Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Sōseki's Kokoro and two Tanizaki genre exercises - I resolved that I must live my life as if I were already dead

It is the 16th year of Dolce Bellezza’s remarkable Japanese Literature Challenge – in the old days for some reason we “challenged” people to read – which reminded me, as it often has, that I have never read anything by Natsumi Sōseki, the earliest of the greatest 20th century Japanese novelists,  This year, finally, I read a Sōseki book, Kokoro (1914), written near the end of his short career.  Donald Keene, in his enormous literary history Dawn to the West: Fiction (, 340) calls it “the finest of Sōseki’s mature works,” so just what I wanted.

For half the novel, a purposeless college student, a classic feckless youth, describes his unusual friendship with a much older man who he calls Sensei, in part because he learns from their talk than from his teachers. 

Sōseki does not give a hint of what they talk about. The second half of the novel is Sensei’s long letter justifying his suicide.  He committed a sin when he was in college that led to a suicide and, for him, a lifetime of guilt.

There were even times when I longed for some stranger to come along and flog me as I deserved.  At some stage this feeling transformed into a conviction that it should be I who hurt myself.  And then the thought struck me that I should not just hurt myself but kill myself.  At all events, I resolved that I must live my life as if I were already dead. (Ch. 108, 229. Tr. Meredith McKinney)

This is the ethos of the entire letter, of this character’s entire life, really.  “[A] character study of an egotist” is what Di at The little white attic calls Sensei’s letter, which is grim and distancing, although psychologically completely believable.  Keene says that is why the novel is successful:

The success of the novel, however, owes less to such echoes of Sōseki’s personal life than to his novelistic skill.  The characters are believable and there are scenes of dramatic tension… (340)

Keene, I tell you, really knows how to undersell.

The Japanese Literature Challenge also reminded me that I have plenty of Junichiro Tanizaki to read, so I tried a pair of novellas packaged together, The Reed Cutter (1932) and Captain Shigemoto’s Mother (1949), both translated by Anthony H. Chambers.  The novellas have in common a use of old poem-stuffed Japanese literary forms.  The Reed Cutters begins as a poetic travelogue, like The Tale of Ise or Basho’s The Narrow Road to Oku, while Captain Shigemoto’s Mother, clearly a product of Tanizaki’s years translating The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, belongs to the Heian era, wandering among historical figures before gelling into a single, pathetic story.

I enjoyed the literary frames a lot, but I suppose it does help to know that they are genre exercises.  Like Basho, the narrator of The Reed Cutter travels to various sites because other travels have written poems about them, and then he in turn adds his own poem to the history, or by the end of the novella, a ghost story.  Later travelers can visit the site and remember the story, or look for the ghost.

The Reed Cutter features another of Tanizaki’s favorite submissive-dominant sexual relationships, although in this case it is clear that the psychology is what really interests Tanizaki, not the sex, since here the three characters are all celibate.

Captain Shigemoto’s Mother has some similarly odd stuff, including a scene where a man steals the chamber pot of the woman he loves in order to cure himself of his love for her.  It doesn’t work.  The scene is like an audacious Japanese parody of Jonathan Swift’s 1732 poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room.”  The novella’s end, when the mother and son in the title are finally reunited, has its pathetic beauty (“like a child secure in his mother’s love, he wiped his tears again and again with her sleeve”, 180) but it is likely that chamber pot scene that will linger.


  1. “Challenge”…indeed, an almost silly concept, yet it somehow seemed appropriate sixteen years ago amidst the flurry of challenges out there.

    Guilt. Oh, those dear Japanese. They take guilt even more seriously than I do.

    I have Kokoro, but foolishly have not yet read it, even though I am entranced by the classic writers. It seems I have been sucked up by the current stuff, such as the Akutagawa award winning book, The Hole, which I recently read. But, both you and I have a great affinity for the classic stuff. So, I will get to this.

    Thank you, as always, for reading with me (for the challenge☺️).

  2. Yes, the guilt! Carried for a lifetime, just getting heavier and heavier. Kokoro is a bleak novel.

    It was interesting, back in the dawn of blogs, to see everyone explore. There were lots of big readers who had never read a Russian novel or Japanese novel or whatever. The "challenges" seemed to genuinely expand many readers' sense of literature.

    Contemporary Japanese literature seems to be in an interesting place, so I understand the time spent with it.

  3. I, myself, had read many, many classics, and Russian and French literature, but never Japanese! When I discovered it, in 2016, I was immediately entranced and have been ever since. Classic, or contemporary, it seems to mesmerize me.

    By the way, do you know of the War and Peace read along on Instagram? It is a chapter a day, taking us through 2023, and I am loving it. Perhaps you might join in?

  4. Thanks for the invitation. I am afraid Plato and Portuguese are absorbing too much of my "big book" energy. It's been a while since I read a really big book.

  5. I read The Hole in December. It was pretty surprising. A lot of the contemporary Japanese fiction I've read lately combines a sort of naive narrator with a sinister world. Is that indicative of Japanese women feeling oppressed by Japanese culture? I have no idea. The Hole seems to lean hard in that direction.

    1. If you want to read about Japanese women feeling oppressed by Japanese culture, read The Tale of Genji haha.

  6. I don't know either. I really enjoyed the latest couple of Yoko Towada novels, but the pleasure resembled that of César Aira, that fairly often a sentence bizarre and unlikely appears.

    But of course there are many other modes in Japanese fiction.

  7. The Heian mother in the title of the Tanizaki novella is close to a slave. Maybe I will finally read Genji next year. That is a nice, distant, gauzy aspiration.

  8. Tanizaki’s short story The Mother of Captain Shigemoto reminds us that Tanizaki had a macabre & decadent streak as wide as Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s. It takes place in Genji-era Kyoto, but its graveyards and rotting corpses are a far cry from Murasaki’s pretty rooms and Niou’s ritzy palaces. It reminds us of the Zen/Stoic/Orwell emphasis on the importance of Facing Unpleasant Facts. But I gotta warn squeamish readers off, like Mr. Halloran warning Danny not to enter Room 237.

  9. Yes, Captain Shigemoto has some parts to make readers squirm.