“Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist” by John Nathan

( (Wikimedia Commons)

“Greatest novelist.” I’ve never been much of a fan of someone being dubbed the “greatest” anything, as it assumes there can never have been anyone better and perhaps never will be.

In literature, particularly, this is always a very subjective judgment. Does greatness depend on the number of books sold? If so, that would rank Robert Ludlum or Danielle Steele above, say, William Faulkner and James Joyce. In Japan, I would bet that Banana Yoshimoto or Haruki Murakami probably sell more books than Sōseki, and that would certainly be also true in the West, although Penguin Books now includes Sōseki in its classics series. Other Japanese writers such as Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki or Yasunari Kawabata are still more widely-translated than Natsume Sōseki.

Does greatness depend on what literature professors tell us about “canonic” texts? I don’t want to go too far into this one, but in Japanese literature Sōseki would indeed be a canonical writer, and in world literature that would put him up there with, say, Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante and Cervantes (yes, I know that the canon has now been properly widened and extended). That means that thousands of school and university students since his death in 1916 would have been made to read his books. Certainly, more people have actually seen what Sōseki looked like, because until quite recently he was the face on the ¥1000 note. Leaving these questions aside, there are always other candidates for “greatest”, usually championed by more professors. In the end, it’s a rather meaningless distinction.

Sōseki comes vividly to life here through his own voice.

Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist John Nathan (Columbia University Press, May 2018)
Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist, John Nathan (Columbia University Press, May 2018)

There’s no doubt, however, that Sōseki is a very great writer by any standard, literary or otherwise. If you want to know how Japanese people, particularly the upper-middle and middle classes, adjusted (or didn’t) to the rapid “modernization” of their country, then Sōseki, who lived just at the right time (he was even born in 1867, the first year of Meiji) to chronicle it, is the novelist to read.

He, perhaps more than many of his contemporary writers, was able to pick up on the intellectual and social vicissitudes of his times, the exciting and disturbing changes that were happening being often reflected in his own life. It’s a bit of a cliché to speak of writers writing best when they are intimate with the subject themselves, but in Sōseki’s case “writing about what you know” certainly worked for him, and he was nothing if not a master character creator. If you want to know what it feels like to have many of your old values questioned by new ones coming from outside, then Sōseki is required reading; an equivalent from another culture under assault might be something like Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart.

As Sōseki himself termed it, he saw this process as “incurring a foreign culture”. John Nathan’s book skilfully shows how this all worked, both in his discussions of his subject’s complex and difficult personality and of his literary output.

This splendid biography has everything—Sōseki comes vividly to life here through his own voice (there are plenty of quotations) as well as through that of his biographer. The close readings of important works such as I Am a Cat, Kokoro, Sanshirō and Grass on the Wayside will more than satisfy literary scholars, whilst the personality of Sōseki comes through with the inclusion of unpublished letters and diaries, balancing the literary material.

Close reading, which involves looking for patterns and examining rhetorical strategies in long or short passages, and in his discussion of I Am a Cat, for example, Nathan shows us how Sōseki develops a “mordantly comic evocation of [his] deep pessimism about his own humanity and indeed about humankind in general.” We find that the cat (unnamed) speaks with the author’s voice, and cites a passage showing how it develops its view that people are “selfish and immoral.” Nathan’s great strength is that he can do close reading without sounding too “professorial”, which means that readers don’t have to have studied formal literary criticism to see what’s going on. Nathan studiously avoids lit-crit jargon, and, in his analysis of Sōseki’s personality, we conversely find no obfuscating psychobabble of any kind. Readers can, with a little effort (and all good books require effort) relate the writings to the man and come up with a three-dimensional portrait of the subject.

Sōseki watched Queen Victoria’s funeral sitting on the shoulders of his kindly landlord.

And what a subject! From what I had previously read about Sōseki, he didn’t seem like a very nice man at all, although he acquired a goodly number of friends and disciples, numbering among them the well-known poet Masaoka Shiki and the novelist Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. He could, for example, be a petty domestic tyrant; “Your mouth is unsightly,” he told his long-suffering wife Kyoko, following that pleasant observation up with


You really ought to pull some teeth and replace them… Ignoring what I say is unacceptable.

And then there’s what he said to Kyoko very soon after they got married:


I am a scholar and must study. I can’t be spending time looking after you.


He frequently shouted at her and hardly ever accompanied her anywhere, believing that it was not proper to do so. Kyoko, ever the dutiful and traditional Japanese wife, put up with this nonsense all their married life, and later endured his bouts of mental illness, too, sometimes separating from him when things got out of hand. He seems, however, to have been a better father than a husband.

Plaque on Sōseki's lodgings in Clapham (Wikimedia Commons)
Plaque on Sōseki’s lodgings in Clapham (Wikimedia Commons)

Sōseki was vain, too, and often felt slighted when there was no reason to feel that way; he was a hard-nosed teacher (although he seems to have been fair) and he hated England, where he had lived as a student for two years (1900-02) at the expense of the Japanese government. Sōseki did learn English, and he genuinely admired a number of English writers, but, as he wrote in his London diary,


There is no basis for supposing that because a man is a native Englishman, his knowledge of [English] literature is greater than my own.


Apparently, English students couldn’t even spell:


I have heard female students ask the professor how to spell Keats or Landor.


He couldn’t understand cockneys and overall he felt that the English lower classes were a miserable lot. It wasn’t all bad, though; Sōseki liked going to the ballet, and he eagerly turned out to watch Queen Victoria’s funeral, which he did sitting on the shoulders of his kindly landlord, because he was too short to see over the heads of the crowd.

Mostly, however, he cut himself off and stayed in his lodgings, even isolating himself from the “hordes of Japanese” (as he rather contemptuously described them) who were also in London, and felt very lonely. Nathan liberally sprinkles his account with anecdotes like these, and in the end Sōseki emerges as a fairly sympathetic figure, plagued by physical ill-health as well as mental illness, yet determined to keep working almost until the end.

The idea that Asians somehow don’t “get” irony is given the lie by Sōseki.

Sōseki was writing just as Japan was at a crossroads. What distinguishes him is that because of this he seems to have burst on the literary scene with no antecedents. No Japanese had written anything like a modern “realist” novel before, a novel which contained portrayals of regular people who lived a breathed in contemporary society. His narrative voice was varied, too; sometimes it was ironic (the idea that Asians somehow don’t “get” irony is given the lie by Sōseki) and sometimes the point of view changed. He also changed the way writers employed the Japanese language; as Nathan points out, Sōseki “increasingly bent the Japanese language to his will, transforming it into the precision instrument he needed while preserving its genius for the infinite.”

The novelists who came after him, including those as distinguished as the Nobel laureate Kawabata and his contemporary Tanizaki (who was shortlisted for the prize), owed much to Sōseki, and in Japan, of course, as well as being well-respected in his own time, he was rewarded with an immense amount of posthumous fame, thousands of scholarly studies and articles and portrayal on a banknote. Natsume Sōseki should, to all intents and purposes, be enshrined in a canon of world literature, if Harold Bloom or someone else ever decided to construct one.

John Nathan has certainly shown in this biography why Sōseki is such an important figure in Japanese literature, as well as demonstrating that he can hold his own with the best novelists the West have to offer. Sōseki, plagued by ill-health, died at forty-nine, but, as he writes in I Am a Cat,


If death is the destiny of all things and if life amounts to very little else, then perhaps the wisest thing to do is to die sooner rather than later.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.