18 February 2023

On Natsume Sōseki's late novels

In the Chronology that prefaced Natsume Sōseki's Sanshirō (Penguin Classics, 2009), translator Jay Rubin divided Sōseki's novels into two phases: early novels (1905-08) and late novels (1909-16). The first of the late novels was And Then, where the protagonist, as described in the Chronology, was "more intelligent and internalized than Sanshirō" and the novel contained "much darker view of human and international relations".

Of the early novels, I've so far read I Am a Cat (just the first of three volumes), Botchan, Nowaki, and Sanshirō. Others included in the early phase were Kusamakura (aka The Three-Cornered World), Gubijinsō (1907, still untranslated), and The Miner. Sanshirō, the last novel in this phase, was the bridging novel or transition novel. In fact, Rubin lumped this with the next two novels (And Then and Mon) to comprise a trilogy of sorts. 

Among the late novels, I read Mon (aka The Gate), Kokoro, Grass on the Wayside, and Light and Darkness (read around 80% of this last, uncompleted novel). Others in this period were And Then, To the Spring Equinox and Beyond, and The Wayfarer.

The first novels were said to be characterized by humor and lightness. For me, the late novels were the richer of the two periods in terms of complexity of characters, thematic richness, and vision. His masterpiece was often considered to be Kokoro, but Haruki Murakami begged to differ in his assessment of the novels. 

For me, Sōseki’s apparently most popular novel, Kokoro, left something to be desired, and while I did enjoy the late works so widely praised for their psychological insight, I could never fully identify with the deep anguish of the modern intellectual depicted in them. “What’s the point of going on and on about this?” I would often feel. In that sense, I’m probably a bit removed from the “mainstream” Sōseki reader. There is no doubt, however, that the “Sōseki experience” I had at that time, belated though it was, remains firmly rooted within me to this day, and that, whenever I have a chance to reread Sōseki’s novels, I am always struck by how fine they are. Sōseki is always the name that first comes to mind when someone asks me who my favorite Japanese author is. 

I quite liked Kokoro but I also thought the novels I read from the late period (Mon/ The Gate, Michikusa/ Grass on the Wayside, and Light and Darkness) were more grounded in reality and offered more quiet devastation. Like Murakami, I also think Soseki is the top-of-mind best Japanesse novelist. But what was telling on the part of Murakami was his admission that he "could never fully identify with the deep anguish of the modern intellectual depicted in [Soseki's late works]". Somehow it was not surprising how Murakami was unable to identify with the materialist (and Marxist) subjects of Soseki's late oeuvre: being dirt-poor, duties of an individual and obligations to a family, greed, betrayal, societal expectations, individualism.

Yes, the late novels were dark. But there were lightness in them too. Just consider the title of the last work. Rubin considered Mon/ The Gate the dark culmination of a trilogy as the "protagonist fails to find comfort in religion". My reading of that novel was different. I found it life-affirming and thought the protagonist emerged from his inner struggle far from a failure but renewed and more wise.

Of course this arbitrary division of a writer's work might be misguided. I suppose I better read (and reread) Soseki again to find beauty in the darkness.

13 February 2023

Rosmon Tuazon's still lifes


A month ago I read Sa Pagitan ng mga Emerhensiya (Between Emergencies), a collection of poetry in Filipino by Rosmon Tuazon. I'm still thinking through the lines. I intuit a question behind some poems. The lines tried to supply an answer to the question by circling around images and ideas. No answer was forthcoming as the question gave rise to more questions. There was a profundity beyond the reach of the reader. The poetic images came short of a satisfying answer because the reader was blocked by some roundabout illusion. The reader was unsure if he's being had.

Two months ago, I read Rosmon's bilingual Forth, with English translations by Ben Aguilar, published by the brave indie press Balangay Books. The "free" translations, untethered from literalism, provided a way to approach the clipped and disparate shadows of a poem. 

Reading Rosmon's poems, one was prodded into feeling the entire architecture of shadows instead of grasping at straws of comprehension. One must not isolate and translate the lines but situate them in the canvas of their borrowed, still life. The black ink of Rosmon's letters form a collection of still lifes.

Hindi matuklap ng mga anino ang sarili.

The shadows cannot peel their eyes.

In "Silbi ng Still Life", the poet relied on the art of seeing tactile objects to bring out the grooves and textures of his fruit.

Silbi ng Still Life

May sumisipol-sipol sa tahimik na pasilyo.
Sinisiklot-siklot niya sa palad ang isang kahel.

Bawat silid na kaniyang lampasan ay may abalang
pumapanaw. Bawat isa ay buo ang konsentrasyon

sa mangkok ng mga prutas na hindi na matiyak
ng mata kung tunay o plastik o pinta

ngunit sa sulok na iyon ay unti-unting nalulusaw,
lumiligwak sa lamesitang wari ding nalulusaw.

Umaabót ang ulirat sa mapipiga
ngunit lalo lamang lumalapot ang lagkit sa lalamunan.

Hindi naman nagmamadali ang sumisipol-sipol sa pasilyo.
Kay lamig ng kahel nang sa palad ay mapirmi.

Value of Still Life

Someone was whistling in the quiet hallway.
In his palm, he was sculpting an orange.

In every room he passed by, somebody was busy
dying. Everyone’s concentration was directed

on a bowl of fruits the naked eye
could not discern as real or plastic or paint

but in that corner it was slowly dissolving,
spilling on a small table that seemed to dissolve too.

Consciousness reached up to what can be squeezed
but the phlegm in the throat only became more viscous.

That someone whistling in the hallway was not in a hurry
How cold the orange when encased in the palm.

Even in "Pessoa, Pessoa", the reader cannot escape emulating the "message" of the Filipino poet channeling the Portuguese poet in the final couplet.

Nilisan nya kaming nahanap ang sadya
ngunit tuloy sa paghalukuya.

He left us alone who have found what we were looking for
and yet we are still excavating. 

The reader was almost sure he found the meaning behind Pessoa's notebooks, but he could not help but dig more. More.