Wednesday 28 November 2012

J-Lit Giants: 1 - Natsume Soseki

Welcome to the first in what may become a short series of posts, introducing readers to some of Japan's most famous writers - or, as I like to call them, J-Lit Giants :)  Over the next couple of months, I hope to have other bloggers talk about their favourite writers, but today I'll be starting off with a short post on one of the most famous of them all...

Natsume Soseki (the pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke) is the father of modern J-Lit and arguably Japan's most famous writer.  Certainly, when I asked Japanese students to name a famous writer (back in the days when I taught English in Japan), his was inevitably the first name uttered.

After studying English literature in Tokyo, Natsume worked in the provinces as a high school teacher, gathering experiences which would help him write several of his later works.  Then, in 1900, he was chosen to travel to England, the first Japanese scholar to study in this country.  Sadly, this wasn't the experience it might have been - lack of money and strong feelings of homesickness meant that his time in England, while useful for his career, was a depressing one.

On his return to Japan, a few years later, he became a lecturer in Literary Theory and Criticism at a famous Tokyo university.  However, once he began to produce fiction, he gave up the job, preferring to work for a newspaper instead.  Indeed, like many Victorian English novellists, his work often appeared first in newspaper serialisations.

Natsume's works are very different, depending on when he wrote them.  His early works, such as I am a Cat and Botchan are light, amusing stories, not characteristics we associate with J-Lit today!  Soon, his style developed into a more aesthetically-concerned, drifting style (e.g. Kusamakura and Sanshiro).  Eventually though, his work became more serious, novels such as Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside concerned with the dilemma of integrating western ideas into Japanese society without sacrificing native traditions.

For those wanting to try Natsume Soseki's work, I'd definitely recommend starting at (or near) the beginning, as his early fiction is much more accessible than some of his more famous later books.  My three to try would be:
1) Botchan - This is a comical (semi-fictional) look at the writer's time as a high school teacher in the provinces.  Caught between jaded, unfriendly teachers and rural students who could beat him to a pulp if they wanted to, the hero of the story discovers that he's not in Tokyo any more...

2) Kusamakura (also known as The Three-Cornered World) - A laconic look at an artist's stay in a rural village and his encounters there with a beautiful woman.  Nothing happens, and the book is all the better for it :)

3) Sanshiro - The first in a (very) loosely-linked trilogy, this book marks the start of a shift to more serious writing, but the youthfulness is still there.  A young student moves to Tokyo from the provinces, ostensibly to become a university student, in reality to learn more about life.  A Japanese Bildungsroman, this is an excellent, moving story.

That's all from me - over to you :)  Have you read any of these books?  Have you tried any of Natsume's other works?  Leave a comment, and let us all know about your experiences with the father of modern J-Lit!