Book Review: Sanshirô by Natsume Sôseki

cover book sanshiro“Sanshirô was feeling very much alone and hemmed in by the restless city”

A young man from the southern countryside of Kyushu comes to Tokyo. He wants to study at the university. It is his first time being alone in a city such as big as Tokyo. The story is about his first steps into adulthood. Sanshirô learns how to deal with everyday life as a student and to manage the challenges of modern life. He falls in love with a beautiful young woman and must deal with friendship and betrayal. ‘Sanshirô’ is set in 1907 with realistic descriptions of the historical Tokyo. It is a Coming-of-Age novel in the pure sense.

Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) is called the greatest modern Japanese writer. He was born in 1867. He wrote many well-known novels such as

And many more, which were also translated into different languages.

‘Sanshirô’ is his seventh book, published in 1908, first serialized in the Asahi Shinbun. It is based on the writer’s own experiences. Natsume Sôseki was a lecturer in English at the Tokyo Imperial University following the famous Lafcadio Hearn. In 1907 he quit his academical career to become a full time writer.

‘Sanshirô’ is a vivid and interesting novel with strong references to the historical background. I read a copy of Penguin Classics with an introduction by Murakami Haruki and Jay Rubin, which makes it easy to understand the historical circumstances and gain insights into Natsume Sôseki’s work. ‘Sanshirô’ is a classic Japanese novel, which I liked very much.

Reviewed Title
夏目 漱石. 三四郎. 1908.
Natsume Sôseki. Sanshirô. Translated by Jay Rubin. Penguin Classics, 2009 (Cover).

Book Review: Death by Water

Bookcover-Kenzaburô Ôe- Death by Water“And like the river current, you won’t return home.”
Kogito Choko, a writer in his seventies, is haunted by the memory of his father’s death. He had been a child, when he witnessed his father going on a boat trip during a storm, where he drowned. Kogito Choko has been traumatized by this tragedy, and nightmares about drowning are troubling him ever since. He always wanted to write a novel about it but could not.

Ten years after the death of his mother, he still wants to write his so called ‘drowning novel’. He says that he could not write this novel for several reasons, but most importantly he waited for documents stored in an old red leather trunk, which belonged to his father. His mother had restricted him access to them because she wanted to protect the family’s reputation.

Now, he hopes for creative inspiration by opening the red leather trunk, so he can finally write the ‘drowning novel’.

Kogito’s sister Asa, who is living in their parental home in Shikoku invites him to stay there. She has connections to a theatre group called the ‘Caveman Group’. The stage director and the actors have been dramatizing his works for a long time. The director is devoted to Kogito’s works. The Cavemen Group is staging a play, when Kogito comes to visit. In the ‘Forest House’ they meet and discuss Kogito’s novels and plays.

The actress Umaiko, however, finds new ways of interpreting his works. She is one of the main characters of the book. Her life intertwines with the protagonist’s in different ways as the novel moves forward.

Kogito Choko is depressive and struggles with his writings throughout the novel. His inner monologue is revealing his inner thoughts to the reader over the course of the events. This combined with letters of his sister Asa and descriptions of the evolving story presents a multi-layered picture of his family history.

Two other important characters of ‘Death by Water’ are Akari, his brain-damaged son, and Daio, a friend and life companion, who was devoted to his father. Both persons are also staying at the ‘Forest House’ during certain episodes of the novel.

Structure and Theme
‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburô Ôe was published in 2009 in Japan. It was translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm in 2016 and was an International Booker Prize Nominee for the Longlist 2016.
The narrator Kogito Choko is the literary alter ego of Kenzaburô Ôe. The story is mostly told from the first person’s perspective in addition to letters and dialogues.

The novel is set in the 2000s partly in Tokyo and mostly in Shikoku in the house of Kogito’s sister, a family resident, where Kogito Choko grew up. The setting in Shikoku is essential to the story. The narrator grew up in this environment. When his father drowned in the river nearby, Kogito flew into the forest. The neighborhood is relevant, because of the local myths and legends.

‘Death by Water’ is a multi-layered novel with many references to Ôe’s literary works. Although Kogito Chôko is the narrator, there are many similarities between his and Kenzaburô Ôe’s life and works.

The overall theme is coming to terms with the past on an individual level, and with the past of the WW II and nationalism in Japan. ‘Death by Water’ deals with death, memory, growing older, guilt and atonement as an individual, as a family member and as part of the Japanese society. The novel also depicts the changes of generations and generation conflicts. It discusses the works of the author and presents a view of the younger generation and female viewpoints.

‘Death by Water’ is the latest novel of the Nobel Prize winner Ôe. A late work, where all his former works come together, with many references to his own works and to others, especially Natsume Sôseki’s ‘Kokoro’.

