Books / Reviews

Natsume Soseki: mining a literary treasure

THEORY OF LITERATURE AND OTHER CRITICAL WRITINGS, by Natsume Soseki. Columbia University Press, 2009, 287 pp., $50 (hardcover)

Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is said to rank among the world’s great 20th-century writers. Many consider him Japan’s greatest modern novelist. His books, from the comic “I Am a Cat” (1905) and “Botchan” (1906) to the tragic “And Then” (1909) and “Kokoro” (1914), are classics.

His reputation is not unchallengeable but it is immense, and a challenge, to be credible, must be of similar stature. I therefore withhold mine, and mention only in passing that 30-odd years ago I dipped into his work, didn’t like it, and haven’t looked back, though I am about to, thanks to the book under review.

“Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings” is an intimidating title but a wonderful anthology. Soseki, to be sure, was a serious man, and he’s engaged here in serious business, but he has the saving gift of humor, which, without effacing his melancholy and hypochondria, at times makes you wish you were in the hall listening to him deliver the lectures included here. How, for example, would students at the Tokyo Art College in 1907 have responded to this sally? “Despite the fact that there are a large number of you here listening today, you only seem to be here. I’m very sorry for you, but you don’t actually exist.” Would their laughter have been boisterous, or uneasy?

The “Theory of Literature” is a book in itself; the five accompanying pieces are considerably shorter. Central to Soseki’s biography is his sojourn in London from 1900 to 1902 — “the unhappiest two years of my life” — as a sort of official student of English literature, living on a stipend (a paltry one, he complained) provided by a modernizing government determined to broaden Japan’s horizons. In loneliness and despair (“I was like a lone shaggy dog mixed in with a pack of wolves”) he conceived his “theory” — nothing less than an attempt to answer the question, “What is literature?”

His research led him far beyond the boundaries of his ostensible discipline. He read widely in sociology, anthropology, political science and philosophy. “Scientific racism,” then ubiquitous and respectable, brimmed with “proofs” of Caucasian racial superiority and, conversely, Oriental racial inferiority. As a student of a supposedly higher civilization, he was expected to accept this. His refusal to do so marks him as an early debunker of thinking that later became opprobrious, but the combat took its toll, deepening his depressions and at times driving him to lash out at Western literature — and by extension at a turn-of-the-century Japan he excoriated for fawning on the West — in ways apt to strike a modern reader as unfair.

His Tokyo Art College lecture has (along with much else) some choice vituperations in that regard. He delineates four ideals — beauty, heroism, goodness and truth. Western literature, he avers, citing authors from Shakespeare to Maupassant, has jettisoned the first three in a morally corrupt and pathologically one-sided preoccupation with the fourth. Anything goes, as long as its true. “It seems a bit too hasty,” he tells his student audience, “that just because Western society has declined and its literary ideals now favor truth above all others, we should immediately follow suit and import this without a thought for the possible consequences. Few nations in history, it seems to me, have been eager to import the bubonic plague from abroad.”

In 1907 he gave up a prestigious appointment as Tokyo Imperial University professor of English and joined the Asahi newspaper. Journalism then wasn’t highly regarded, and his move shocked many, though the appointment was less as a journalist than as a kind of writer-in-residence. (All his subsequent fiction first appeared serially in the Asahi.)

His “Statement on Joining the Asahi,” intended as an explanation, bristles with Sosekian in-your-face iconoclasm: “When I was lecturing at the university, I was beset by incessantly howling dogs, which was unpleasant. Half the reason why my lectures were so awful was because of these dogs.”

Seven years later, his famous essay-lecture “My Individualism” deploys a similarly barbed tone: “I confess that self-centeredness” — a virtue discovered, he grudgingly admits, in England — “became for me a new beginning. I resolved to write books, to tell people that they need not imitate Westerners, that running blindly after others as they were doing would only cause them great anxiety. Many go so far as to assert that our nation will perish unless this terrible ‘individualism’ is stamped out. What utter nonsense!”

There are treasures to be mined in this book — insights into Soseki the man, Soseki the writer, Soseki the product of his time. It will send me back to his fiction. The man revealed here, warts and all, must be a superior novelist, whatever I thought 30 years ago.

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