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Reviewed by:
  • Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist by John Nathan
  • Jonathan Zwicker (bio)
Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist By John Nathan. Columbia University Press, New York, 2018. xiv, 327 pages. $37.00, cloth; $22.00, paper; $21.99, E-book.

Among the short episodes that comprise Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's autobiographical "The Life of a Stupid Man" ("Aru ahō no issho"), there is a haunting passage in which he recalls the death of his mentor, Natsume Sōseki, in 1916:

In the wind after the rain, he walked down the platform of the new station. The sky was still dark. … He left his cigarette unlit and felt a pain close to joy. "Master near death," read the telegram he had thrust into his coat pocket. Just then the 6:00 a.m. Tokyo-bound train began to snake its way toward the station, rounding a pine-covered hill in the distance and trailing a wisp of smoke.1

What makes this scene so evocative is an uncanny resonance of which Akutagawa was himself surely aware: Akutagawa's memory is an eerie pantomime of the ending of the first half of Sōseki's most famous novel, Kokoro, as the I-narrator boards a train to Tokyo to try to see his own mentor, Sensei, before his death. Kokoro seems to hover over Akutagawa's own relationship with Sōseki, whom he refers to throughout his late writings simply as Sensei, as if the novel had come to structure how Akutagawa understood his own life and his memories of that rainy morning in December 1916.

Much in Akutagawa's late work, especially "The Life of a Stupid Man" and "Spinning Gears" ("Haguruma") is concerned with the intersection of books and life, how the experience of life is informed by books as much as, perhaps more than, books are informed by the stuff of life. "The Life of a Stupid Man" is autobiographical but hardly an autobiography in any recognizable sense: it is fragmentary and episodic, the vignettes of a life gathered in no discernible order, narrated in the third person. The fragmentary modernism of Akutagawa's late work may seem a long way from the novels of his mentor, but a through-line that connects late Akutagawa with late Sōseki is a concern for the fractured nature of the self and a skepticism over the possibility of narrating a life. It is in this stance that we can see Akutagawa's greatest debt to Sōseki. When Akutagawa writes that "With the last of his strength, he tried to write his autobiography, but it did not [End Page 266] come together as easily as he had hoped,"2 he was not just explaining the strange nature of the manuscript he would leave behind to his friend Kume Masao at the time of his suicide, he was also expressing a deep skepticism about the very ease with which the classical I-novel had posited a relationship between life and writing.

In this context, Akutagawa's evoking of Kokoro is especially suggestive for it is a novel centrally concerned with the struggle to express, in writing, the basic stuff of a life. There is, in Sōseki's novel, a distrust of the written word, of its capacity to make sense of and to transmit an individual's experiences. Indeed, as John Nathan eloquently writes in his recent biography, Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist, Kokoro is, at its base, an extended meditation on this subject, that "one man cannot learn from another; the impossibility of understanding another coupled with our need to assert ourselves guarantees that what awaits us is the agony experienced by … the sensei who cannot teach in Kokoro, a life of isolation and loneliness" (p. 225).

For a biographer, then, Sōseki's life presents an interesting problem, one that surely shaped Nathan's approach to his subject in Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist, that is, how to write about an author who was himself profoundly skeptical of the possibility of the transmission of a life in writing, even while recognizing that it is only through this medium that a life...