“Learning that it is the earth on which we tread, we tread carefully, lest it be rent open. Realizing that it is the heavens that hang above us, we come to fear the echoing thunderbolt.”
Natsume Sôseki (né Natsume Kinnosuke in 1867) is the most enduringly read Japanese novelist of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). He is roughly characterized as the “Japanese Mark Twain” in part for his whimsical early work (and like Samuel Clemens, his views darkened with age). His 1906 sort-of novel is not at all like Innocents Aboard, or even his other 1906 autobiographical novel about a young would-be artist from Tokyo doing time in rural Japan, Botchan. (Kusamakura is not entirely devoid of humor, with some earthy characters the narrator meets around the place he tarries a week.)
Kusa Makura literally means The Grass Pillow, which in Japanese is a synecdoche for travel, “redolent of the kind of poetic journey epitomized by Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North” according to Meredith McKinney who translated the book anew (the earlier English version was titled The Three-Cornered World), leaving the title itself in Japanese. Sōseki called it a “haiku novel,” not because it is filled with haikus, but because it is short and attempted a haiku-like take on natural phenomena with no plot and no character development. The narrator is supposed to be a painter rather than a poet and muses on Japanese, Chinese and European painters, while quoting some Chinese and Japanese poets.
Kusamakura is set at the time of the Russo-Japanese war over Manchuria and the Yellow Sea (1904-05), a time when few Japanese were aimlessly traveling. Moreover, it seems to be out of tourist season at the remote and never particularly commercially motivated Nakoi mountain hot-spring inn,* where the narrator tarries, intrigued by Nami, the daughter of the owner, who was pressured to marry an urban banker rather than her local suitor and returned home after the collapse of the bank. The narrator thinks Nami looks like the Ophelia in an 1852 painting by Sir John Millais (reproduced as the first image accompanying this review; it is in the Tate Britain in London) though I find it difficult to imagine any Japanese woman looking like Millais’s floating corpse of Hamlet’s prospective spouse.
Nami remains mysterious to the narrator, even when her brother Kyûichi goes off to war by train (after she has told him to die for the fatherland, shocking their father, who wants his son to return victorious and clothed in glory).
The narrator, who like the author seems to have spent time in London, deplores industrialization and the loss of pastoral Japanese innocence (as much as evanescence was and remains a prime Japanese value). Sōseki’s subsequent novels focused on the contemporary “new” (post-shogunate) Japan.
McKinney explains that the “experiment” Sōseki undertook was “to explore just how and to what extent the serene beauty that was the artistic ideal of the past might be achievable in terms of twentieth-century Japanese consciousness and its artistic products. The lofty ‘inhuman’ and ‘nonemotional approach to which the artist aspires-the ideal of a cool and uninvolved aesthetic response to all experience-can only be compromised by experience itself.”
Though Sōseki invokes the aimlessness of Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, he/his narrator also espoused the romantic view that “the poet has an obligation to dissect his own corpse and reveal the symptom of its illness to the world” (albeit in 17-syllable bursts of haiku).
Though I was unable to make my way through the cutesy I Am Cat, and made it through Kusamakura, I prefer the genial humor about time as a teacher in the boondocks of Botchan and the urban melodrama of Kokoro to Kusamakura. For hot-springs fascination for a rural woman of somewhat dubious reputation by a Tokyo dilettante, I prefer Kawabata’s Snow Country (Yukiguni). And for travels longing for the old-fashioned rural Japan rapidly slipping away, I prefer Dazai Osamu’s Return to Tsunguru and Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea (or “the real thing”: Bashô!).
And Sôseki moved from the plotlessness of Kusamakura to the hypertrophy of plot in his next book, Autumn Wind (Nowak, 1907).
*In Dawn to the West, Donald Richie reports that the model for Nakoi was the Oama Hot Spring near Kunamoto… and notes that the novel has “little connection to traditional Japanese literature.”