Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Books: NATSUME Souseki Doubleheader

I just finished reading "Botchan", by NATSUME Souseki (夏目漱石著 坊っちゃん), thanks to a trip to Shibuya to drop off some paperwork at Amazon that afforded a good two hours of on-train reading and the fact that I happened to forget my keys this morning, a circumstance that required me to wait for Lyani's school to be over, thus having another hour to read. The novel is a mere 173 pages in length, and so entertaining that it can easily be read in a single sitting.

"Botchan" is a simple and humorous book, quite a departure from the brooding seriousness of NATSUME's later works. It is also one of the most-beloved books in the entire Japanese literary canon and also, according to none other than Donald Keene, probably the most frequently read novel to boot. The plot, as in most of NATSUME's novels, is sparse and straight-forward--it exists, after all, just as a vehicle for NATSUME's fluid and sparkling prose--a young Tokyo lad, known to the reader only as Botchan (the closest English translation would be "young master", as an older butler might call the beloved youngest son of an English nobleman) graduates from junior college and is offered a teaching position in far-away, rural Shikoku, which he accepts. In the month or so he is there, he manages to get into one amusing scrape after another, before finally deciding to resign and return to Tokyo.

The reasons that the book is utterly compelling to the Western reader are the quality of NATSUME's prose--light and playful here--and the sheer likeability of the viewpoint character. Botchan is a straight-forward, unpretentious, and singularly generous fellow. He never fails to speak his mind, and while he does not exactly seek conflict out, neither does he shrink from it. He is a rare chap among the tatemae no tatsujin-tachi ("Masters of Tatemae" in English, where tatemae is the art of always putting the best face on things, never revealing your true feelings (hon'ne), that is employed regularly in Japanese society to avoid conflict) that are the Japanese, and this gets him into trouble almost constantly. This makes him a bit of a rebel without a cause, perhaps, though his rebellion is comic rather than romantic.

"Botchan" can certainly be read as a glib commentary on Japanese society, which is of course one of the major thematic currents that courses throughout NATSUME's novels, but it is first and foremost a comedy, and this, combined with the nostalgic feelings it stirs in Japanese readers (in the translator's note, Alan Turney compares it to the nostalgia a Western reader might feel when reading one of Dickens's descriptions of a Victorian Christmas), makes it a tremendously popular book in Japan, never out of print since its original edition in 1906.

My opinion? Thumbs up!

And while I am on the subject of NATSUME, let me also say a few words about "And Then..." (夏目漱石著 それから), which I finished weeks ago (it came from my first batch of library books) but have been too lazy to write up so far, even though I liked it tremendously.

"And Then...", to which I will hereafter refer as "Sore Kara...", because the English translation grates on my ear, might very well have been written by a different author than the one responsible for "Botchan". Where "Botchan" is light and humorous, "Sore Kara..." tackles some serious themes, and, like most of NATSUME's novels, ends in disaster. Only two things clue us in to the fact that both books are the work of a single writer: the masterfully rendered language and the minor plot point in "Botchan" concerning a faithless woman (in most of NATSUME's novels, an unconventional or socially unacceptable love affair takes centre stage).

"Sore Kara..." is the story of the second son of a wealthy merchant. The plot, as always, is simple: our "hero" (whether he is heroic or not, he is the viewpoint character, which is usually enough to fulfill the literary definition of the word) Daisuke, who has graduated from university several years past, is living a life of leisure in his own house, attended to by an elderly woman and a young, lazy houseboy. He has no occupation, but instead receives a monthly allowance from his father, an entrepreneurial sort who took advantage of the new opportunities afforded by the Meiji Restoration to start a very successful family business, which the elder brother has inherited. Suddenly, Daisuke is contacted by his best friend from university, Hiraoka, who has just lost his job in Kyoto and has returned to Tokyo, in deep financial trouble. Daisuke is subsequently visited by Hiraoka's wife Michiyo, another friend of Daisuke's from university, who has come to ask Daisuke for a loan on her husband's behalf. Daisuke then falls in love with Michiyo (or perhaps discovers that he has always loved her, since first they met), which culminates in him asking Hiraoka to release her from the obligation of marriage. Hiraoka agrees, but writes a long letter to Daisuke's father explaining the situation, which results in Daisuke being disowned by his traditional, Confucian father, and also by his traditional, socialite brother. Which causes Daisuke to go insane and possibly die (the end of the book is not clear on that point).

So that is the story. What makes the book great are the characters and their interactions. Daisuke, the protagonist, is quite introspective and analytical, well aware of his many faults. He is also accepting of them, reasoning that being the man that he is, how could he act any differently? He comes into regular conflict with his father, a stern patriarch who was born a samurai during the late Edo Period, schooled in the Chinese classics and Confucian morality. Daisuke's father expects him to live up to his social obligations, namely, marriage, but Daisuke has refused match after match. Just as he is considering accepting a match that his father favours more than usual, he falls in love with another man's wife, a mortal sin in the eyes of his duty-conscious father.

Daisuke's father represents old, feudal Japan: stern, traditional, beholden to social responsibility to the point of rigidity; Daisuke himself is the brave new Japan of the Meiji Era: he has cast off the feudal mind-set of his ancestors, but is muddled and confused, unsure of how to act now that he has embraced modernisation and the West. The fact that it is Daisuke who comes out on the losing end of the conflict and is destroyed is no mistake; NATSUME was very critical of both the feudal past and the chaotic present (he did most of his serious writing between 1908 and 1915), and one of the major themes in his works is the fact that Japan as a country is listless and lacking direction. Had he lived past 1916, he surely would have been one of the strongest critics of the military-industrial complex that came to utterly dominate Japan by the early 1920s.

