The introduction stresses that the great pianist Glenn Gould became obsessed with Sosecki's novel. No surprise there. If you regard Gould as the piano genius of the 20th century, you will empathise instantly; if not, you might shrug and move on quickly. Sosecki's world picture shows the struggles of an artist aiming to develop his work in new ways, and there are moments of serene intensity (if that near-oxymoron makes sense), old-fashioned lyricism, and whimsy throughout. If the reader suspends the world-weary cynicism, there are moments of real surprise throughout. This is not a work for a skim read, but a contemplative slow musing approach would allow the benign magic to be experienced. Of all the novels I read prior to a recent couple of weeks in Japan, this distinctive novel was the one which remained closest to what I felt and could not quite express about the Japan encountered.
The Three-Cornered World ( the title having been changed for a western audience) is not a novel in the conventional sense. It is a work of lyrical beauty and sensual delight that abandons, or rather transcends, the plot/character development of most novels. The plot is no more than an Ariadne's thread guiding the reader through a series of aesthetic and philosophical judgements on the nature of art and beauty. The judgements are presented, not as the pronouncements of a stern university lecturer, but through a poetic voice that transforms a book on the nature of art into a work of art itself. The lead protagonist is an artist seeking to paint perfection, not in terms of artistic merit, but in terms of conforming to the ideal of what art should aspire to achieve. In seeking to obtain his goal the artist is continually frustrated in his efforts and 'resigns' himself to putting into words, in the form of hokku, that which he feels unable to paint. It is in these ethereal descriptions of nature and their 'condensation' into hokku that fills the "Fill the Three-Cornered World' with enchantment and grace. The pursuit of art becomes a form of unrequited love whose praises are sung precisely because it can never be fully obtained. The narrator seeks the unobtainable by cultivating a sense of detachment from the material world and comes to believe he can find the ideal he seeks in painting his own Ophelia using the enigmatic Inn keeper's daughter, O-nami, as his model. In seeking his goal he foregoes the possibility of a physical relationship with her although he cannot discover in her facial expression the qualities he desires in order to complete his masterpiece. It is not until the book's conclusion when the artist abandons his artistic detachment from the world that he discovers he can paint again and finds in O-nami's farewell glance the human compassion he so much sought. There are many moments of epiphany in this work but one of the most touching is when the artist awakens to discover that the hokku in his sketchbook has been added to by O-nami. There are also comic elements which belie the philosophical depths of the novel. Some of them have inevitably been 'lost' in the translation which has nobly sacrificed 'nuance for elegance'. Anyone with a passion for writing, painting or composing should read this book. Be warned, you probably will fall in love with the elusive O-nami as I have done. Was she real or just a projection of artistic aspiration? Hmm...Kasu Makura deserves a wide readership and will keep you thinking for a long time after you put the book down.
Natsume Soseki deserves a place in world literary history alongside such writers as James Joyce and Marcel Proust. It is difficult to overstate his importance in the development of modern Japanese literature or his achievement as a writer of works of astonishing range and artistic beauty. Yet he’s always been somewhat obscure outside of Japan, overshadowed by his literary descendants such as Kawabata Yasunari and Mishima Yukio. This under-valuing of Soseki and his novels has been partly the result of the quality of translation and production of his works in English, a failing which, although continuing in the recent Penguin Classics editions, is fully corrected here.
Put simply, "The Three-Cornered World" is the best edition of Soseki’s early masterpiece "Kusamakura" available in English. Although Alan Turney’s translation is now fifty years old, it remains unsurpassed, and renowned Soseki scholar and translator Damian Flanagan’s lucid introduction to this volume does an excellent job of relocating Turney’s version of "Kusamakura" within the exciting cultural and political context of the 1960s. Indeed, even if you have an earlier edition of the Turney translation, you should still pick up this volume for Flanagan’s introduction. As well as providing a brilliant exposition of the place of "The Three-Cornered World" within Soseki’s work, Flanagan also convincingly shows how Turney’s translation has become its own independent cultural artefact, and the fascinating discussion of the novel’s influence on the maverick pianist Glenn Gould is worth the price of purchase alone. Alongside this long and enlightening introduction, Flanagan also includes a detailed chronology for Soseki, laying out the full scope of his remarkable career.
The novel itself, in Turney’s translation, is both an aesthetic delight and a radical incitement. Often referred to as a ‘haiku-novel’, whilst appearing deceptively simple "The Three-Cornered World" provokes questions about the ethics of life, art and narrative which deserve long contemplation and debate. In this beautifully produced paperback volume (including specially commissioned calligraphy by the calligrapher Misuzu Kosaka), Soseki finally has an English edition worthy of him. We can only hope that Peter Owen continues to produce volumes of this quality in their Soseki series. And as 2016 marks the centenary of Soseki’s untimely death there’s never been a better time to discover one of the true giants of Japanese and world literature.
'The Three Cornered World' is a novel about being an artist. The unnamed protagonist, a painter, escapes city life for the tranquility of the countryside - the world of nature - to work. There are a number of reflections on what makes an artist: someone who strives to transcend reality in an artistic realm beyond the shackles of thought and necessity; inhabiting the art form in a trance-like oneness.
Whether Soseki completely believes in this perspective on art is questionable. His novels are generally very much based in the day-to-day realities of life, not shimmering, impersonal archetypes. It's curious how the protagonist never quite manages to start a painting at all. Instead penning a handful of poems scattered throughout the novel. The trick though, the protagonist suggests, is not necessarily to create, just to possess the vision. In this way each one of us can achieve artistry.
I can't help think there is a little playful joke sitting behind the high-minded reflections. The artist is portrayed as young, naive and idealistic - his failure to actually paint and his awkward efforts to explain his failure to do so sound much in the vein of many an excuse-making youth struggling to find purpose and success. He is flummoxed by his failure and also beguiled and entranced by O-nami, the mysterious feminine presence who beautifully haunts the novel with her momentary appearances. He might simply be out of his depth.
It’s this tension and possibility, together with Soseki's delicate depiction of character and landscape that make this novel highly readable, drawing the reader into an artistic vision both seductive and satisfying, perhaps claiming each one of us an artist of sorts.
One of my favourite novels. If only for the opening - 'Going up a mountain track, I fell to thinking.' Which sums up what your in for in this tractate cum novel. Glenn Gould, in a state of possession, supposedly rang up a relative in order to read the entire book to him down the phone. I'd like to do the same, were I still on speaking terms with any of mine.
Read it as much for the philosophy as for the prose. Who writes like this? "As the thread of the old man's words spun out, it became thinner and weaker, until at last, no thicker than gossamer, it parted to spill the crystal beads of sorrow."