The Gate by Natsume Soseki

“He happened to glance up beyond the eaves and noticed the bamboo leaves gathered densely atop the bamboo stalks, like the stubble on a monk’s close-cropped head. As the leaves luxuriated in the autumn sunlight they drooped down heavily in silent clusters, not a single one stirring.”

When Tony announced Japanese Literature reading month, January in Japan, I decided to join in. I think I’ve read one Japanese novel in my lifetime, which, when I thought about it started to feel pathetic. So now I’ve read two. And even though that now with one move I’ve doubled my Japanese reading bank, somehow it doesn’t feel as though I’ve made much of a leap. My unfamiliarity with Japanese literature came back to haunt me on just about every page of my chosen book, The Gate by Natsume Soseki: the history, the customs, the terms, but one thing was constant. Yes, the universality of bad human behavior. Hey, I’ve read Balzac; I know when people are being bad.

the gateThe Gate written by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is a very simple story, and it’s beautifully written with a very calm style that matches the novel’s content. Published in 1910, The Gate is the story of Sosuke and his wife Oyone, a Tokyo couple who live in modest circumstances. Sosuke and Oyone are childless, and we’re not far into the novel when we learn that Sosuke must assume care of his younger brother, Koroku. While a great deal of the novel is spent on the day-to-day routines of life, underneath the calm conversations, there’s a matter of contention between Sosuke and his aunt. Sosuke’s father died leaving a house, his possessions, and some antiques. Since Sosuke was not living in Tokyo at the time, he turned over all financial matters to his uncle–a man known for his financial fecklessness….

The very helpful introduction from Pico Iyer goes a long way in explaining Japanese customs. For example, “the individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away.” It’s all about “conflict avoidance,” and we see that repeatedly in the novel. With my western sensibility, I’ll admit to a certain frustration to this approach. I couldn’t understand why on earth, anyone in their right mind would turn over any financial responsibilities to an uncle who has a history of business disasters, and then I also felt frustration about Sosuke’s failure to confront his relatives about his remaining inheritance. I kept hoping that Sosuke would go over to his aunt and uncle’s house and kick some bottoms But Sosuke is a study in avoidance, and apparently his skill at adroitly finding excuses not to confront his relatives even annoys his brother:

Koroku was privately of the opinion that all this dithering stemmed from an inborn flaw in his brother’s character.

Poor Koruku. He depends on the inheritance if he wants to attend university. So with that quote in mind, while I know that Japanese life is all about “conflict avoidance” it would seem that Sosuke has taken this to  whole new level: subject avoidance.

The issue of a missing or misspent inheritance is not the only incident that troubles the tranquility of Sosuke and Oyone’s life. There’s also a robbery committed against their landlord–a remote figure at first who turns out to be a very colourful character, an antique screen that may or may not be valuable, and there’s also an ex-husband who may awkwardly reappear. But all of these issues are mere ripples on the surface of life–no drama, no hysteria, no arguments or fights, and instead the emphasis is on the daily routine, trips to the bathhouse  accompanied by Sunday liberation. I loved these scenes of Tokyo life that show Sosuke spends his Sundays as he tries to pack in so much into just a few precious hours of freedom:

Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work–the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “nonaka-san, over here, please….”

We see the sights and colours of the city through Sosuke’s eyes, and there’s a sense of wonderment marred by the realities of economics and a rather pleasant lack of materialism:

That time in his life when he could not pass a bookstore without wanting to go in, and once inside to buy something, now belonged to the distant past. True, one English-language volume in the center of the window with a particularly fine binding and entitles History of Gambling fairly leaped out at him with its disctinctiveness, but that was all. Smiling to himself, he hurried across the street, where he stopped for a second time, to peek inside a watchmaker’s. On display were numerous gold watches, watch chains, and the like, which again he regarded as so many pretty-coloured, well-formed objects without the slightest desire to make any purchase. Nevertheless, he examined all the price tags dangling there from silk threads, comparing this item and that, and came away surprised at how cheap the gold watches were.

