No cats. Natsume Sōseki, Sanshirō

Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), Sanshirō [三四郎] First published as a serial in a newspaper 1908; first book form, 1909. Penguin Classics, 2009. Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. Introduction by Haruki Murakami

Natsume Sōseki, Sanshiro cover

The cover illustration is a colour lithograph, ‘View from above of the people at the station’ (detail), unknown artist, late Meiji era (1868-1912)

I remember my own feelings of apprehension and excitement when I first arrived in the strange (to me) city of Bristol to start my undergraduate career as a student of English literature. Natsume Sōseki’s eponymous protagonist (‘hero’ is too…heroic a term to use for this diffident young man of 22) arrives in the metropolis of Tokyo (in 1907, according to the notes to this paperback edition) from a rural backwater with a similar turmoil of feelings as he begins his studies of English literature at the University of Tokyo.

The novel opens halfway through his three-day journey there by train. A misfiring erotic encounter overnight prepares us for the Lucky Jim scrapes, misunderstandings, embarrassments and evasions that will follow.

The online community (including novelist and blogger Jonathan Gibbs: ‘the characters are agreeable’, he rightly says) recommended this novel as light relief after the rigours of the enormous Nazis-WWII-turbulent 60s America novel by German writer Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries.

It’s a gentle, warily comical take on this young ingenu’s stuttering progress through his first university term. There’s little in the way of plot. Sanshirō is of course at the age when he’s attracted to just about any pretty young woman he meets, but has yet to develop the self-confidence to show his feelings, or to persuade the objects of his adoration to take an amorous interest in him.

A meddling, morally fluid fellow student called Yojirō is one of the more interesting characters, and there are a couple of engaging, high-minded older academics. These function largely to allow Sōseki to muse upon the nature of Japanese society soon after the end of the Russo-Japanese war, when the country was still coming to terms with a twentieth-century identity that involved transforming its ancient, feudal character, while accommodating to the newly-accessible West – with its tendency to colonise and patronise any ‘exotic’ new market.

Sōseki spent two not entirely happy years in London as a pioneering Japanese literary scholar, enabling him to absorb the English language and literary culture. He was destined to become a Professor of English at the very university Sanshirō attends. A subplot involves Yojirō’s blundering nationalist campaign to recruit a Japanese professor of English in place of the usual fashionable Westerner. The incumbent had been Lafcadio Hearn, who appears as himself in the novel; there’s a useful essay about this extraordinary Irish-American literary figure at the Paris Review HERE. This episode also provides Sōseki with the opportunity to dramatise the conflicting impulses – westernise or remain culturally uncompromised – noted above.

This was a diverting read, and there are some charming scenes in which the callow Sanshirō tries to cope in what he sees as urban and erotic sophistication. Like the cat in the adage, he knows what he longs for, but lacks the courage or wherewithal to attain it. There are no cats in the novel.