Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 2, 2013

Kusamakura (1906), by Natsume Sōseki, translated by Meredith McKinney

Kusamakura Japanese literature is an acquired taste, and I’m not sure that I’ve acquired it yet, but Kusamakura (1906) by Natsume Sōseki is more interesting than most of what I’ve read so far.

Which, I am first to admit, is not much.  Most recently I’ve tried Murakami’s 1Q84; a collection of short stories called Revenge by Yōko Ogawa; The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami; and The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto.  (Click the links to see my reviews).  A long time ago I read The Makiota Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi.  I quite enjoyed The Briefcase, but none of these books encouraged me to explore further.

Most of the novels came my way because they were on shortlists when I was a Shadow Juror, and the others because J-Lit fans thought I might enjoy them.  Which is also how I came to read Kusamakura.  Last Christmas, Emma from Book Around the Corner and Guy from A Swiftly Tilting Planet paired me up with Tony, of Tony’s Reading List to receive a couple of ‘Humbooks’, and Kusamakura was one of the books he chose for me.  (The other one is The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll which I will read soon.)

Well, yes, half-a-dozen books is hardly a comprehensive survey, but the impression that I have of J-lit is that it tends to have inconclusive plots, and is peopled by characters who are vaguely  attracted to each other but never resolve or consummate a relationship.  Characters tend to be polite and reserved to the point of cold disinterest, and their conversations are taut and brittle.  There seems to be a preoccupation with aesthetics to the exclusion of emotion.  As I said in my review of The Briefcase, it seems to me that J-Lit is …

… a bit like Japanese food.  You either like its elegant simplicity and the artful way that very restrained flavours are arranged, or you don’t.  And if you don’t, you may find it rather lacking, in the way that you might prefer the robust flavours of Italian cookery or the complex artistry of French cuisine.

Well, Kusamakura is a bit like a bring-a-plate smorgasbord where you might end up with a mixture of cuisines on your plate, and you find yourself preferring the sushi to the dolmades because the sushi seems refreshing after all the strong flavours. Kusamakura tests the reader by contrasting the moody and sometimes pompous posturing of his central character with the boorish characters that he meets.  So the novel combines the elegance that  I have come to associate with J-Lit with crude dialogue and occasional bathos which undercuts the artist’s stated preference for aesthetic purity.  While the central character seems conflicted about what he wants, admiring the elegance of tradition but enjoying a bit of everyday ‘vulgarity’ or eroticism when it confronts him, the central message of the book seems to be that there isn’t any choice about the intrusions of the modern world and Western culture anyway.

Truth be told, it was Sōseki’s scathing critique of Western literature that I found interesting.  According to the introduction by Meredith McKinney Sōseki was apparently angst-ridden by the Japanese push to modernise at the turn of the 20th century and this novel represents a ‘bridge’ between his melancholy later works and the light, wry, ironic early novels.  Whatever about that, he certainly uses Kusamakura to get his feelings about the ‘vulgarity’ of Western literature off his chest…and I found this interesting because while I’ve certainly come across some vulgarity in Western literature, it’s not just grotty realism that Sōseki’s artist takes exception to, it’s the depiction of any emotion, any exploration of the human heart, or any acknowledgement of the human condition at all.

This scenery – scenery that adds nothing to the belly or the pocket – fills the heart with pleasure simply as scenery, and this is surely why there is neither suffering nor anxiety in the experience.  This is why the power of nature is precious to us.  Nature instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry.

Love may be beautiful, filial piety may be a splendid thing, and patriotism may be all very fine.  But  when you yourself are in one of these positions, you find yourself sucked into the maelstrom of the situation’s complex pros and cons – blind to any beauty or fineness, you cannot perceive where the poetry of the situation may lie.  (Loc. 304-311)

This narrator disdains novels and plays about human feelings.  There’s no avoiding, he says, ‘suffering, rage, flailing and weeping’ in life but he’s had enough of them, and it’s

exhausting to be forced to experience these same tired stimuli yet again through a play or a novel.  The poetry I long for is not the kind that provokes this type of vulgar emotion. (Loc. 311-319)

This doesn’t leave much to tangle with, does it?

(And BTW, this distaste also applies to Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil et al.  Sōseki studied Western literature, and spent two years in Britain as a young man, but I wonder how familiar his Japanese readers would be with his allusions?)

What passes for plot is simple.  The narrator is an artist who is only interested in beauty.  He disdains emotional involvement, and is scornful about books which explore human emotion or passion of any kind.  He climbs a mountain in pursuit of inspiration, waxing lyrical about the scenery and expressing his elegant appreciation of what he sees in haiku.  His lofty thoughts are, alas, interrupted by rain.  Nature is lovely as long as one doesn’t stumble over the boulders or get mud on one’s boots.

The reason for his retreat from the world is that he doesn’t like the way Japan is changing. He finds solace in a traditional village where things appear, at least at first, to be the way they’ve always been.

