From Oct. 28, 1900, until Dec. 5, 1902, Natsume Soseki lived in Clapham, a district of South London. Ordered to England by the Meiji government, Soseki, without sufficient funds to study formally and with little else to do apart from the occasional cycle ride or part-time tutoring, spent most of this unhappy time in his room, reading and formulating his “Theory of Literature,” published in 1907. The stress of life in London, and his unrelenting loneliness, pushed Soseki to the brink of madness.
Born in 1867 and dying from stomach ulcer complications in 1916, Soseki lived almost entirely within the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and is arguably that era’s greatest novelist. His complicated upbringing — being raised by servants, the divorce of his foster parents, his return at 9 to his mother and father (whom he had believed to be his grandparents) and the early death of his natural mother — provided Soseki ample material for his later writings. While some of his works, notably the Arthurian “Kairo-ko” and “I Am a Cat,” contain elements of fantasy, myth, and satire, it is “Kokoro,” “Botchan,” and the trilogy comprising “Sanshiro,” “And Then” and “The Gate” that draw on these autobiographical sources.
“Sanshiro,” first published in serial form in Asahi Shimbun in 1908, tells the story of the 23-year-old eponymous hero, who has left his home in rural Kyushu to study at the Imperial University. Traveling on various trains from Saigawa to Tokyo by way of Kyoto and Nagoya (in his translator’s notes, Jay Rubin provides a trainspotter’s breakdown of the possible route and timetable), Sanshiro, homesick and sleepy, meets a strange woman with whom he spends a chaste and somewhat embarrassing night in a cheap inn. The woman calls Sanshiro a coward for not reacting to her obvious advances; later his mother iterates the assessment and Sanshiro grudgingly agrees.
His meetings with people are awkward, his participation in situations vague. On the train journey from Nagoya to Tokyo he meets a man (who later turns out to be the university professor Hirota), yet on meeting him a second time, Sanshiro moves on without saying anything. The novel is one of observation, not description.
Entranced and appalled by the city of Tokyo and its women, notably the beautiful Mineko whom he meets by a pond on the university grounds in Hongo (the heart-shaped expanse of water now known as Sanshiro Pond), Sanshiro uses his apartness to question art versus experience, tradition versus modernity, the country versus the city. He never fully connects; he attends lectures and makes friends, but his emotional range shifts between listlessness and veneration. He never fully interacts with the world and he finds life (outside of literature) dull.
This could be ageless verisimilitude — aren’t most students like that? Sanshiro is interested in female singers, visits entertainment districts, drinks alcohol, falls in love and becomes sick, with illness a symptom of his doubts about love. Sanshiro is a procrastinator, delaying decision, regretting actions not taken; he is addicted to humiliation yet fearful of being thought stupid, he is tongue-tied in speech yet loquacious in thought.
Soseki’s view is a detached one, clinical, sometimes cynical, with hints of satire. His main characters illuminate and darken each other, their light and shadow — Soseki is a sublime sketcher of people — creating a three-dimensional support cast. “Sanshiro” embodies all of the doubt, excitement and paranoia of the Meiji Era. This is a campus novel 50 years ahead of its time, a coming-of-age story and a study of love in a changing world, commenting on the shifting social mores and morals of 20th-century Japan. With “Sanshiro” and the comedy of manners “I Am a Cat,” Soseki may be Japan’s Jane Austen.
Haruki Murakami’s introduction is thoughtful and places “Sanshiro” as an early inspiration for his “Norwegian Wood.” The translator’s notes provide interesting background to the politics behind Lafcadio Hearn’s departure from Tokyo Imperial University and Soseki’s subsequent hiring. Rubin’s new translation of this modern classic is fresh and invigorating, totally reworking his earlier 1977 translation and establishing him as the pre-eminent Japanese- to-English translator.