Tuesday, January 31, 2017
It takes a lifetime - or the course of an entire novel - for the characters to begin to speak the truth
Actually nearing the end of Natsume Soseki's 1914 novel, Kororo, and finding it as strange nearing the end as at the outset - definitely not a novel for all readers, but I think it's an intriguing cultural artifact - whether the diffidence of the narrative is typical of Japanese literature and culture at the time, or typical of this writer (considered the greatest Japanese novelist of his era), I can't say. As noted in yesterday's post, through the entire first 3rd of the novel the narrator establishes a relationship with his (never named) sensei, visiting him regularly throughout his years in college and in what today we'd call grad school (in this novel it's translated as "university") - yet we never learn what they discuss, why the narrator seeks out the sensei, what the sensei's learning and scholarship consists of, not even what the narrator is studying in school. All we learn is that the sensei is a complete misanthrope, and his misanthropy was the result of some kind of difficulty or tragedy in his early years. It takes till the third and final section of the novel before Soseki gives us any info about the sensei's life; the 3rd section constitutes a long letter, or an essay we might say, in which the sensei tells the narrator of the great tragedy in his life: he was deprived of an inheritance by his dishonest uncle, which turned him against all people, and - the part I'm reading now - he has some kind of conflict, perhaps over a woman, with an impoverished and perhaps mentally ill friend - but the exact nature of this conflict is not yet clear (maybe it will be by the end of the novel? or maybe not). If this novel were complex, pretentious, or impenetrable, I would have stopped reading it already - but what keeps me going (I'm near the end after only a few hours of reading over 2 days) is that Soseki's style is so clear and pure, the narrative not obscure but elusive, and I think it shows us something important about a culture long gone: both narrator and sensei are so reticent and tentative with one another, there are great white spaces, so to speak, within and surrounding all of their conversations; as in the Japanese culture of that era (I believe) it does take a lifetime for people to open up to one another - here, it takes the course of an entire novel before characters reveal to one another the foundational events of their lives.