on 31 October 2012
It's not perfect by any means, but its subtleties and complex nature make it a highly fascinating read. It is is also relatively short and oddly fast paced, making it very easy to read. I think its pace is due to extremely short chapters each of which will provoke some mild shock or reveal some complex intrigue which seems bizarrely endless.
You might be put off by the plot in which the action is virtually non-existent and in which the real story only surfaces towards the end, cutting off the narator's lesser story unresolved at a crucial point, but if you can get past this, you may well find it to be a worthwhile experience. At any rate, it is an interesting insight into old-time, foreign forms of morality and manners in the process of irrevocable change.
on 8 February 2011
This work was originally conceived as a letter from a suicide to a friend explaining the reasons for his decision to take his own life. Only later were the sections that now form the first two thirds of the novel added, and this disconnect is immediately evident in the strange structure and change of style of the book. The suicide note is the heart of this work and introduces an entirely new set of characters, motivations, and history. Whilst the earlier sections have presaged that there will be a tragedy and that there is a mystery to be explained there is not really any connection between the story of the suicide and the story of the friends between whom the suicide note is sent. Even the writing style changes perceptibly between the earlier and later sections. The first part of the book being rather dreamy and soft focused whilst the suicide note has a much harder edge. It is not necessary to understand the story of the friendship between the narrator and suicide in order to understand the message this book is trying to get across. Overall then this is something of a structural mess. Its arguable that this book is a form of the German Novelle where unnamed characters are put into a situation to see what will happen (Goethe's Elective Affinities for example) in which case the plot doesn't really matter, but there is no such claim made in the introduction so I think it's just lazy plotting.
Sõseki uses incredibly simple language to describe his world (although of course it's impossible in translation to know how accurately this style reflects the original). He sets out a situation where a young student becomes good friends with a much older man whom he calls Sensei, meaning teacher. This seems an unlikely pairing in terms of European culture, and even in the book's own terms doesn't really make sense since Sensei's guilty crime has caused him to withdraw from society and he does not seek new friends (this is contradicted by his friendship with a Westerner who appears briefly at the start of the novel). The best that can be said about Sensei is that he is enigmatic but he is certainly not consistent and it's completely unclear what he gets out of a relationship with a younger man.
The younger man, who is the narrator of the first two thirds of the story, uses Sensei as a role model and part of the unfolding of this book is to discover that this model is corrupt. However we never learn what impact this revelation has on the narrator as the story does not double back after the suicide note has been read through. To that extent this is almost an unfinished work and quite unsatisfactory. Nor do we find out how some of the other themes in the book play through, in particular the narrator's relationship with his family and dying father which is left completely hanging notwithstanding that a good deal of Sensei's teaching relates to the death of the father.
Relationships in this story are conducted with difficulty. The protagonists have a series of mannered hang-ups that mean they cannot fully express themselves to each other in a way that would avoid subsequent problems. I can't tell whether this is a genuine reflection of Japanese society or simply an artifice of the writer in order to have a mechanic for the plot to move forward. It's certainly true that writers such as Trollope and Jane Austin used a similar combination of manners and misfortune in order to drive their characters forward but here the writer's touch is extremely light and the reader is left to fill in the gaps between what is actually said, what could be said and what is truly meant. Depending on your point of view this is either subtle and intriguing or frustrating.
It's clear from the introduction that this work is partly a reflection on the changing circumstances of Japan at the time it was written, and to some extent events in the book mirror actual historical events. However this is in no way a historical novel and the themes of love and loneliness that are explored have only a passing relevance to history. It's rather more like Hamlet where political events are used as a backdrop to powerful emotions and personal change.
Sõseki is held out as the first modern Japanese author and this book in particular is said to be his masterpiece. It's not obvious whether this is truly an immensely subtle overview of two friendships or whether there's something of the emperor's clothes about the whole work which reveals it to be mechanically imperfect and rather bland.