What a lovely book! The narrator is an artist—a painter and a poet—who has come to a remote mountain, an out-of-season (or out-of-style) resort, in order to immerse himself in his art, leaving the busy world of trains and social obligations behind. The world where war, in this case the Russo-Japanese War, is eating up young people and leaving a river of blood.
As the narrator wanders mountain paths, stands under a magnolia tree in the starlight, examines the pattern of bamboo outside the window of his room, and watches the steam rise from his bath, he muses on life and the role of art and the artist. He sees the artist as one who stands outside of life, one who must leave mundane cares and worries behind in order to create the art that speaks to us and changes our lives. Distance, he believes, is necessary for aesthetic appreciation.
He has come to this mountain retreat to achieve that distance. Art is to be his only concern. He finds himself filling his sketchbook with poetry, and the brief poems in the text are lovely and profound, particularly meaningful given the context. What he does not do is paint. He thinks about painting. He carries his painting box with him on his rambles. He tries to construct pictures in his head using the elements around him, but something is missing.
The original title means The Grass Pillow which is a convention in Japanese poetry signaling that poem is to be about a journey. Although the translator, Alan Turney, speaks in his introduction of the book as a wondrous example of an artist’s immersion in nature bringing out his ideas about life and art, similar to Wordsworth but different in critical ways, Turney’s choice of an English title tells another story. Taken from the text of the book, the three-cornered world is what Soseki says is the habitat of the artist, what is left when common sense is subtracted from the four-square world.
Common sense! Zing! As the book opens, the narrator is walking up a mountain track thinking big thoughts about art’s role in bringing tranquility and beauty to this busy world, when he trips on a stone and falls full-length. Zing again. Throughout the book, this pepper of self-mockery keeps the discourse from becoming too cloying.
The narrator starts to take an interest in the landlord’s daughter, a young woman whose tangled life appears to echo a local story, the legend of the maid of Nagara who was loved by two men and—torn—drowned herself in the Fuchi River. With the shimmer of this story behind her and thinking of Millais’s painting, the narrator wants to paint her as Ophelia in the camellia-strewn pond he has found in his rambles.
Yet he cannot begin. In the course of his rambles, he meets various people: a packhorse driver, the town barber, the abbot of the local monastery, a young man about to go off to war. In conversation with these people, as well as the landlord and his daughter, the narrator learns more about the secret stories of the people in this place. Near the end of the book he realises how hard it would be to look into the eyes of each person he encounters and see the “turmoil and confusion” there, understand “what this world can do to a man”.
This is a book I will come back to again and again. The painterly descriptions of early spring in the mountains drew me in, while at the same time the narrator’s explication of why particular scenes are pleasing made me look around with a new aesthetic appreciation. This summer, I took my paints and my poetry off to the woods in order to step outside of my life and its obligations for a while, hoping to immerse myself in nature and find new, more satisfying, rhythms for my life. However, like the narrator of this lovely and disturbing book, I found that nature can only take me so far.