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Minor Soseki work gets first English translation

by Paul Mccarthy

NOWAKI, by Natsume Soseki, translated and with an afterword by William N. Ridgeway. Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2011, 120 pp., $15 (paperback)

As the translator notes in his afterword, and Donald Keene and Angela Yiu suggest in quotations used as blurbs on the back cover, Natsume Soseki is one of the giants of 20th century Japanese literature; and probably Ridgeway does not go too far in calling Soseki “the most admired” of all, by the Japanese themselves.

Soseki is best known for his masterful novel “Kokoro,” (Note: spoiler follows) depicting an intense relationship between a young man and an older one, known as “Sensei,” which ends with the suicide of the latter. The story within the story is of rivalry between two close student-friends for the hand of a beautiful young woman, resulting in the suicide, and lifelong guilt on the part of the “successful” suitor, who is Sensei himself.

Other works universally admired in Japan include “Botchan,” about a naive young man and his sometimes comically unhappy exile in Shikoku, and “Sanshiro,” depicting another innocent youth who comes to Tokyo to study, grow and be formed by a relationship with yet another Sensei.

All of Soseki’s novels and novellas had been translated, with the exception of “Gubijinso” and “Nowaki.” Now the English-language reader has the latter to peruse and ponder over. The title (hard to translate and perhaps best left in the original, as here) refers to an autumn wind that can devastate the peasants’ crops. It functions both as an allusion to classical literary works, like the “Genji,” where it occurs, and as a symbol of the negative currents in Meiji Japanese society that the Sensei character eloquently inveighs against and that the ne’er-do-well anti-hero blames for his misfortunes.

Ridgeway reminds us in his helpful and very well-written afterword that Soseki was more than just a novelist — he was a poet, essayist and lecturer: a public intellectual. He gave up a position at what is now the University of Tokyo to become a writer primarily for the Asahi Shimbun. Both were (and are) prestigious institutions, and Soseki’s choice, though it must have surprised his contemporaries, no doubt gave him a broader platform from which to expound his ideas. These include the nature of modernity in relation to tradition, democracy and individualism, the status of artists and scholars in relation to politicians and military men, materialism versus idealism, and other broad and serious topics.

Many of these themes are explored in Nowaki through dialogues among the main characters: a very Soseki-like former middle school teacher named Doya-sensei, who represents the unworldly intellectual life; a prosperous, pleasure-loving aesthete/dandy named Nomura; and a depressive and chronically ill friend of Nomura’s named Takayanagi, who wants to be a writer, though he is in fact a hack-translator.

All of these characters are depicted with a mixture of sympathy and humor, intimacy and distance; and Soseki, as omniscient narrator, gives us access to their inner thoughts and fantasies as well as giving detailed depictions of their dress, habits and quirks. The dark and, for this reader, tiresome character of Takayanagi brings the novel to a sudden end with an act of self-sacrificial generosity that surprises and pleases the reader, even if it does not entirely convince.

Two cavils: This is a minor work in comparison with many of Soseki’s better known and earlier translated fiction, and the reader should not expect too much from it. And the English style is disappointing: Husband and wife, friend and friend, address each other in a stiff dialect that avoids simple conversational contractions; and the narrative style, too, sometimes seems unnatural. “Is a puzzlement,” as the King of Siam is made to say in the Broadway play, since, on the evidence of his afterword, Ridgeway commands a good literary style.

If the reader will bear these two things in mind and come to terms with them, the reader can learn much from this new addition to the Soseki canon in English, and derive considerable pleasure in the process. The references to Meiji Ueno, Yushima, and Kagurazaka lend piquancy to the reader familiar with modern-day Tokyo.