- Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist by John Nathan
Ever since his death somewhat over a century ago, Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) has been regarded as one of Japan’s preeminent modern authors—a towering figure whose iconic image adorned the nation’s thousand-yen banknote for many years. Sōseki’s writings—chiefly, the series of novels published in newspaper serialization over the last decade of his life—have long been enshrined as a literary monument to Japan’s emergence as a modern nation and to the many [End Page 897] challenges, both material and intangible, that confronted individuals caught between the old authoritarian order and a new, Western-inspired embrace of individualism and egalitarianism.
Sōseki—the pen name of Natsume Kinnosuke—has inspired a vast outpouring of literary commentary, and the bulk of his fictional work is available in English translation. Sōseki has been subject to every conceivable mode of analysis and commentary, but there has been no single work that can be said to do justice to the author and his world. John Nathan has accomplished this with the work under review, Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist. Its publication, marking in a sense the centennial of the author’s death, is a major achievement insofar as it captures the man in full and presents his life and work as an integrated and interdependent whole.
Himself an accomplished literary biographer, translator, and award-winning filmmaker, Nathan brings an unusual breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding of modern Japan and its literature to the work in question. Eschewing academic specialization and aiming instead “to create a portrait of Sōseki as a man and an artist that will be accessible, and sympathetic, to general readers,” Nathan presents an authoritative, comprehensive, and engaging literary biography (xi). Comprising seventeen chronologically sequenced chapters, Sōseki incorporates a range of biographical detail, citations from the author’s fiction and personal writings, and memoir accounts written by family, friends, and literary protégés. His many novels, which could have easily dominated the study, are deployed as component parts of Nathan’s larger strategy, which privileges evidence drawn from letters, diary accounts, and essays.
Nathan’s case for Sōseki’s stature as a modern author centers on an ongoing survey of the author’s psychological quirks and disorders, his fraught marital and family life, his landmark literary career, and the backdrop of a rapidly urbanizing nation, centered in Tokyo. Nathan traces the course of Sōseki’s ailments: a chronic and often debilitating gastrointestinal disorder that would claim his life at age forty-nine, and a clinically diagnosed psychopathology that resulted in frequent bouts of irascibility, violent mood swings, and symptoms bordering on madness. Nathan probes the interface between the author’s various ailments and the manner of their representation in his literature, noting Sōseki’s observation, perhaps tongue in cheek, that he has his insanity to thank for his literary successes. “I pray,” he once remarked, “that my illnesses will not abandon me” (quoted on 115).
Nathan’s study is noteworthy for its close reading of source materials and rigorous concern for their veracity. For instance, his meticulous account of the author’s schooling, in chapter two, features an examination of the young Sōseki’s letters and personal essays. Here Nathan focuses on Sōseki’s earliest literary foray as a poet, emphasizing the significance of his friendship with Masaoka Shiki (1867–1903), who went on to play a crucial role in the modernization of Japanese poetry in the Meiji period (1868–1912). Nathan stresses Sōseki’s accomplishments as a haiku poet, initially under Shiki’s tutelage, although it can be argued that he was even more strongly attracted to, and proficient in, Chinese-style verse (kanshi). It is in the context of discussing the relationship with Shiki, in chapter three, that Nathan raises the issue of Sōseki’s homosexual proclivities. This concern is revisited elsewhere.
Nathan’s study can be...