coast. Nakano also dabbles in writing and going to concerts of western music.

I don’t see the “homoerotic triangle of desire that translator William Ridgeway of Takayanagi with his married friend and his married mentor and the uxorious Nakano never even meets Dôya. The anguished writer burning with the fevers of tuberculosis (Takayanagi) does not have a wife. He is homosocial, but so was (and is) Japanese society. Takayanagi is not bewitched by a Japanese Tadzio, and does not seem to me very much like the 50-year-old Aschenbach dallying in cholera-ridden Venice in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, published five years later than Nowaki. Ridgeway also asserts that “understanding that love is a disease is essential to Sôseki’s fiction,” though I don’t see love or homoerotic desire present or affecting anything in Nowaki. (The only whiff is the statement that at school, “once they became acquainted, their intercourse quickly ripened into a friendship so close as to cause suspicion in others”—“intercourse” in a social sense, I’m sure, and a bad choice of words from Ridgeway.)

There are long speeches or hectoring writing by Dôya, but no plot nor much character development. Nor is there the humor that leavened the social criticism of Botchan and I Am a Cat. I don’t see the novel s having much of interest to anyone other than specialists in Meiji-era Japanese literature and perhaps those interested in life in the capital of the early 20th century.

Ridgeway’s translation is very stilted, perhaps attempting to mimic the English of someone whose first language was Japanese (Sôseki has spent two years in London, btw). Some examples, all from the middle of the second chapter, the first four supposedly spoken lines or parts of spoken lines:

“And in preparation for that, let us eat nourishing food—Western cookery!”

“You say I need not be pessimistic. Having no need for pessimism them means one is a fool”

“Even if it was an accident, finding satisfaction in a vengeful moment was lowly of me.” (“Lowly” is the most aberrant part of this peculiar construction)

“I intended on calling on you today to find consolation in your sympathy” (surely, “intended to call” is more normal English usage, though explicitly stating an expectation of sympathy might be something Japanese do)

“[Dôya] was driven away from the school by us” (we drove away from the school)

“What rather absurd goings-on one has in country schools!”

“Takanyanagi could not understand how this promising young man could do such an inconsiderate thing from time to time” (aside from begging the question of in what ways promising, surely standard English would pluralize “thing” here)

Takanyanagi “was disappointed in Nakano’s not listening to his complaint to the end and all the more displeased by his unfelt consolation.”


©2016, Stephen O.Murray


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