Author of a well-received study of the biographical writings of Mori Ogai (“Paragons of the Ordinary,” 1993), Marvin Marcus now turns to the man widely regarded as the most important novelist of the Meiji Era, Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), author of “Wagahai Wa Neko de Aru” (I Am a Cat), “Kokoro,” and “Botchan.”
Marcus uses the author’s personal writings as the framework for this major work of literary detection. His goal is to provide us, through Soseki’s personal documents, with “a view of the author’s private and public faces and illuminate his larger concerns as a novelist and culture critic,” presented in “a predominant and personal voice.” His materials are Soseki’s various essay collections (of which one, “Reflections in a Glass Door,” lends its title to the present work), diary entries, poetry, published interviews and the more autobiographical of his novels.
With these, Marcus succeeds admirably in his goal, though he concedes that “memory does not always cooperate, and can never offer up the unmediated past . . . (We live) confined within our small, private spaces . . . mainly we sit and think, and wish to be left alone.”
This was certainly true of Soseki. Famously querulous, he courted privacy, yet spectacularly failed to take any advantage of two solitary and melancholy years in London. (“In the company of English gentlemen I was like a poodle loosed among a pack of wolves.”) There, he later stated, “I led a truly pitiful land wretched life,” yet at the same time, he knew that this habit of melancholia actually assisted his writing and thought it only right and proper that “I express my deepest gratitude to these mental disorders.”
Prey to a malfunctioning digestive system (a disorder that eventually killed him) and far too intelligent not to see through the political machinations of his Meiji times, including the petty maneuverings of the literary establishment of which he was a prominent member, Soseki is here newly defined through his melancholy personal writings. His personal archives are presented as another facet of his literary artistry and serve as a true mirror of the man.
Both this and Marcus’ previous book resemble that greatest of authorial compendiums, Edward Seidensticker’s reconstruction of Nagai Kafu and his writings, “Kafu the Scribbler” (1965), in that the biography is at once a subtle and nuanced critical evaluation of the author. Direct comparisons of Marcus’ and Seidensticker’s subjects, though, would certainly find Soseki to be the more self-centered writer.
If Kafu strikes modern readers as the more cogent, it is perhaps because his melancholia was more socio-historical. Soseki’s topics were his own literature, his personal ethics, his stomach. As Marcus writes, “His concerns are ordinary, his anxieties and fears utterly human . . . He looks at his world, at the sort of person he has become, and shakes his head, often despairing of making sense of things.”
Making sense, often brilliantly, is what Marcus does in this eminently readable account of the inner life of Soseki, the man Harvard’s Jay Rubin rightly called “modern Japan’s other immovable mountain.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5