The introduction tells us that Kusamakura is contemporary and innovative in the history of the modern novel yet retaining a consciously elegant traditional Japanese style.  What I found difficult, as an inexperienced reader of Japanese style in general and this author in particular, was how to distinguish the point of departure from elements of modern Japanese naturalistic style, and the deliberate aping of crudely written ‘vulgar Western style’.  This is especially tricky since this is a translation.

For example, having read about the narrator transcending the modern world as he climbs the mountain, in prose that is self-consciously poetic, the reader then comes across a long sequence of inane dialogue between the artist and a barber.  In what seems to be a burlesque, Sōseki depicts this man gossiping about the pretty daughter of the house: he tells the artist that she’s a divorcee, a ‘loony’ and ‘a good for nothing girl’.

‘You wanna watch out for her’.
‘Why so?’
‘Why? Well, I shouldn’t be tellin’ tales, but she’s back from a failed marriage, she is.’
‘Is that so?’
‘That’s so to say the least of it! There weren’t no cause for her to come back really.  She left because the bank went bust and they had to watch their pennies – no sense of duty.  All very well while the old gentleman’s still on his pins, when worse comes to worst, it’ll be a bad state of affairs.’  (Loc. 1175-83)

It’s not just the bathos of this exchange that undercuts the studied elegance of the previous pages, but Sōseki also describes the more mundane aspects of getting a shave: the whiskers hurting because the barber is rough, and his method of dealing with the artist’s dandruff.

Without further warning, the barber brings ten filthy claws down hard onto my skull and commences to scrape them fiercely back and forth.  His nails thrust themselves between every hair on my head, to and fro, with the speed and ferocity of a giant’s rake whistling about over a barren wasteland.  I don’t know how many thousands of hairs my head holds, but as his fingers go gouging about, each one of them seems to be being ripped from its roots, and the surface that remains feels as if it’s hatched all over in raised welts.  The ferocious energy of those fingers transmits itself down through the skull and rattles my very brains.  (Loc. 1200-1207)

Charming, eh?  What is this sequence doing in a book about the aesthetics of east v west?  It’s not just there as a striking contrast with the beauty of traditional Japanese prose and the artist’s haiku or as a cautionary element from an author nostalgic for literary tradition. It’s more than that, because the artist tells us that far from being incongruous this gritty realism about a garrulous barber is a fine subject for poetry because he ‘sets off the day’s deep serenity’.  (Loc. 1280-88)

Is this irony, meant to show us that for all the artist’s posturing about how literature should be all about beauty, he ends up sharing ‘too-much-information’ aspects of his life in a sequence not so very different to some of Bloom’s bathroom activities in James Joyce’s Ulysses?  (A later sequence about city life is even more so).   Is it to show that the artist is deluded in his naïve ideas about the purity of traditional life, and that traditional villages have always had their share of buffoons?  Or did Sōseki include it to show that even a spiritually-minded person like his artist can’t help but be tainted by the invasion of modern ideas?

The artist has a go at the Chinese too.  By the time I got to his comments about them, I was used to his disdainful remarks about Western culture being vulgar.  Writing about the potential of food as a subject for artistic expression, he (presumably not thinking of those exquisite still life paintings in galleries throughout the world), says

Not a single Western food has a colour that could be called beautiful – the only exceptions I can think of are salad and radishes (Loc. 920)

and later, (presumably not thinking of the entire tradition of religious painting that dominated Western art for centuries)

As for Western artists, their eyes are mostly fixed on the external phenomenal world, and the vast majority have no truck with the higher realms of noble refinement (Loc. 1413)

But his dismissal of the Chinese shocked me:

All such Chinese household furnishings, indeed, have the same rather dull and unimaginative quality.  One is forced to the conclusion that they’re the inventions of a race of patient and slightly slowwitted people.  (Loc. 1651)

Is Sōseki satirising his character, or are these his opinions?

It is said that this book was written in a week.  If that is so, it might explain why it’s not clear to me whether it’s a meditation on nature and art and human emotion, or a satire.  In the introduction McKinney has very little to say about the more robust elements of the text, other than that ‘it draws on the alternative tradition of a comic and ‘vulgar’ mode.‘  She quotes Sōseki saying that he intended to write a ‘haiku-style’ novel’ meant to leave a ‘feeling of beauty’ with the reader.

That’s not what it did for me.

Author: Natsume Sōseki
Title: Kusamakura (Also published as The Three-cornered World), first published 1906
Translated by Meredith McKinney
Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2008, first published 1906
ISBN: 9780143105190
Source: Personal library.  I can’t remember why I bought the Kindle edition.  It’s very annoying not to be able to quote page numbers.

Fishpond: Kusamakura 


  1. It’s a very clever little book, and part of the beauty is the fun the writer has with his (autobiographical) central character. He is attempting to remain detached and view everything he sees through the artist’s eye, remaining aloof and disinterested – of course, being human, this doesn’t quite go to plan…

    As McKinney notes, this is a sort of bridge between Natsume’s earlier, more satirical work and his later pieces, which are much more serious. It’s a shame about the Kindle though – it’s definitely a book to flick through while sitting in the sun, a slow day kind of read :)


    • I hate reading on a Kindle. I think I bought the book on Christmas day, that was my mistake.


