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I am a Cat
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B+ : sprawling and uneven but good fun
See our review for fuller assessment.
[* review of an earlier translation]
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
"I am a cat" are the opening words of the first chapter of this novel, and it is said cat ("As yet I have no name" is the follow-up sentence, and that remains the case for the rest of the novel) that acts as narrator here.
Originally just a story -- the first Sōseki wrote --, this first chapter proved so popular that he was convinced to write further installments (ten more chapters in all) -- early practice for his later career as serial-newspaper-novelist --, which were then collected, making for this very loose sort of novel .
If we want to eat, we eat; if we want to sleep, we sleep; when we are angry, we are angry utterly; when we cry, we cry with all the desperation of extreme commitment to our grief. Thus we never keep things like diaries. For what would be the point ?Indeed, it maintains: "Had I the time to keep a diary, Iíd use that time to better effect; sleeping on the veranda". Yet as it eventually has to admit: "Though but a cat, I am not quite as other cats" -- and, indeed, here it is not like other cats, giving a close account of what it sees and hears and thinks ..... Observant, opinionated, and often bewildered by the behavior of humans, this cat's-eye-level perspective allows Sōseki to poke fun at a variety of human foibles -- and at himself.
As a young, desperate kitten looking for food and shelter the narrator had found its way to a household from which, however, "O-san, the servant-woman" kept flinging it out; it persevered and when it came to the attention of the master he decided it should be allowed to stay. (The master remains pretty much the only one who takes to the cat once it is installed in the household; it never becomes the kids' pet, for example, and: "if I do commit so much as the smallest mischief, the entire household unites to chase me around and persecute me".) The master of the house is, at first, only referred to as 'my master', as the first chapter, in particular, is meant to show life from a distinctly feline perspective, with matters such as mere humans' names completely incidental; only in the third chapter is the master revealed to be named 'Mr. Sneaze'.
An English teacher ("his teaching specializes in an English Reader or something like that"), Mr. Sneaze is clearly based closely on the author himself. Married, with three young children, the family lives in 1905 (the thirty-eighth year of the Meiji Era) Tokyo in genteel poverty; one chapter features a burglary in which the thief makes off with a heavy box he presumably believes to hold great riches but holds nothing more than yams (but is still close to the most valuable thing he could have made off with ...).
Sneaze is a scholar of sorts. He does not appear to be an enthusiastic teacher ("inoffensive, salary-shackled, a man designed by nature for schoolboys to torment in total safety"), but he is certainly bookish -- or wants to appear that way, though as the cat notes, for example, he rarely makes any inroads in the book he invariably takes to bed with him. As, at its more generous, the cat suggests:
However, he does possess (though it is a pitiably small example) that sine qua non of any writer or scholar, a study. In addition, though he is normally to be found asleep in front of it, he does actually spend much of his time with some difficult book propped up before his nose. One must accordingly regard him as a person of at least the scholarly type.And (less generously):
As soon as he comes home from school, he shuts himself up in the study for the rest of the day; and he seldom emerges. The others in the house think that he is terribly hard-working. He himself pretends to be hard-working. But actually he works less hard than any of them think. [...] Nevertheless he is an enormous gormandiser. After eating a great deal, he takes some taka-diastase for his stomach and, after that, he opens a book. When he has read a few pages, he becomes sleepy. He drools onto the book. This is the routine religiously observed each evening.Yet, as Mrs. Sneaze complains, there's no denying his book-obsessedness:
He has no secret vices, but he is totally abandoned in the way he buys book after book, never to read a single one. I wouldnít mind if he used his head and bought in moderation, but no. Whenever the mood takes him, he ambles off to the biggest bookshop in the city and brings back home as many books as chance to catch his fancy. Then, at the end of the month, he adopts an attitude of complete detachment. At the end of last year, for instance, I had a terrible time coping with the bill that had been accumulating month after month.While the cat initially roams a bit in the neighborhood and makes the acquaintance of other cats -- who suggest, for example, that: "we, the cat-race, must engage in total war upon all humans. We have no choice but to exterminate them" (which the narrator admits: "I think it is a very reasonable proposition") -- it then mostly settles down very domestically (finding itself having: "graduated from felinity to humanity"), its account largely limited to what it sees and overhears in the Sneaze-household, and remains focused on the humans that live there and those that come by. (Early on already it decides it won't contribute even as rat-catcher -- though eventually it does give rat-hunting a brief go.)
