Saturday, February 2, 2013

Study Guide: Natsume Sōseki, “The Cat’s Tomb” (1909), “Hector” (1915)


1. Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916): Enters 東帝大 in 1884; 1895 stint in Matsuyama, Shikoku; 1895, in Kumamoto; studied at University College, London 1900-1903; returns to Japan and replaces Lafcadio Hearn as lecturer, subsequently becoming professor of English literature at Tōteidai; literary career begins in 1903 w/ haiku, renku, haikaishi for Masaoka Shiki’s Hototogisu; quits Tōteidai, joins Asahi shimbun to be full-time novelist; debut novel: Wagahai wa neko de aru (1905), followed by Botchan (1906) and Kusamakura (1906); stomach ulcers intensify, chronic dyspepsia; masterpieces are the trilogy Sanshirō (1908), Sorekara (1909), Mon (1911), and Kokoro (1914) and Michikusa (1915), all concerned to varying degrees with central theme alienation of ordinary Japanese in era of modernity/capitalism/egocentrism; produces all of his fictional masterpieces in span of 10 years; remembered today as the master of the modern Japanese psychological novel.

2. A Sōseki zuihitsu (literary essay): mixes facts with fiction and combines the features of an essay, a diary, and a fictional narrative. To Sōseki these different forms of writing are not mutually exclusive genres but different values in a spectrum. While (the wife and daughter are biographical realities), and the writer persona is largely self-referential. . . there is a strong touch of fictional embellishment in the portrayal of real-life characters through the use of dialogues, though these dialogues are embedded in a text that seems to be composed of the solitary reflections of the personal essay. Central to the text is the flow and rhythm of daily life; the author uses a form that resembles the diary to capture a ceaseless repetition that finally engulfs the “helpless creatures.” -Angela Yiu, “A Preface to Bunchō” Michigan Quarterly Review (Summer 2001), p. 484-485 (modified).

3. Bōkansha 傍観者: spectator, onlooker, bystander, detached observer who is either unable or unwilling to make deep connections with people; a stock character in the fiction of Mori Ōgai, Sōseki, others.. My theory: employed as narrative strategy as a middle ground/happy medium between omniscient third-person narrator of European realism and personal/lyrical/subjective style of Japanese poetry/zuihitsu/monogatari. Has its roots in world-renouncing wenren-bunjin/Buddhism/yamabushi/etc.

4. Zuihitsu 随筆: lit: follow the brush; loosely connected, fragmented, personal, informal semi-fictional essay or discursive prose. Traditional form for bunjin (e.g. Tsurezure gusa, Hōjōki, Makura-sōshi), revived in modern times. Often has world-renouncing but humorous tone. Chief theme: impermanence; addresses death, indirectly. Tone is often nostalgic for a lost past. Kindai zuihitsu: part of general trend of I-centered writing of early 20th century. Similar to the “essay” (lit. “try-out”) in the West: informal, cultivated style, no formal structure of progression; play of mind in free associations around a given topic; dialogues (with implied reader), not debates; Montaigne (1533-1592) first great “essayist.”

5. Shōhinbun 小品文: “little items”; “belles-lettres” literary vignettes, filled with personal reminiscences; incorporate kikōbun, nikki, zuihitsu, hyōron elements. Originally Ming-dynasty Chinese form characterized by informal anti-vulgar, anti-political cultivated enclosed-individualist style. Similar to I-novel (Soseki’s only I-novel-esque works are his shōhinbun). However, as opposed to “just be me” philosophy of I-novelists Naturalists, shōhinbun display the construction of literary persona/stand-in/surrogate. A common form among men who consider themselves bunjin/wenrenShōhinbun were popular in Britain/China/Japan in 1930s. Sōseki’s all take place at Sōseki home (or, more accurately, in his memory); querulous literary persona first displayed in Bunchō (1908). Others by Sōseki include: Eijitsu shōhin (1909); Mankan tokorodokoro (1909, about trip to Korea/Manchurian colonies); Omoidasu koto nado (1911; diary/philosophical reflection); Garasu do no uchi (1915; 39 serialized episodes).

6. Eijitsu shōhin 永日小品 (1909; Spring Miscellany; includes “The Cat’s Tomb”): eclectic pastiche of 8 stories and 17 essays: 8 on stay in London, several include surreal elements, most deal with lower classes, taboo subject of money (favorite theme of proto-Marxist Sōseki); (semi-) autobiographical, I-novel-esque, yet of autobiographical AND literary value. First three chapters: New Year’s Day (about how bad he is at Noh in Takahama Kyoshi’s Noh group), The Snake (surrealistic, dream-like account of experience with uncle), The Thief.

7. Garasu do no naka硝子戸の中 (1915; includes Hector chapters 3-5): literary reminiscences serialized in 1915 in Asahi Shimbun (first book form several years later). Sōseki’s last work in shōhin vein, after Yumejūya (1908), Eijitsu shōhin (1909), Omoidasu koto nado (1910-11). 39 fictionalized autobiographical accounts loosely arranged in zuihitsu (#4) style. Many-voiced self/polyphony. Sōseki’s many manifestations, fictionalized selves. Reminders of death/dying abound. Loneliness/alienation, disillusionment w/ modernity a major theme. Yet not all gloom and doom: often self-parody mixed with this dark view; filled with humor, ironic portraits of self, etc. Most episodes involve a far past recalled from great distance (more recent Hector episodes an exception. Wistful tone about things lost/forgotten. Aside from Hector chapters, includes scattered episodes from youth, high school, dead older brother, old neighborhood in Babashita (Ushigome/Shinjuku), entertainment halls (yose) and areas/customs now lost to modernity. Older parents hardly figure in/only fragments; only the maid recalled fondly. The suicidal woman who comes to visit, photographers, burglars, and other visitors to his hermitage. Outside world is unknowable and uncontrollable, but inside glass doors: a place where one finds solace, peace of mind, a safe haven from clamorous, violent, ever-changing modern world. The most important of these many voices is the narrator’s introspective voice that muses on fragility of memory, relation with past, death, dying, dead friends, mind capable of grasping only fragments of past, etc. Concludes his long polyphonic/dialogic/polyglossic/polyvocal rambling soliloquy (assuming roles of philosopher, literary man, family man, mere mortal, curmudgeon, etc.) on serene, Zen-like note suggesting transcendence.

Study Questions

Answer all of the following questions.

1. How does Sōseki capture in his description the isolated modern ego? Quote to
illustrate your answer.

2. How does the form of the zuihitsu combine the features of an essay, a diary, and a
fictional narrative? Give examples to illustrate your answer.

3. Are there passages of objective depiction? i.e. the observer stands aloof at a distance
to depict a world outside him without showing much emotion.

4. Are there instances where the narrator steps outside his aloof, objective depiction and
describes a scene through the filter of his feelings?

5. The story of Hector is taken from the collection “Within the Glass Door.” What is the
effect of the metaphor of the glass door in creating narrative distance?

6. Do you see humor (or black humor) in the stories?

7. Discuss the intersection between life and death—the flurry of activities that death
brings about. What does that say about the sense of existence? How does that
contrast with the two short poems written on the grave markers?

8. With reference to Sōseki’s selection of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (C.1) as an
example of objective depiction, what are the similarities and dissimilarities between
Austen’s and Sōseki’s depictions?

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