‘Kusamakura’: What’s the story?


KUSAMAKURA by Natsume Soseki, translated by Meredith McKinney. Penguin Classics, 2008, 152 pp., £9.99 (paper)

In this early work (also known as “Grass Pillow”) by one of Japan’s best-known authors, the narrator is with a mysterious woman he meets at the hot spring. They are talking about reading, about skipping pages. He says there is nothing wrong with it if you “want to know about the story.” To which she answers “What do you read if it isn’t the story? Is there anything else to read?” And this in a work notorious for having no “story” at all.

Nothing happens, nothing comes of the encounter. That is, if you expect “story.” However, what happens is always less interesting than how it happens, or doesn’t happen, and in reading “Kusamakura” the interest is always firmly in the how.

For two characters in a story to be questioning the role of story in a work that has none makes us suspect humor. And indeed Soseki is one of the few humorists of Japanese literature. He lets us know this from the very beginning of his plotless saga.

His hero, an aesthete who can go on for pages on poetic subjects, slips and lands on his bum. Later, talking about the haiku, he calls it “the simplest and handiest form of poetry. “You can compose one with ease while . . . on the toilet.” Later he makes the humorous observation that: “If that abominably complex set of rules and regulations that makes up the tea ceremony contains any refinement, then a crack army corps must positively reek of elegant sophistication.”

The author of “I Am a Cat” and “Botchan” was already known as a humorist, and the garrulous barber and jocose priest in “Kusamakura” remind you of this. At the same time, however, you are aware that the humor is deepening, that it is approaching irony.

The ironic aspect of the work is well served by this new translation. Irony itself is the expression of meaning through words that normally mean the opposite, and Meredith McKinney’s translation follows Soseki’s own indications.

In an essay on “Kusamakura,” the author said that there was no plot, no development of events, but that he wanted a certain feeling to remain with the reader. He identifies this as “beauty,” but he then seeks to continually contrast his aesthete with his mundane surroundings, usually at this narrator’s expense.

Soseki expresses these intentions through the various styles he employs — arcane Chinese-influenced vocabulary as contrasted against common demotic talk. It is this difference that McKinney conveys in her translation.

Here is her opening passage: “As I climb the mountain path I ponder — If you work by reason you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment’s stream, it will sweep you away. . . . However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.”

For comparison, here is the same passage in the 1965 Alan Turney translation: “Going up a mountain track, I fell to thinking. Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along the stream of emotion, and you will be swept away by the current. . . . It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.”

By adopting what amounts to an Edwardian accent (and Soseki wrote his book in 1906) McKinney emphasizes the “Chinese” diction of an elevated style, jocosely opposing the “vulgar” mode used in other scenes. This contrast deepens into irony when the “elevated” style becomes more and more questioned during the course of the work.

(This does not reflect upon the Turney translation, which is a distinguished one. Still, as the late, great translator Edward G. Seidensticker once grudgingly said: seems as though every generation needs its new translation.”)

Sometimes “Kusamakura” is seen as signaling a break between the fun of the early comedies and the perceived solemnity of the later work. Actually, however, Soseki remained an ironist to the end, and something of a humorist as well — even “Kokoro” has a smile or two. Like Laurence Sterne (whom he loved) and George Meredith (whom he quotes twice in this 1906 work) Soseki must be read with a healthy measure of doubt and his meaning must be ferreted out. This is particularly true of “Kusamakura.”

So forget the story and dig for irony.