Book Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sôseki

„An artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world.“ Natsume Sôseki

Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) is one of the most famous writer of Japan and an ideal for many Japanese authors, often cited by modern writers such as Murakami Haruki.

The Three-Cornered World is a key to his literary work. This book like others of his titles was accepted by the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works.

In substance it is about his aesthetic theory. But it is not academic, it comes natural with the narration: his words about painting and poetry. You might even say, his story resembles a painting and it is likewise a poem.

Underlying is a simple story: A young man wanders to a Japanese village. There he rests at a tea-house. An old lady tells a him story about a mysterious woman who lives nearby in a family hotel: She had been divorced, after her husband went bankrupt and returned to her father’s house full of shame. Then she fell in love with a priest, who fled from her. It seems, she is cursed like in an ancient fairy tale: Like a young maiden who couldn‘t decide between two lovers and therefore threw herself into the water. Most village inhabitants regard her as mad and despise her.

The young wanderer checks-in at this hotel and lives there for a couple of days. He is on a journey in order to relax himself and find peace in painting and composing poetry. He has nothing more to do than to stroll through the village. Leisurely he is drawing sketches and encounters the silence and the beauty of nature. Whereas sometimes in a dreamlike state of mind, he is reflecting making art.

The divorced woman is flirting with him in a mysterious play of hide and seek. She comes to visit him at night in his room, only to vanish again. She strolls through the garden, then escapes. Dressed as a bride she floats through the building or enters his hot spring bathtub. The painter is lost in love.

Sôsekis scenes are painted like pictures, very beautiful and emotional. He is very skilled in drawing scenarios. Lively, directly into the heart, moving, he is able to catch the divine, the momentariness. His words are magic.

Sôseki combines his thoughts about Japanese and Western aesthetics. At times when his writing colleagues took over Western ideas eagerly, he strengthened the standpoint of the Japanese. This made him appear as a traditionalist, but he is a very good observer and critic of the rapid modernization in Japan after the Meiji-Restauration of 1868. His imagination of modernity is sharp and clear and his warnings and visions wise. Sometimes he refers to Western literature as to Tristram Shandy of Laurence Sterne or to Oscar Wilde as well as to Chinese poetry.

His description of art painting and poetry are very impressing. Speaking as an artist his view is encouraging and enjoying to everyone who is making art.

Original: 草枕 Kusa Makura (Grass Pillow), 1906 by Natsume Sôseki. Translation by Alan Turney: The Three-Cornered World, 1965.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sôseki

  1. Pingback: A Short History of Japanese Literature, Part 5 | Japan Kaleidoskop

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Yukiguni — Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari | Japan Kaleidoskop

  3. Truth be told, despite being a big Souseki and Kawabata fan (well, amateur, that is), I haven’t heard of this work before, I feel ashamed. Your review made me very interested in the book, so I’m gonna check it out asap. Thank you! And Happy New Year!

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  4. Although I am also a big fan of Japanese literature in general and Soseki in particular, I had not heard of this book until a few months ago when I read a review of it in The Japan Times. The review prompted me to read the book.

    I found it to be a fascinating tale of intrigue, very well written, and a wonderful treatise on many of Soseki’s thoughts about being ‘an artist’ in a society that does not generally support such people. While it was written over 100 years ago in response to changes taking place in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it still has relevance for today’s world. So much so that I recommended it to my daughter who is an artist and a friend of hers who is a poet and publisher. I look forward to hearing their impressions of it if/when they read it.

    Liked by 1 person

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