TWO JAPANESE NOVELISTS: SOSEKI & TOSON, by Edwin McClellan. Tuttle, 2004, 166 pp., 1,500 yen (paper).

Even if they do recognize the man, Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) for many non-Japanese is no more than the prim blue gent in the mustache that once peered out from the 1,000 yen bill. Yet Soseki is the dominant figure in modern Japanese literature. If asked to name their greatest modern novelist, most Japanese wouldn’t hesitate in choosing the Tokyo-born writer.

Soseki’s time was an exciting one in literature. In the last decade of his life, during which Soseki wrote the 14 novels that cemented his reputation, modernism was cranking into gear and James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were finding their literary voices.

When Soseki began his first novel, the humorous “I Am a Cat,” in 1905, though, the most important literary influence in Japan was the European naturalism of Emile Zola. And the first great expression of this style in Japan — the first modern Japanese novel really comparable with what Europeans were writing — was “Broken Commandment,” published in 1906 by Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943).

As Edwin McClellan states in “Two Japanese Novelists: Soseki & Toson,” “Broken Commandment” was “a landmark in the history of modern Japanese realism.” The novel centers on a teacher who, coming from a socially outcast community whose members suffered discrimination, swears to his father never to reveal his origins. However, to preserve his self-respect, as the title indicates, he breaks his word.

Written in ordinary modern speech, free of the ornate prose that had previously marked good literary style, “Broken Commandment” was progressive too in its objective, which, as McClellan observes, was “a modern psychological novel, where the essential thing is not the situations themselves, but the way in which they affect the behavior of the protagonist.”

“Broken Commandment” won enormous acclaim: Soseki called it the first novel worthy of the name in Meiji times (1868-1912). For his part, after “I Am a Cat,” Soseki continued in a lighter vein with “Botchan (Little Master),” 1906, one of the most popular Japanese books ever written, before embarking on the distinctive novels of his later years, establishing a different style with each because, notes McClellan, “Soseki found no Japanese predecessor or contemporary worthy of emulation; every time he wrote a new kind of novel, he had almost to create a new language proper to the genre, something which his Western counterparts did not have to do.”

Toson never rose to such challenges. After his pivotal first novel, subsequent works were either autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, and the results tended to be either very good or very bad. In 1911, he finished “The House,” a distinguished, compelling, lyrical effort where, as McClellan says, “the details of the backdrop are as important as what the actors do or say . . . the human voices are hushed and seem to merge with other sounds; and the people move only as distant figures.” But he also wrote “A New Life,” based on how, after his wife’s death, Toson seduced his niece, got her pregnant, then fled to Europe for a few years, leaving the poor girl to face the music alone — as hypocritical, dishonest and self-serving a “confessional” novel as was ever written.

Throughout, McClellan quotes generously and astutely from the originals (one extract covers more than 2 1/2 pages). Readers with no knowledge of either Soseki or Toson will come away with a thorough grasp not only of theme, characterization and plot, but also of the writers’ individual style and voice.

Originally published in 1969, and republished by Tuttle this year, “Two Japanese Novelists” has one fault — its odd weighting toward Toson. Soseki was the greater, more prolific writer, yet significantly more space is devoted to five novels by Toson than to 10 by Soseki. Instead of the long plot descriptions for Toson, it would have been preferable to see something on the four untouched Soseki novels.

Outside the book’s own context, though, the obvious question is why McClellan chose to match these two writers. Just as most Japanese would cite Soseki as their finest modern novelist, so would they include Mori Ogai with Soseki as the best two. Ogai was clearly a more outstanding writer than Toson, and it’s hard to avoid feeling that a Soseki & Ogai subtitle could have made a more outstanding volume.

Notwithstanding, McClellan offers an excellent compact introduction to the work of two seminal writers. McClellan is a more perceptive critic of Soseki and a more patient reader of Toson than even the insightful Donald Keene in his expansive “Dawn to the West.”

“Two Novelists” will retain its currency long after Soseki disappears from his. That process, of course, began this month when the new 1,000 yen bill, fronted by microbiologist Noguchi Hideyo, went into circulation.

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