Natsume is one of the greatest Japanese writers. I'm told that some of his books, though not this one, are part of the standard curriculum. Written in 1910, this is the story of Sosuke, a mid-level office worker who lives with his wife Oyone in a rented house at the bottom of a cliff. Childless after three miscarriages and stillbirths, they have drawn together, contra mundum, sitting in their parlor every evening on either side of the lamp that creates a circle of light in the dark world around them.
The book opens on a Sunday, the one day of the week when Sosuke doesn’t have to work, a day of melancholy for him, longed for but so quickly gone. There is so much that he wants to do, but he usually just ends up going for a walk and visiting the public bath. Although he lives and works in Tokyo, he cannot afford to enjoy its many pleasures. Sosuke and Oyone’s precarious finances become even further strained when they have to assume responsibility for Sosuke’s younger brother. Then Oyone’s health begins to fail.
These may seem like commonplace events, yet Soseki made me care deeply about these characters. After it was pointed out to me that the Japanese language does not have as many adjectives and adverbs as English, I noticed how plain the language in this book is. Thoughts and events are recounted sparingly, enhancing the bleakness of the characters’ lives while making the rare simile, when it comes, strike with great power.
I found the beginning of this book tremendously sad, entering into the mind of a man who can hardly bear the stress and tedium of his life, yet lacks the will to make a change. What I’ve heard about the lives of Japan’s salarymen gives new meaning to Thoreau’s remark about people living lives of quiet desperation. Last year when one of the trains in Tokyo was out of service, Jeremy said that it was probably because of a jumper, adding that there seemed to be at least one suicide every day.
Sosuke begins to become friends with his landlord Sakai who seems to have everything Sosuke desires: children, success, leisure, limitless funds. Sakai has a life, as people say nowadays. In one of their conversations, Sakai talks of his own younger brother who has become what Sakai calls an adventurer, traveling in Manchuria and Mongolia, hoping to make a fortune. To Sosuke, an adventurer is someone decadent and desperate, even corrupt. Yet it is hard for me not to wish that Sosuke had a little more of the adventurer in him. I thought of Lucinda Matlock from Spoon River: “It takes life to love life!”
Some parts of the book puzzled me, but the introduction by Peter Owen, which I did not read until after finishing the book, helped a great deal. As the gradual unfolding of Sosuke’s past begins to explain his current predicament, so Nietzsche’s image of the Gate of Eternal Return, where the past and future meet, helps to explain the meanings behind this remarkable book.