  2. Fascinating … I haven’t read Sōseki yet but as you know I love Japanese literature. You mention that you liked The briefcase? Did you not like The Makioka Sisters or The doctor’s wife? I loved those two. You might like to try Ariyoshi’s The river Ki, or The twilight years. It’s a while since I’ve read them but they may be more attuned to a Western reader, particularly the latter. Generalising madly, I like the fact that when I read J-Lit I feel very strongly that I’m in another world, I like the different aesthetics and the way they often explore existential angst. Is the anti-Chinese bit satirical or serious. If the latter, I guess it’s an expression of the deep suspicion between those two nations.

    BTW Do you know who Meredith McKinney is? She’s Judith Wright’s daughter. I think she’s back here in Canberra now but she has lived for many years – a couple of decades even I think – in Japan.

    PS I’ve only read one of my Humbooks, early in the year. I think I bought it in Kindle too, on Xmas Day! I don’t hate the actual reading on the Kindle, but I hate trying to manage it for writing about. It’s good having the notes/highlights stored on Amazon but trying to flick through it again to get context etc is very frustrating. I’m going to read my next reading group book on it though just to keep practised but I think I like it more for journals and short stories at present.


    • *chuckle* I had to consult my reading journal (No#3, 2001) to see what I thought about The Doctor’s Wife and The Makioka Sisters. I read them one after the other, because someone from school lent them to me. I noted that both depicted a stultifying preoccupation with women-as-chattels, TMS dealt with this in a sympathetic way but was overlong, and I found the kowtowing to men as feudal lords in TDW as weird and sickening. Would I be more perceptive and empathetic today? Who knows?
      That’s interesting about McKinney. Don’t you wish women would keep their own names!
      The kindle is too horrible for serious reading, for exactly the reasons you say. It’s the reason I left reading this one so late, because I didn’t have a physical book to place on my priority shelf, and I forgot all about it.


      • Ah, those comments are interesting Lisa. I think though that you need to see them in terms of when they were written. Think the treatment of Tess in Hardy. My reading of The doctor’s wife is that Ariyoshi was critiquing the gendered nature of society and the impact on the women. It would be interesting to see how you would read it today.

        I agree with you – of course, given I’ve kept mine – about women’s names but in fact Meredith McKinney did keep her own name. Her father was Jack McKinney. Judith Wright kept her own name too.

        I know what you mean about Kindle books and priority. Like you I have a priority shelf too and forget the Kindle books. Out of sight out of mind! I’m starting to think about a priority list rather than shelf.


        • Ah *smacks hand* I owe an apology to Ms McKinney! Good for her and all who stay with the name they’re born to!
          I try to have a priority list at GoodReads, but LOL I keep adding so many books to it that it becomes unmanageable.
          Re TDW and TMS, I think I wouldn’t have labelled them thus (and I’ve spared you the rest of what I wrote) if they’d been in the same league as Tess. I don’t know about you but I tend to forgive flaws in a novel if it’s basically engaging, and to pick on assorted things to complain about, if it’s not. I didn’t really need to go back to my journal to know that if they’d piqued my interest I would have read more by these authors, because I remember that there were others available and I had to invent excuses to avoid being lent more of them!
          Mind you, I haven’t given up on J-Lit entirely. I have Kokoro on my TBR and something else as well, though I can’t remember what it is right now…


          • Oh yes, I agree absolutely, re flaws. I was absolutely bowled over by The Makioka Sisters. It was a real eye-opener to me so I loved it and have never forgotten it. (I read it around 1992). The doctor’s wife was my third Ariyoshi and I mainly read it because I’d already read two of hers that I’d liked a lot. I read these three before I went to Japan, and The doctor’s wife after. I liked TDW less than the other two of hers I’d read, but was fascinated by the historical background. We often haven’t known what’s been happening in other parts of the world, so anglo-focused has our education been – and yet, there was a man working away on anaesthetics, particularly as I recollect for women with breast cancer, when women elsewhere were suffering horribly.

            I’ve read or heard of most of the J-Lit you’ve mentioned or reviewed but must say I’ve never heard of Kokoro. I’ll be intrigued to see what you think as I have no idea how s/he writes!


            • ‘Kokoro’ is another by Natsume Soseki, one of his later (and most famous) novels. I actually enjoy his mid-career works, like ‘Kusamakura’ and ‘Sanshiro’, as they keep the youthful exuberance and begin to introduce deeper themes. The later books are a lot more serious in tone, and the early ones are fun but silly in parts ;)


              • Ah, I thought Kokoro was another author! Thanks for the elucidation!


    • P.S. I made the connection between Wright and McKinney in my recent review of Fiona Capp’s ‘My Blood’s Country’ :)


      • Ah, I haven’t read your review Tony – have been away for a couple of months and am catching up. I have that book in my priority pile but will still take some time to get to it.


  3. I come late to the discussion here. I have tried Japanese literature (in translation of course) and sometimes it works for me and sometimes it does not. Keeping the reader’s interest when the characters sometimes seem so remote from each other requires a very skillful author. One which I did enjoy and recommend is The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa,


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