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The attractive helplessness of a reluctant foreigner

by Donald Richie

THE TOWER OF LONDON: Tales of Victorian London, by Natsume Soseki, translated and introduced by Damian Flanagan, calligraphy by Kosaka Misuzu. London: Peter Owen, 2005, 240 pp., 12 illustrations, £14.95 (paper).

In 1900 the Japanese government sent three young scholars to London to study and equip themselves for university positions that awaited them on their return to Japan — they were to replace foreign professors who would then be sent home.

In this group sent forth was one who did not very much want to go — the 33-year-old Natsume Soseki. He suffered from seasickness, displayed gastric problems and, as his diary indicates, was most uneasy about this forced immersion in foreign climes.

Later he wrote: “The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years of my life. Among English gentlemen, I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”

Part of the misery was occasioned by the exceedingly small funding allowed him by his government, but another part was due to his electing to remain unhappy.

He refused London’s admirable public transportation system, did not trust himself to train or cab since “their cobweb system was so complicated,” moved from one awful lodging to another and based his later opinion of the English character upon those of the landladies and tradespeople with whom he unsuccessfully attempted to deal.

In actuality, he was perhaps treated no more poorly than the British treated each other. And sometimes better. One of the guards at the Tower of London went out of his way to show the future author a suit of Japanese armor. One landlord hoisted the short scholar onto his shoulders so that he could view Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege.

Nonetheless, Soseki had already decided upon a persona of attractive helplessness and it was this that he described when, back in Japan, he wrote up his London experiences in a series of sketches.

One hundred years later, with Soseki acknowledged as perhaps Japan’s greatest author, they are here collected and translated. Included are “Letter from London” and “Bicycle Diary” (1903), “The Tower of London” and “The Carlyle Museum” (1906), and seven sketches from “Short Pieces for Long Days” (1909) — in other words, most of the pieces worked up from Soseki’s London notes.

Several are not included, “The Phantom Shield (Maboroshi no Tate)” and “Dew on the Shallots (Kairoko)” among them. Instead, the translator/editor has chosen to add a much later story by another author, Futaro Yamada’s “The Yellow Lodger,” which imagines a meeting between Soseki and Sherlock Holmes. It is written in a tiresomely jocular manner, though this faithfully mirrors the Soseki tone during this early period — as found in “Botchan” and “I Am a Cat.”

Some of the sketches in this book are here translated for the first time, though that of “The Tower of London” first appeared in a 1992 edition by Peter Milward and Kii Nakano. Also the Natsume Soseki Museum in London has announced a series of translations, one of which, “Travels in Manchuria and Korea,” appeared in 2000.

Flanagan, however, gives the museum very short shrift, it being found an “uncomfortable irony” and a mere upstairs flat across the street from Soseki’s fourth and final boardinghouse, and “kitted out with a variety of period memorabilia.” Its founder-caretaker, Ikuo Tsumematsu, is deemed an enthusiast.

But Flanagan is also an enthusiast (as well as a scholar) and boosts his author at every opportunity. He admits that his goal is “promoting Soseki to the very forefront of world literature.” He believes that Soseki’s work is “the finest collection of novels, memoirs, criticism and short stories the Japanese language has ever seen,” that Soseki is “King of the Novel” and that he is “a finer writer than Tolstoy, Proust or Joyce.”

Here again, one feels, Soseki is being kindly hoisted on the shoulders of a friendly foreigner.

The value of the present collection is in the fact that even if it is negligible the author is not, and thus all information is welcome — particularly through the kind of knowledge that Flanagan brings to his translation, his introduction and his notes.