Love is also a matter with which NATSUME regularly concerns himself, but it has to be a special sort of love, that which is forbidden, unwise, but also unstoppable. As a (somewhat reluctant) scholar of English literature, he must have been familiar with William Shakespeare's many star-crossed lovers, but while he did the Bard proud in a way, it is highly unlikely that he was particularly influenced by "Romeo and Juliet", "The Tempest", etc. In fact, NATSUME expressed much disappointment with English literature, feeling that it was so different from his beloved Chinese literature that it was completely lost on the East Asian reader.

Forbidden love is actually a pretty common theme in Japanese literature. NATSUME's characters, however, break the mold by actually attempting to seize love, instead of (in classic Japanese fashion) accepting the futility of it all and living their lives in sorrow, or escaping the social constraints by double suicide. Of course, NATSUME is not so naive that he lets his characters be happy; oh no! they must bear the burden of consequence created by their socially unacceptable decisions. When the relationships survive, they are heart-wrenchingly bittersweet, as in "Mon".

NATSUME Souseki is probably my favourite Japanese writer (in a dead heat with the splendid ISHIGURO Kazuo), and "Sore Kara...", while not the novel for which I felt the strongest affinity--"Kokoro" holds that honour--it is another brilliant work by a brilliant writer.

My opinion? Thumbs up!


Matthew said...

One question -- Why do Soseki and Ishiguro Kazuo have to be neck and neck for your top Japanese writer? Ishiguro is Japanese by race but writes in English, right? Seems like as good an excuse as any to give Soseki the gold medal, right?

Josh Glover said...

Ishiguro does write in English, but he writes Japanese literature. Witness "An Artist of the Floating World", which is my favourite work of Japanese literature, edging out "Kokoro" by a hair. In fact, "An Artist of the Floating World" reminded me so much of Souseki's writing (both in terms of style and theme) that I wonder if Ishiguro intended the book as a Souseki homage.

In any case, if you have not yet read "An Artist of the Floating World", give it a go, and then see if you agree with my categorisation of Ishiguro as a Japanese writer. (That goes for other readers of this blog, too. Sean, I think you would really enjoy the book, given some of the great books you have turned me onto, and some of the stuff I remember from your bookshelf back in ChVille.)

Without subscribing whole-heartedly to Nihonjinron, I submit that Ishiguro, who moved to England from Japan at age five, still possesses something intrinsically Japanese in his soul, and this is responsible for his writing being so suffused with the essence of the Japanese character.

Then again, I have not read any of Ishiguro's other novels, so perhaps I should do so. I am sure that the Yokohama City Library has at least "The Remains of the Day" in English.

Matthew said...

Point of debate, I guess. If you follow that logic to an extreme, you could argue that an American writing about Troy in English is producing a work of Greek literature. These lines of thought tend to get pretty hazy. In the end, however, I think that the language and context of production are probably the most important factor to consider. 'An Artist of the Floating World' won English (British) literary prizes (it was even up for the Booker Prize, I think) but was not considered for Japanese ones. I don't think that you could find many people who would consider Amy (Emi) Yamada's writings like 'Soul Music Lovers Only' to be 'American' lit (as they are written in Japanese and very obviously packaged for a Japanese audience).

Of course, this is just my opinion. The best thing to do, I think, would be to see how Ishiguro describes himself. A quick 'google' tells me that in some interviews, he has talked about not wanting the 'Japanese' tag at all. He resented the fact that he was given a“role as a kind of Japanese foreign correspondent in residence in London. Newspapers and magazines would call me up because there was a Japanese book to be reviewed or a Japanese issue that I could comment on, and I started to feel very uncomfortable because I knew very little about Japan.”

In the end maybe, it would be better to not label him a Japanese or English author at all but to follow his lead when he remarks that he has wanted to write about
“themes that most people can relate to as opposed to themes that are of interest only to a few”

Sounds like he is more of a self-defined 'universal' author and they are often the best kind.

Guess we are both wrong (:->)

I have not read 'Remains of the Day' either. It is pretty easy to track down in Japan, however. So we should have no trouble finding it.

BTW, I just saw a pretty cool looking manga collection called 'the Bakumatsu' (yes 'the' Bakumatsu). It contains short works by Kawaguchi Kaiji of 'Chinmoku no Kantai' and 'Jipangu' fame as well as by the dude who did the art for 'Kodure Okami' (which inspired 'Sin City'). Bakumatsu Sin City sounds right by me.

Josh Glover said...

There is something to what you say, I admit. However, since I can only read Japanese literature in translation (hopefully that will change one day, and I will be able to go back and re-read all my favourite novels in the original), English seems a natural language for expressing Japanese literary themes to me. This is why I think of "An Artist of the Floating World" as Japanese literature. Apparently I am not the only one, as I first read it as an assignment in a Japanese anthropology class... :)

It is interesting what Ishiguro himself has said. I will have to repeat your Google and read some of those interviews. I can certainly understand the frustration of being a "pet Japanese", which Ishiguro seems to be implying.

You need to come up to Yokohama so that we can continue this discussion into a couple of pints!

matthew said...

These discussions are always better over some booze. They seem 'nasty' when you re-read them on the net.

Still hopin' to get up to Yokohama.

Josh Glover said...

Heh, if you think they look nasty on the 'Net, wait til I knock you upside the head, fueled by Guiness, when I come out on the losing side of one of our in-pub discussions! :)

I've always maintained that if you cannot win an argument by logic, you should immediately employ violence. I'll just have to make sure there are no fire extinguishers present...