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Book review: ‘Light and Dark’ by Natsume Sōseki

Posted by on Jan 31st, 2014 and filed under Leisure. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Review by Ted AYALA

“Light and Dark” (original title: Mei-An)
by Natsume Sōseki, translated from the Japanese with an introduction by John Nathan
Columbia University Press, 420 pp., $35

book cover

There were moments while reading Natsume Sōseki’s Light and Dark—newly translated with an introduction by John Nathan—that I felt all too keenly the frustration Madam Yoshikawa must have felt when she was face-to-face with the novel’s feckless protagonist, Tsuda Yoshio, as he lay recuperating in his hospital bed. I felt in my own flesh that frustration seething within her over Tsuda, with surging wave after surging wave of pent up fury lapping over that narrow shoreline of what she—and I—can bear to tolerate.

“You’re so irritating! Can’t you just get on with it, say what you have to say like a man? Nobody’s asking you for anything so difficult …,” she finally explodes some 300-odd pages in, voicing a sentiment that I at times wanted to likewise admonish Sōseki’s novel with. “Be a man, for heaven’s sake!”

Thirty-something Tsuda, though living in 1916 during the early years of Japan’s short-lived Taishō era (1912 – 1926), could very well be the kinsman of the millenial man-child; the spiritual progenitor of a generation of hipsters with a boundless appetite for avoiding confrontation with life, withdrawing into isolation and self-pity when problems arise, hopeful for a deus ex machina to save the day.

He and his new bride O-Nobu, who is a decade younger than her husband, eke out an existence in Tokyo. His modest job can’t cover all the expenses of their daily living, not least because they, ever conscious of the prying eyes and sniping comments of their family, friends, and neighbors, feel compelled to keep up appearances—even before each other. Tsuda, as the reader learns when the novel wends its way towards its abrupt end, has guarded a secret from his young wife, intimations of which creep to her via the vague insinuations of her sister-in-law O-Hide, Tsuda’s jealous, bookish, domineering younger sister who seems seized with near evangelical zeal to set her brother straight. And throughout its over 400 pages what Sōseki presents to the reader instead of action is stasis.

The terrain of action in late Sōseki—beginning with And Then (Sore Kara), The Gate (Mon), then moving along through Kokoro, Grass on the Wayside (Michi Kusa), and finally to Light and Dark—exists not on the plain of the tangible, of the seen, but rather in its margins, or better still in the dusky no man’s land between those margins; a realm where the characters that people Sōseki’s literary landscape don’t so much do as they think about doing—only to act completely contrary to their true feelings. It’s a world of masks, built on a foundation of pretense and phoniness; a world where the mere possibility of exposing one’s self for the simple and ordinary human being they really can be a fate worse than death. Because, at least for Sōseki’s characters, in death there is the consolation that they’re finally free of having to be judged by their peers. No such luck for the living.

And death leaves its mark on this last novel of Sōseki; wounds it with a terrible gash through its heart. Its opening pages immediately reveal that wound to the reader: A medical examination room where a doctor examines the infected lesion on Tsuda’s abdomen, an echo of the author’s own illness caused by hemorrhoids and bleeding ulcers; that wound finally tearing open irreparably six months and 188 chapters later when that same illness felled Sōseki at the age of 49.

Sōseki, a master observer of the dark waters that roil beneath the placid surface of society, never penned a more incisive, more devastating sketch. Giddy with their crushing victory over the Russian Navy in the Russo-Japanese War which opened the path to its subsequent annexation of the Korean Peninsula, followed a few years later by its invasion and annexation of the German Empire’s colonies in East Asia and the South Pacific, Japan in the Taishō era felt itself to be in the ascendant. But perhaps no other writer, with the exception of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, was more aware of the fissures of doubt that riddled Japan at that time better than Sōseki. Nothing and nobody seems what they seem to be; everybody conceals an ulterior motive that, out of deference and fear for others, they stubbornly conceal, often to ruinous effect for themselves and for those whose lives they touch.  And doubt ultimately consumes the whole of his final novel, because for all that transpires across its length, what it all ultimately means is left unanswered. Nothing changes, yet everything changes.

John Nathan, in his thoughtful introduction, prefers to think of the novel as complete despite its incompleteness. There is no resolution nor—especially when one considers the elliptical quality that is the distinguishing characteristic of some of the greatest works of Japanese fiction: from The Tale of Genji right through the works of Murakami Haruki—should there be. His translation deftly captures the queasy ambiguity of Sōseki’s Japanese prose, though I still wouldn’t part with the equally fine 1971 translation by V. H. Viglielmo, who contributes his own invaluable insight in an eloquent afterword to his version.

What you’re left with then is a fascinating fragment. What you’re also left with is a frustrating fragment.

Would the novel have been any different had its author been allowed just enough time to complete it? That’s hard to say. Even Sōseki seemed lost as to where it was going and what it meant.

“It troubles me that Light and Dark gets longer and longer,” he wrote to his pupil Naruse Seiichi only less than a month before his death. “I’m still writing.”

Soseki
Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916) [Wikimedia Commons]

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