Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Gate

The Gate - Natsume Soseki, tr. William F. Sibley, 1590175875

“To define is to kill. To suggest is to create,” said poet Stephane Mallarmé. In this bittersweet novel, Natsume Soseki suggests the quiet melancholy of a young couple, husband Sosuke  and wife Oyone. They have married for love in unconventional circumstances, which means in early 20th century Japan that they are paying a price beyond what fits the transgression. Past regrets for youthful passions and three terrible losses weigh on the couple. Their life proceeds generally without events, though other people, inescapable as usual, will impinge and demand attention.

Sosuke works at a tedious but exhausting job as a minor public functionary.  Feeling exactly like what he in fact is -- a little wheel in a vast machine that could fire him at any time -- Sosuke is so dissatisfied with life that he reaches out in friendship to his landlord, Sakai. He stretches out a little more and takes a retreat to practice Zen in Kamakura. Although he meets an inspiring monk, he does not, he feels, make any progress toward peace of mind.

I know, this novel sounds as if it has very unpromising material. But I’ve read this novel three times and respect it more deeply as I find myself in middle-age. The Japanese fondly revere Natsume Soseki (1867 - 1916) for his comic novel Botchan. While that novel is worth reading, his later sad novels help us see the beauty of art in the hopeless, delight-free lives of fictional characters. It’s magic.

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