Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Kusamakura" by Natsume Soseki

Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki (1906, trans. from Japanese 2008 by Meredith Mckinney, 146 pages) is the oldest Japanese work I have so far read.   It has recently been published as a lovely Penguin Classic in a brand new translation by Meredith Mckinney of the Japan Center in Canberra Australia.  

Nasume Soseki's (1867-1916)  most famous literary work is I Am a Cat.   He taught English Literature  at the University of Tokyo until he became a professional writer in 1908.   In addition to 14 novels he wrote a large number of haiku poems.  

Kusamakura' plot line is fairly simple.   A young artist, whose name we never learn ( I have noticed that there are a lot of unnamed persons in Japanese novels) embarks on a walk into the mountains in order to find suitable subjects for his painting.   He stays at a resort and meets the beautiful daughter of the resort owner.   He has a number of conversations with her and others people he encounters.    In the background of the story is the Japanese Russian War.   There is not a lot of "action" in Kusumakura.  The bulk of the novel consists of the thoughts of  the young artist on painting, reading, nature and beauty.

I quickly and happily discovered that the novel is very much a meditation on the reading life and a contrast of Japanese and Western Literature as seen through the eyes of the narrator.   The narrator is drawn to the finest of English poetry, Wordsworth and Shelley.   The work is almost readable as a companion to Shelley's "The Skylark" and the nature poetry of Wordsworth.

When I hear the skylark's voice, my soul grows clear and vivid within me.  It is with its whole soul that the skylarks sings, not merely with its throat.   Surely there is no expression of the soul's motion in voice more vivacious and spirited than this.   Ah, joy!   And to think these thoughts, to taste this joy, this is poetry.   Shelley's poem about the skylark immediately leaps to my mind.   I a reciting it to myself, but I can remember only two or three verses. 

The artist has reflected deeply on the role of suffering in poetry.   He reads the landscape as poetry 

I see this scenery as a picture, I read it as a set of poems.
To him the novel is of interest as you can leave yourself  behind as you read.  He sees western poetry as based largely on human affairs and preoccupied with issues right and wrong whereas

Happily in the poetry of the Orient there are works that transcend such a state
                By the eastern hedge,  I pluck crysanthemums
                 Gazing serenely out at the southern hills.
Here we have purely and simply a scene in which  the world of men is utterly cast aside and forgotten....Reading it, you get the feel that you have been washed clean of all the sweat of worldly self interest, of profit and loss, in a transcendental sense.

The narrator sees the poetry of transcendence as a necessity if Japanese literary culture is to avoid corruption by a half understood imitation of western poetry.   Soseki is writing for a small potential audience of highly cultivated people deeply into the reading life just as he was.

The pleasure we get gain from a Noh play springs not from any skill at presenting the raw human feeling of the everyday world but from clothing feeling as it is in layer upon layer of art, and in a kind of slowed serenity of deportment not found in the real world.
This reinforced my security in my reinterpretation of Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From the Sea as a drama to be seen precisely through layers of art.   If you do this, the work is a very powerful work of art, if you do not it is a silly cliched ridden novel.   Think of the deeply cultivated father in law in Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki who sees the world in terms of puppet plays.

Kusamakura is densely written.   It is commonly referred to as a haiku novel.   I am a bit vague on precisely what that means and I suspect those who use that use expression do so in the knowledge  that no one will quite know what they mean but will pretend they do.   A haiku is very roughly a poem  in a fixed format replete with natural images in which thought is compressed.   That the poem may mean  different things to each reader is part of the point.  

The plot or action of the book is basically the narrator talking with people and his interior meditations on art, poetry, novels, plays, nature, painting and beauty.   He has an interest in the beautiful daughter of the owner of the inn but he simply talks to her, almost in circles.   I think he does not see her as a person so much as a figure in an internal drama.   For better or worse, if she were a plain or drab looking woman our artist would have no interest in conversing deeply with her.   We learn about the attitude of the Japanese toward their impending war with Russia.   (I could not help but flash forward to the shocked reaction at the court of Czar Nicholas when the news of the crushing defeat of the Russian navy arrived.  Nicholas made a tour of Japan prior to his marriage to Alexandra in the company of very rich young Russian nobles.  They made visits to very high class homosexual brothels-it was said the Czar only went in-the Czar was then convinced that all Japanese men were totally effeminate and did not take them seriously as opponents.  I base this on the writings of Prince Yussoupov whose autobiography is not nearly as  read  as it should be)   I could not help but think that at the great American and English Universities in 1906 there were no courses in Japanese literature.   

I completely endorse this novel to anyone interested in the development of the Japanese novel with the understanding that it is about sixty percent an interior monologue of a philosophical nature and assumes an interest in Romantic era western poetry and classical forms of Japanese literature.   It is beautifully expressed and the translation seems without jarring infelicities.   It is only 146 pages long and has an interesting introduction.   I think anyone who would start this book having read what I have written (I did a Google book blog search and this is the first post on Kusamakura ever done) about it will really like it.   

There is an excellant very recent post on In The Spring it is the Dawn by Tanabata in which she gives us some very interesting and informative background information on Natsume Soseki.   There is currently a read along on Soseki's best known work I Am a Cat on her blog.   Her blog is a great source of  reading insight and inspiration for those interested in Japanese literature and beyond.

1 comment:

Suko said...

I'm fascinated by books which are comprised of a lot of internal dialogue and musings. Very intriguing review!