Beginning very much from a cat's perspective -- focused also on some feline activity -- the novel then comes to focus more on the human-world. The narrator observes its master, and to get in the workings of his mind Sōseki has it cite some passages from Sneaze's diary -- making it easier to slip human thoughts into the narrative. Much of the novel then is dialogue, between family and visitors, and the cat gains further insight through familiarity -- claiming, for example: "long experience has given me a certain facility in decoding my masterís thoughts as expressed in vile puns and twisted references to Japanese provincial slang and the mustier tracts of Western scholarship". Eventually, Sōseki realizes that part of the narrative has veered off too deeply into the human's perspective -- and comes up with the (hitherto unrevealed) lame excuse that the cat is even nore insightful than anyone suspected:
Quite apart from the precision of my hearing and the complexity of my mind, I can also read thoughts.Fortunately, he isn't too insistent about this, and the novel (re)turns to the more conventional form of largely recording and commenting on overheard conversations and scenes.
Sneaze has several friends who regularly drop in to chat, notably former pupil Avalon Coldmoon who is still pursuing his studies (working on a thesis on: 'The Effects of Ultraviolet Rays upon Galvanic Action in the Eyeball of the Frog' -- which involves the grinding down of glass balls to just the right shape, something that continues to elude him) and is one of the suitors of neighboring girl Opula Goldfield, as well the aesthete Waverhouse (who is described by one person as being: "as light and flossy as goldfish food floating around on a pond"). These two each have their distinctive styles and concerns, making for amusing babbling about a variety of subject matters -- and sniping about any number of folks who also figure in the story.
The action is fairly limited, even beyond the cat's own small adventures. One section has Sneaze trying to deal with the constant intrusion of ill-mannered students from the neighboring school who keep hitting baseballs onto the property and coming to retrieve them -- an annoyance whether they come without asking or then also when they do always ask for permission. The night-time burglary (of the yams, etc.) is one of the incidents that is actually returned to much later in the story, the burglar eventually caught and Sneaze then asked to come down to the police station to collect the stolen goods. Sneaze also gets drawn into the affairs of the neighboring Goldfield-family, and Coldmoon's vying for Opula's hand -- a storyline that is also returned to, with a surprising outcome. Among the other, smaller storylines: the struggle (personal rather than pecuniary) to purchase a violin and the writing of a haiku-play (both of these also Coldmoon-adventures) .....
Mostly, however, Sōseki has fun with the various types and their opinions, and lets them make fools of themselves in the eyes of the cat (and, often enough, each other as well -- they don't take each other all too seriously either). Various of Sōseki's preöccupations are also addressed here, from an obsession with baldness to his opinions about things such as marriage and family (more a burden than a joy). Low-hanging fruit is picked off -- "their clothing is so demonstrably all-important to them that one may reasonably wonder whether human beings are clothes, or clothes are the current acme of the evolutionary process", for example, or fussing over hair:
Since, willy-nilly, it grows, I would have thought it simplest and best for any creature just to leave it alone. But no. Not for humans. Totally unnecessarily, they trick themselves out in every conceivable sort and kind of hair-do. And even take pride in their idiot variations.Of course, much discussion involves the philosophical and literary -- nominally Sneaze and Waverhouse's areas of expertise. Yet for all their supposed high-minded intellectual pretensions, the main trio seem to the cat clearly:
like hermits in a peaceful reign. Though they adopt a nonchalant attitude, keeping themselves aloof from the crowd, segegrated like so many snake-gourds swayed lightly by the wind, in reality they, too, are shaken by just the same greed and worldly ambition as their fellow men.The cat's put-downs of its (Sōseki-like) master are enjoyable -- but harsh. If Sneaze can judge -- in a fit of misguided self-confidence --: "As I see it, Sainte-Beuve and I, considered as scholars, are of roughly the same standard", the cat isn't quite convinced:
