Tag Archives: Soseki Natsume

Romance of a Japanese neurasthenic, ca. 1909

It’s hard for me to imagine that 1909 readers of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun could keep track of (or care about!) the very slow development and shifting consciousness of Daisuke, the hypochondriac slacker protagonist of Sôseki Natsume’s novel Sorekara (And Then), a follow-up (not exactly a sequel) to the 1906 Botchan. I found the book very easy to put down and can’t imagine being eager to pick up the next installment and then the next installment (the paper was — and still is — daily; I don’t know if the serialization was).

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Daisuke is quite content to live on the allowance his father and older brother give him. He focuses on any signs of heart problems, grooming, and reading European literature. “Daisuke had never considered himself idle. He simply regarded himself as one of those higher beings who disposed of a large number of hours unsullied by an occupation.” He has a horror of working at a job to pay for food and lodging… and has been able to avoid getting a job because of his indulgent father and brother, whose company may not be as impeccably honest as they lead Daisuke to believe. That is never definitively settled in the text. Not a lot is!

Having turned 30, it is past time for Daisuke to marry. He has rejected every candidate his father, brother, and/or sister-in-law suggest. Now there is one whose marital alliance would aid the company. Daisuke has no specific objection to the young woman, but has come to realize that he is in love with a married woman.

Not just any married woman, but Michiyo, the wife of his university classmate and friend, Hiraoka. Daisuke arranged the marriage himself when his friend said he wanted to marry Michiyo.

Three years later the couple has returned to Tokyo after Hiraoka’s assistant embezzled some funds (500 yen). Hiraoka seeks Daisuke’s help to find a job and to borrown the money he put up to cover his subordinate’s theft.

Daisuke cannot avoid seeing that Hiraoka not only neglects his wife, but doesn’t even provide sufficient funds for her food. They had a son who died after a few months, and Michiyo is sickly.

Daisuke decides he is in love with Michiyo and cannot acquiesce to the marriage his family is promoting. Before he can take Michiyo away, he feels that he must get the permission of Hiraoka, for whom he now feels no friendship. The permission to poach the wife is the same “règle du jeu” as in Jean Renoir’s movie (“règle” has been pluralized in the English title, “Rules of the Game”), which I just tried for the first time to appreciate.

I find Sôseki’s novel even less amusing than Renoir’s film and very, very slow moving. Though open-ended, the denouement is not hopeful. Hiraoka writes an account of Daisuke’s perfidy to Daisuke’s father (who cuts him off), which strikes me as quite caddish. Hiraoka granted permission to Daisuke to take Mishiyo off his hands, admitting he does not love her and knows she does not love him. But she is sick and he says he cannot turn her over in such damaged condition. I think it quite likely she will die and that Daisuke will have squandered his patrimony for nothing. But Sôseki does not reveal what the future (and then!) held for the pair, whose relationship is a scandal even though there has been no physical consummation (adultery). Daisuke seems ill-equipped, especially by inclination, to support himself, let alone a wife, let alone a wife with medical problems (who will not be able to produce an heir).

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I guess Daisuke is alienated, though I’m more inclined to regard him as spoiled. Certainly, as he realizes, Daisuke is very ineffectual, partly because he has no assets of his own, only a monthly allowance. Throwing over comfort and everything he has known and valued for love makes him something of a romantic hero, however.

Translator Norma Moore Field has appended a biographical sketch with an emphasis on the sort-of “trilogy” of Botchan, Sorekara, and Mon (The Gate, 1910). She sees them as dominated by three A’s: abandonment, alienation, and ambivalence with the protagonist of each older than in the previous book, and argues that they are not especially autobiographical. She notes but does not explain that Japanese consider Sôseki their greatest modern writer, though others (Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Murakami) have been embraced more by western readers.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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A difficult September 1899 outing on Mt. Aso

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The 210th day of the Japanese lunar calendar is an inauspicious day to try to scale a volcano, or, indeed, to be out of doors at all. The pair of travelers in Sôseki Natsume’s short 1906 novel, The 210th Day (Nihyaku Toka), did not realize that their expedition to the top of the caldera of Mount Aso (an active volcano on Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands of the Japanese archipelago; Sôseki taught on Kyushu for four years) was on the 210th day.

What with the ash, the fog, the drizzle, and high grass, the rumbling under foot, along with blisters the flourish on Roko (the out-of-shape friend of Kei, the character based on Sôseki), the trek is miserable, and the trekers do not reach an edge from which they can look down into the caldera.

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(Miya.m photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Kei reminded me of a leftist Oliver Hardy (whose movies were still in the future), clucking disapproval at the whinings of his companion (though Kei was the slender one, not physically Oliver Hardy’s type). The son of a tofu-maker (not an autobiographical touch), Kei is very critical of the elite and of those who have prospered in Meiji Japan’s early modernization. He refuses to satisfy his companion’s curiosity about his past, but periodically rails against the affluent and the injustices visited on the poor.

Though the book was written after Botchan (and just before Sôseki gave up his Tokyo University position and began as a newspaper (Asahi) fiction serializer), it harkens back to the free-floating sly aggressive observations of his breakout success, I Am a Cat. I think it could have done with more story-telling, relying almost entirely on vaguely comic banter.

The 210th Day is a minor work of a very popular (if more than a little cranky) Japanese writer of a century ago.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray