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.

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