Sunday, February 10, 2013

An Artist of the Quiet World: Natsume Sōseki

The Gate

How do you like your books?  Large or small? Loud or soft? Full of pretense or as plain as a Quaker Meeting-House? 
There is the literature of agoraphila: Moby-Dick for example, or Doctor Zhivago, the open sea or the endless tundra, each swallowing up a human drama that derives, in part, from the vastness of the space where it occurs.  Or War and Peace, where space and time and the weight of history conspire to create the greatest novel of agoraphilia.  Victor Serge, 2666 (the world as graveyard), Ha Jin's War Trash, Thomas Glavinic's Night Work and David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress--where -philia tips over into -phobia as solitary characters wander aimlessly through  a world otherwise devoid of human beings.  The agoraphilic novel mostly terrifies as it removes the sense of scale and proportion that was the primary attraction of the genre in the first place.  The novel's precursors--epic poems, story collections by Chaucer and Boccaccio, mythic tales of travel--gave way in the eighteenth century to the emerging bourgeois world of domesticity, feminine consciousness, claustrophilia--to Richardson and Rousseau and Goethe.
My own preference is for books about small things, quiet books where nothing much happens--Proust, of course, is the demi-god of this subspecies of fiction--also Robert Musil, Robert Walser (The Assistant), all of Georges Perec, David Foster Wallace's Pale King (a book about boredom--perfect!), and nearly every Japanese novel I have ever read--from Genji (a summer's worth of nothing much) to minimalists like Kawabata and Oe.
Those who love their literature quiet--string quartets rather than symphonies--will love, as I did, Natsume Soseki's The Gate, a zen-like story of a married couple, Sosuke and Oyone, who live within the tiny confines of their small house, their garden, and their childless, but loving, marriage.  No problem--of money, of filial relations, of health or happiness--is important enough to require an immediate solution; for the most part, Sosuke, a melancholy, fatalistic office-worker, is content to let life go on around him without intervention.  He's indolent, Oblomovian, not one to say either 'no' or 'yes,' but always 'not yet.'  He believes in destiny, and his is to be no one; and yet he is devoid of envy and rancor--it would be too much trouble to feel such things, and he prefers to watch the world from the comfort of his veranda.   
At one point in the novel, Sosuke's younger and far more ambitious brother, Koroku, moves into the tiny "six-mat" room in Sosuke's house...there isn't money to send Koroku to university, and no one has a clue as to what to do about the young man's future until fate intervenes. Here we have Sosuke, just returned from work, inquiring about his brother:
"After a few sips of hot tea Oyone had brought him, [Sosuke] asked, 'Is Koroku home?'
     It was of course certain that his brother was there. But not the faintest sound could be heard from the six-mat room, and it seemed impossible that there could be anyone inside. As Oyone rose to call Koroku, Sosuke stopped her: There was no need to speak to him right now. Then, burrowing under the quilt attached to the portable kotatsu [a low table, covered by a quilt, with a heater underneath], he lay stretched out on his side. Twilight had already made its presence felt in this room, where the shoji all faced the steep embankment. His arm pillowed beneath his head, he simply gazed into the dark, confined space, his mind a blank."
With Sosuke, one might be tempted to think of Bartleby or Hamlet, but that would be inaccurate: these figures are still and inactive in the midst of activity--Sosuke is the calm center of no storm, of a world that is sequestered, monastic, unchanging (ironically the book culminates in Sosuke visiting a zen monastery--as if a respite were required from doing nothing). Aside from the neighbor's daughter's piano practice, it appears no one does much of anything behind the gated world of the novel.  Perhaps Soseki, who wrote the book in 1910, was nostalgically invoking pre-Meiji Japan, a world before modernization and the urban displacement of traditional Japanese life. 
The Gate reminded me of a quiet summer I spent just outside of Tokyo as a guest in the home of an older Japanese couple. We could not speak to one another, and, in the evenings, the three of us would sit, in unbroken silence, staring out into the garden, bamboo entwined with delicate pink hibiscis  (I took them as such), smoking and sipping tea. 
The Gate is available through New York Review Books, with a typically intelligent and helpful introduction by Pico Iyer, translated by William F. Sibley. 









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