This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first English-language translation of “Kusamakura” (literally “Pillow of Grass”), a 1906 novella by one of Japan’s greatest writers, Natsume Soseki (1867-1916). Published in 1965, this award-winning translation — by Alan Turney — was given a new title: “The Three-Cornered World.”
Soseki’s original, “Kusamakura,” contains some particularly fine examples of Japanese expression, and is packed with philosophical musings on the nature of Western painting, Chinese poetry and Zen among many other subjects. For Soseki’s legions of fans it is a tour de force.
And yet for 60 years the novella remained almost unknown outside Japan. Steeped in wit and allusion, and dense with meaning, its translation demanded years of research and preparation. It is all the more surprising then that the first person to translate “Kusamakura” into English should be a young man who had only started learning Japanese a mere six years before starting the translation.
Instinctively realizing that a literal translation was impossible, Turney produced a poetic, witty and stylish rendering of Soseki’s jewel-like prose. This article, however, is not the story of how Soseki’s novella was translated into English. It is about how “The Three-Cornered World” connected two outstanding minds.
Two years after it was published, a copy of the book was placed in the hands of one of the world’s most celebrated pianists, Glenn Gould (1932-82).
Gould had shot to fame at the age of 22 for his revolutionary interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” and for the next nine years he dazzled concert halls around the world with his maverick style of piano playing. But by his early 30s Gould had retired from performing in public and began satirizing the pomposity of the world of classical music by inventing a host of comical alter egos to comment on his performances in critical essays and broadcasts. He began to see himself not just as musician but as an all-round creative artist.
In 1967, Gould left his hometown of Toronto, Canada, to take a summer vacation in Nova Scotia. Sitting alone in the club car of the train, he was recognized by a professor of chemistry called William Foley, who summoned up the courage to engage him in conversation. When the two men parted, Gould presented Foley with a recording of his rendition of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. In return, Foley sent Gould a copy of “The Three-Cornered World.”
Soseki’s novel was not only to become Gould’s favorite book (previously it had been Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel “The Magic Mountain”), but one that would obsess him for the last 15 years of his life. Despite having no particular interest in Japan, nor having ever visited, Gould ended up owning four copies of the book, two in English and, unexpectedly, two in Japanese. He owned the English translations of Soseki’s other novels and had more of the Japanese novelist’s books in his library than those of any other writer.
To his cousin, Jessie Greig — the person closest to him throughout his life — he expressed his love for “The Three-Cornered World” by reading the entire novel out to her over the telephone over the course of two evenings.
Not only did he heavily annotate the copy he received from Foley, but Gould also produced 37 separate pages of notes on the novel. He also condensed the first chapter and read it out as a 15-minute broadcast for the CBC radio show “Book Time” in December 1981; the same month he reinterpreted and re-recorded — after a gap of 26 years — Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” And before his untimely death in 1982, he was preparing to write and perform his own radio play based on the book.
When he died there were only two books at his bedside: The Bible and “The Three-Cornered World.”
What was it about Soseki’s novel that so engaged him? It may have seemed to him that this novel completely exemplified his artistic beliefs. Gould reviled and sought to be free of the cloying emotionalism of so much music and art; his aspiration was toward the transcendent and the serene.
Despite there being numerous biographies and documentary films about the enigmatic genius of Gould, the impact “The Three-Cornered World” had on him is a subject that has generally escaped consideration by writers and researchers. A fascinating question still waiting to be answered is to what extent Soseki’s poetry breathed life into Gould’s musical performances late in his life.
It’s unfortunate, too, that Gould’s early death robbed the world of a great artistic voice that would have helped spread Soseki’s fame throughout the English-speaking world. Instead, in this 50th-anniversary year, we are left to ponder and celebrate an endlessly fascinating three-cornered world connecting these extraordinary minds.