A biography of one of the most celebrated writers of modern Japan.
Novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is beloved in his homeland but not very well known beyond. Nathan (Japanese Cultural Studies/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, 2008, etc.), an Emmy Award–winning documentary filmmaker, hopes to change that with this comprehensive and discerning biography. Adopted twice as a child, Soseki’s early years were difficult, and Nathan suggests that this contributed to the “misanthropy that darkens his writings.” A bright student, he did well in school and began teaching English after college. In 1900, his success earned him a position to study in England, where he immersed himself in reading all the English writers of the time, especially Henry James. Soseki then replaced the fired American writer Lafcadio Hearn at Tokyo Imperial University and began a prolific writing career. At 38, despite severe physical and mental illness suffered throughout his life, Soseki struck out on his own to fashion a new kind of literature, one that bears comparison to the works of Balzac, Dickens, and Proust in its scope and attention to the human condition. His first novel, I Am a Cat (1904), a “self-lacerating portrait of the author,” was serialized in a newspaper, a common practice in Japan. Nathan argues that this “mordantly comic,” satirical, featuring a cat as narrator, clearly shows the influence of Tristram Shandy. In 1907, The Poppy was serialized in Japan’s largest newspaper, with “a potential audience of 500,000 readers.” Newsboys would press papers into people’s hands and shout, “Soseki’s Poppy in these pages!” The 700-page Light and Dark, his final, unfinished novel, about “urban life among the emergent bourgeoisie on the eve of World War I,” is a “landmark in twentieth-century Japanese fiction.” The book features all-new translations by Nathan.
A revealing portrait of a writer who deserves a new audience.