Friday, 12 August 2011

And Then by Natsume Soseki

Two writers whose works I want to read more of are Natsume Soseki and Abe Kobo, I thought I'd try to make up my reading of their novels this year but as we head into the second half of it I'm beginning to think that maybe my aim won't be fulfilled. It's good to learn though that Tuttle are reissuing And Then/Sorekara next month, the translation I think is the same one published here by Louisiana State University Press by Norma Moore Field, I remember reading Oe's essay in Japan the Ambigious and Myself , (Kodansha 1995),where he discusses the novel and have been meaning to read it ever since, Oe talks about the novel in his essay about the modern Japanese novel in relation to the modernization of Japan. Reading Natsume made me think about his time spent in London, (1901-1903), which led me to think of another English novel which in some ways shares some of it's themes, The Whirlpool, by George Gissing which was published  in 1897 has at it's centre a character unable to cope with the machinations of a society facing rapid modernisation, the character unable to keep pace and adapt to these changes has a tragic ending.
In And Then it's focus is the rapid modernization of Japan after the Meiji Restoration, the central character, Daisuke, in some ways is in a similar predicament to the character in The Whirlpool, unable to commit himself to the social mores occurring around him. Daisuke is from a family whose father has done well in the newly expanding economy, Daisuke's brothers all appear to be following productive industrial lives, Daisuke is not so committed in pursuing this path. He leads a  comfortable life, his father is happy to continue paying his allowance, although aged thirty Daisuke is still unmarried,  many potential brides have been suggested for him, but he has managed to fend off these arranged marriages. When his father, was young, he and his brother, (Daisuke's uncle), got involved with a brawl that turned nasty, it was still in the era of the samurai code, this world to Daisuke appears very distant from his, when he hears these stories from his father's and grandfather's past instead of having feelings of admiration, feelings of terror threaten to overwhelm him whenever he hears of the spilling of blood, through the implications of this brawl another potential bride is lined up for him. He reads Leonid Andreyev and contemplates how he might feel if faced with his own end. Daisuke at first appears far from being a victim, his perspective is one that sees through the veneer of the actions of those around him, seeing that the pursuit of financial gain or social advancement is not the be all and end all of his existence. An antithetical character to Daisuke's is introduced at the start of the novel, his friend Hiraoka who had moved to Kansai because of his work, only having to resign and return to Tokyo due to a subordinate embezzling company money, seems to cajole Daisuke about his lack of application to the outside world. It could be said though that Hiraoka's failure at succeeding in this new world reconfirms Daisuke's assertions about the new way of things.

As the novel progresses Daisuke's disliking of the modern world becomes more prevalent, and the pressure from his family to marry increases, almost to the point of entrapment in one scene, the only woman that Daisuke seems to have emerging feelings for is Hiraoka's wife Michiyo who he had known before she and Hiraoka had married, at times she appears unhappy being with Hiraoka. Daisuke feeling duty bound to his friend arranges to help Hiraoka pay off a pressing debt, and this brings him into closer contact with Michiyo. Throughout  the novel little instances appear that remind Daisuke of the dangers of actively participating in society, a letter from a friend who he had gone to university with arrives telling him of his married life and the child he has, Daisuke had used to send him books which the friend would discuss at length in his letters, as the correspondence continues the friend no longer mentions even the fact that he receives the books, this acts as a stark reminder to Daisuke. Daisuke is caught between following his duty to his family with that of following his heart, but he finds that in choosing this option he will begin to pull at the building blocks of society, Daisuke's predicament seems to see Natsume questioning just how much people were prepared to let go of the old order of things and examines how much of the new they were willing to embrace. I'm not sure which of Natsume's novels to turn to next, I feel as though I should continue with another from the trilogy, although The Miner/Kofu looks like an interesting novel, as does the unfinished novel; Light and Darkness/Meian. And Now/Sorekara comes with an excellent afterword from translator Norma Moore Field placing the novel in bibliographical and biographical context. The narrative of And Then has probably one of the most rational tones that I've found in a novel in a long while, and has a Janus like quality to it, this pivotal moment in history is represented well in the novel's opening scene when Daisuke half asleep notices the flower head of a Camellia has fallen off during the night, the sound of it hitting the floor reverberates around his waking consciousness, as a calmative he places his hand on his chest over his heart to reassuringly check his pulse is beating steadily.


parrish lantern said...

These are both authors, that are on my list as I've yet to read any by them unless you count some of soseki's haiku's

me. said...

I'd love to read Soseki's poetry and learn more about his relationship with Masaoka Shiki. I think hopefully I'll get to read another of Soseki's novels before the end of the year.