The introduction makes the point that this author’s protagonists are the “masters of doing nothing at all. They abhor action and decision as scrupulously as Bartleby the Scrivener.” This is definitely true of Sosuke–a man who finds that he may have to face a past that he’s studiously avoided. Translated by William F Sibley.

Review copy

 Finally a question for readers and Tony: can anyone recommend any Japanese CRIME novels?

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19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Soseki Natsume

19 responses to “The Gate by Natsume Soseki

  1. Brian Joseph

    I also have never read any Japanaese litereature. It a=ctually sounds as if you got a good handle on this book despite your unfamiiarity with the culture.

    I also like your allusions and comparisons to Melville and Balzac.

  2. Only one Japanese novel Guy? You have a treat in store. Universal yes, but different too. Isn’t that the best thing about reading? Anyhow, was the one your read The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki? If it wasn’t I recommend you read it – it’s a longer book but a wonderful, eye-opening read. Another great older writer is Setsuko Ariyoshi – The twilight years and The river Ki are excellent. (I’ve reviewed her Doctor’s wife on my blog and it’s good, but I think I liked these other two best. All these books, though older, provide a good background to Japanese life and culture as well as being darn good reads.

    For your crime interest you might like Natsuo Kirino – I’ve read her Grotesque and have Out in my TBR.

    And I’ll stop here. Glad you’ve doubled you Japanese reading score. Can you triple it? Hmmm … that may be a big ask for January. (Your Balzac comment made me laugh!)

  3. It was Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book–loved it.

    The next Japanese book (who knows when) will be crime. Can’t see how conflict avoidance transfers to crime, but then many of the Japanese crime films are obviously heavily influenced by American cinema.

  4. I’ve a few of Soseki’s novels on my piles.
    I like this inaction in Japanese novels because that makes the characters far more contemplative and that’s something I enjoy.
    Japanese crime seems far less contemplative though, I often hear people comment that it’s quite graphic. the above mentioned Out was on many a favourite books of list I’ve seen a year or two years ago.
    Another author who seems very good is Miyuki Miyabe.
    And I’ve also heard good things about Keigo Higashino.

  5. acommonreaderuk

    Like you I am unfamiliar with Japanese writers other than Murukami (I think I’ve read most if not all). Sue seems to have filled you in on Japanese crime writers. I was once visited by three Japanese government officials who wanted to quiz me about e-government. A rather bizarre experience – all very thorough, and no attempt at the bonding chat which English people like to go through. At the end they bowed and presented me with a beautiful inlaid wooden box. So it was interesting to read above “the individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away”.

    I enjoyed reading your review but suspect I may not get around to reading the book myself.

    • I picked this one, Tom as it’s a NYRB and I have great luck with their titles.
      Murukami seems to be a favourite Japanese writer. Is that because she’s translated quite a bit?

  6. I’ve read very little Japanese literature before now and agree with Caroline I quite like the inaction, if the book is well written. My experience of J-Lit Month has been really positive in that the 2 books I’ve read have been beautifully composed. There is a real art in being able to describe the mundane of every day and make it interesting. Sarah

  7. I share your unfamiliarity with the culture but at least you have introductions in your books. French editions never have any introduction unless it’s a classic aimed at students. Otherwise, you’re left with yourself and honestly, when it’s German lit, I can live with it but when it’s Japanese lit, I wish they made the effort.

    Truly, your review makes me think I shouldn’t read this. We’ll see how I like his “I am a Cat”. I have it on the shelf.

    • NYRBs always seem to have good intros. In this case, the intro helped a lot, and the author even included a sentence about an “innocent” reader stumbling into J-Lit for the first time and trying to figure out why nothing was going on. I wasn’t that bad–although as I said, I had a difficult time with Sosuke not confronting his relatives. But that’s apparently normal.

  8. PS: Don’t you think it’s strange they have a day off on Sundays in Japan in 1910? It’s a Christian thing, no?

  9. Eva

    I’ve got I Am the Cat waiting for me at the library; this one sounds interesting too. The only Japanese crime writer I’ve read is Mikyuki Miyabe: I’d recommend her!

  10. Sounds interesting. Read some Japanese novels, but not much of the crime genre. Would Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami count?

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