The novel is narrated in a detailed and multi-faceted manner. I liked the honesty in the inner monologue of Kogito Choko. I have not read all books by Ôe but see ‘Death by Water’ as a good reason to study them more deeply. I also liked, that the book is not only a personal novel, but the writer is coming to terms with Japanese history in a unique way. The author also references to the classic novel ‘Kokoro’. I admire the way Ôe has constructed his novel in a multi-dimensional way, and how he mastered to add new perspectives, like through the story of Umaiko.
The novel is detailed and difficult in parts. The repetitive style can be tiring and sometimes even exhausting, but I think that this is a necessary part of the reading experience. ‘Death by Water’ is one of the most complex and challenging books I have read lately.
I encourage you to read the book, but maybe not to start with it as the first book of Kenzaburô Ôe. I would recommend reading ‘A Personal Matter’ and ‘The Changeling’. Ôe also wrote many short stories. I will probably read ‘A Quiet Life’ next.

Reviewed title
大江 健三郎. 水死. 2009.
Kenzaburô Ôe. Death by Water, 2009. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Atlantic Books, 2016 (Cover).

More reviews of Kenzaburô Ôe’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop
Book review of ‘A Personal Matter’
Book review of ‘The Changeling’

Book Review: Kokoro by Natsume Sôseki

kokoroKokoro こころ means heart, soul or true spirit. The novel was written in 1914 on the heights of the author‘s career. Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) was born in Tôkyô and became a professor of English Literature at the Imperial University in the Japanese capital after his work as a governmental scholar in England for three years. He resigned because of boredom at his University post and became a fulltime writer in 1907. Until today he is a role model for many Japanese authors and his portrait is to be found on the 1000-yen banknote.

The main topic of this novel is the loneliness of man in modern society, the loss of orientation due to modernization processes and the consequences of loosening family structures in Japan. During the story the death of Emperor Meiji 明治天皇 occurs, who was the symbol of Japan in a period (1867 to 1912) of vast political changes, when Japan was evolving from a „feudal state to a capitalistic and imperialistic power“. What makes it important to the narration is the suicide of General Nogi shortly afterwards! He committed ritual suicide together with his wife referring to the samurai tradition of following one’s lord into death. This is called junshi  殉死 . It was a spectacular act, that shocked the Japanese nation and the motif of General Nogi was vividly discussed. Why has he killed himself at this time, why had he waited so long.

„Sensei“, the central character of Kokoro, is also using this expression junshi 殉死 when he is talking to his wife about his own suicide intentions. In his case junshi means devotion towards a close friend, which he had once betrayed. He is not able to overcome his feelings of guilt. Therefore his real intention of killing himself is grounded on his grief and has nothing to do with the Emperor. But viewing from the outside, one could or should think, that his motif is based on his devotion to the Emperor. Natsume Sôseki draws no explicit conclusions about General Nogi’s intentions, but Kokoro has been discussed in reference to these parallels.

The story

The narrator of the first two chapters will remain without a name throughout the story, he is telling the story from the first person‘s perspective. It begins with his view of his relationship with „Sensei“ (master), as he addresses him respectfully. It takes place in Tôkyô, where the narrator has just graduated from University and is now seeking for a job. The narrator admires an elder fellow, an independent academic, who hides a dark secret before everyone, even his wife. Every now and then „Sensei“ goes to a graveyard in the neighbourhood in order to pay his respect to an unknown dead person. But he will not tell anyone about the background story. The young narrator is fascinated by the wise „Sensei“ and seeks to understand his mysterious behavior. The friend seems to be depressed on a deep-rooted level.

Stricken into his own family business due to the illness of his father, the young academic has to leave Tôkyô for a while. He stays at his father‘s house, when the death of the Emperor Meiji and the suicide of General Nogi hit the news. The family is discussing the shocking events, when surprisingly the young narrator receives a very long letter from „Sensei“ — it is his death letter.

This becomes the last chapter of the novel. The perspective changes: The reader is now getting to know the autobiographical story told from the perspective of „Sensei“ in the first person. „Sensei“ makes his confession about a big failure and the consequences of this deep self-inflicted burden.

This novel‘s interesting structure intertwines the two main characters and yet leaves the young academic behind. The story is well written. Every single move is well observed. The story is lively, very detailed, psychologically rich. The beauty of Natsume Sôseki’s writing is defined by his ability to describe the  inner thoughts of both characters so realistically, which makes everything understandable. This book is one of the must-reads of modern Japanese Literature.

The book was also made into a film twice by Kon Ichikawa in 1955 and by Kaneto Shindo in 1973.