Of course inside his skull, deep below the dandruff, universal truths may be spinning around in a shower of fiery sparks like so many Catherine Wheels. Itís possible but, judging from his external appearance, not likely even in oneís wildest imaginings.Indeed, by the end -- when Sneaze himself calls his thinking into question ("Iíve been accepting lunacy as the norm, and Iíve been measuring myself by the wonky standards of insanity") -- the cat sums up:
He lacks the brain power to think through a problem. Any problem. In any field. Heís a poor old blithering mutt.And if the self-flagellation isn't (obvious) enough, Sōseki even throws himself directly into the fray, one of the characters complaining:
Only the other day some fellow with a name like Sōseki published a short story entitled ĎA Single Night.í But itís so vague that no one could make head or tail of it. I eventually got hold of the man and questioned him very seriously about the real meaning of his story. He not only refused to give any explanation, but even implied that, if the story happened in fact to have any meaning at all, he couldnít care less. His attitude was, I think, typical of a modern poet.Some of the debates and opinions are interesting -- though they tend to be taken to extremes, such as that about suicide, the argument escalating to the suggestion that: "the study of suicide will have replaced ethics as a compulsory subject" at middle schools, and:
within a thousand years everyone will be doing it, and I am prepared to bet that in ten thousand years time nobody will even think of death except in terms of suicide.Some literary debates sneak in as well -- notably the argument that:
No one at all will read your poems. Not because the poems are yours and you are a bad poet, but because individuality has intensified to such an extent that anything written by other people holds no interest for anyone. This stage of the literary future is already evidenced in England where two of their leading novelists, Henry James and George Meredith, have personalities so strong and so strongly reflected in their novels that very few people care to read them.And, indeed, (Sōseki-cum-)the cat suggests at one point:
All studies undertaken by human beings are always studies of themselves. The proper study of mankind is self.As a study of (his) self, I am a Cat is certainly highly critical -- though tongue enough in cheek not to merely be a self-battering. Through the vessel of the cat, Sōseki gives himself the necessary distance -- to make it bearable (and also quite amusing) -- though it's also then hard to ignore what he does with that vessel in the story's somewhat abrupt and certainly dark conclusion.
The serialized text feels somewhat cobbled together. Sōseki does manage to weave storylines across the chapters, but they vary in style and focus -- the young writer still experimenting with styles and approaches. It makes for an uneven, inconsistent text -- though not necessarily in (just) a bad way. Indeed, part of the fun is in the different ways the story -- and telling -- goes, right down to the (too brief) appearance of: "another cat, some German mog called Kater Murr, who suddenly turned up and started sounding off in a very high-falutiní manner on my own special subject", E.T.A. Hoffmann's famous tomcat.
There are some sparkling moments and episodes too -- and the story closes with some superb writing, the memorable account of the narrator's end.
Over-full, and pulled in rather many directions (and that often somewhat aim- and even list-lessly), I am a Cat is, for better and worse, unpolished and uneven. It is good fun, however -- and offers interesting insight into the author and his life, and intellectual life in Japan in those times.
The translation does reasonably well with Sōseki's expression -- though the tendency to opt for Anglicisms "before you could say Jack Robinson" is a bit pronounced ..... So too the name-selections can grate: Waverhouse (for 迷亭), Avalon Coldmoon (for 水島 寒月 (Mizushima Kangetsu)), 'Opula' for what is Tomiko in the Japanese -- as well as characters such as 'Lancelot Yore' and 'Beauchamp Blowlamp'. Arguably, the English names selected are in keeping with the spirit and tone of the book, but they seem a bit much and feel a bit out of (Japanese) place here.
An unusual work, and far from a neat novel, I am a Cat remains well worthwhile. It is both enjoyable and fun -- and there are quite a few splendid bits.
- M.A.Orthofer, 9 November 2018
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Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石; actually: Natsume Kinnosuke) lived 1867 to 1916 and was the leading Japanese author of the Meiji era.
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