夏目 漱石: こころ, 1914. Natsume Sôseki: Kokoro, translated by Edwin McClellan 1957. The Japanese text can be found here at aozora

Book Review: And Then by Natsume Sôseki

andthenThe immature Daisuke is the protagonist of this Japanese novel — a story of a self-inflicted decay. The setting is Japan shortly after the Russo-Japanese War in the beginning of the 20th century. The Japanese society had to deal with a conflict between traditional values against the process of modernization.

Daisuke, a young man who stems from a wealthy family background has every opportunity in life, but is not able to develop any of his talents into something fruitful.

He drowses in daytime, floats around here and there without purpose or meaning in life.

Money comes from his father or his relatives and he has also a servant in his house.

His father wants him to settle down and marry. Daisuke has all freedom for his choice, but he is unwilling to engage himself. As the time passes by and Daisuke is still unmarried in his late twenties his father puts more pressure on him. It becomes clear to Daisuke, that he is in love with the wife of his friend Hiraoka. This is the beginning of a tragedy.

Hiaroka and Daisuke have been friends since schooldays until present. Hiraoka married Michiyo, when both men were students. They have met her simultaneously and Daisuke had the opportunity to marry her himself, but did not make a serious step towards her.

The story evolves into a crisis after three years of marriage of the couple, when Daisuke suddenly breaks out with love feelings for Michiyo. And what makes it harder to understand, Daisuke had urged Hiraoka to marry her with his full consent. Nobody understands him right now. But Daisuke wants to break free and he acts out against all society‘s rules, even if he is pulling Michiyo down with him. Hiraoka, although not loving his wife, then plays tricks on Daisuke, so that in the end Daisuke loses everything.

The story is dramatic. Natsume Sôseki is a master of storytelling! He is a very good observer and has rich psychological knowledge. His characters are manifold and distinctive. The atmosphere of the story is sometimes unbearable and very nervous, but that is how the tension and feelings of the characters must have been. The narration is very detailed. I must admit, that I had some difficulties to read it to the end, because I felt it has some length to endure. I held on, because it is still very interesting though.

And Then is not my most favorite book of Natsume Sôseki, but it is nevertheless a good read.

夏目 漱石. それから. 1909. Natsume Sôseki. And Then. (Translation by Norma Moore Field, 1978).

Book Review: Yukiguni — Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari

kirchnerYukiguni is one of the most famous Japanese novels, known in Japan and worldwide, translated into many languages. Soon after it has been published in 1937 Yukiguni became a classic. As many of his books are artistic and brillant, Kawabata Yasunari was given the Nobel Prize in 1968 as the first Japanese author. He is still admired today.

The Story

A young man named Shimamura goes on a travel to a village in the mountains far away from Tokyo. It is winter. On his way on a train he watches a beautiful woman caring for an ill man. He observes and admires her beauty and the gentle behavior towards the man. Later he gets to know her as Yoko.

At the end of a long tunnel the train reaches the Snow Country. The train stops. Shimamura arrives at his destination. A young girl named Komako is waiting for him at the station.

Her life story as a geisha will be narrated along the storyline of their love story throughout the book. Yoko, known from the trainride is also a geisha and introduced as a close friend of Komako.

Shimamura is described as an idle character and aesthete. The story is centered around the development of a to and fro relationship between him and Komako and some sideline stories. The protagonists meet each other only in intervening periods. Eventually Shimamura is not willing to leave Snow Country, although it is an artificial world here, only short-lived and transient.

The novel is an artistic masterpiece of its time. Kawabata describes the atmosphere and the inner feelings of the main character, Shimamura and Komako. There is not much happening, but tension between the woman and him. High expectations and low actions build up an area of conflict. There are scenes, when nothing seems to happen. The slow motion is not easy to endure. Time is going by very slow in Snow Country.

Yukiguni consists of seven stories which were serialized in magazines from 1935 to 1937. The seven scenes where later formed into a novel. Until 1948 Kawabata rewrote the novel several times. Therefore there is no consistent story, but it is developed out of fragments.

Kawabata shows his talents in experimenting with a new literary style. He invented a theory of expression published in the literary magazine bungei jidai in 1925. Apart from Kawabata Yasunari many other Japanese authors were recipients of the German Expressionism.

The story itself resembles strongly the Three-Cornered World of Natsume Sôseki. The atmospheric literary character of the novel can be also compared to Rainer Maria Rilke’s book The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, one of most famous German expressionistic novel of the 20th century. maltelauridsbrigge

Kawabata uses style elements as free association and is breaking rules of semantic style and syntax, he is using inner dialogue, contrasting colors, intuitive narration and fragmentation of the storyline.

Next to14028 his experimental style Kawabata uses mythological motives and classical themes of Nô-theatre and the Genji monogatari.

I strongly recommend to read Yukiguni as a real Japanese classic and a work of world literature.

川端 康成: 雪国, 1937. Kwabata Yasunari: Snow Country. 1937.