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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Gate

Natsume Sōseki

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To purchase The Gate

Title: The Gate
Author: Natsume Sōseki
Genre: Novel
Written: 1910 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 224 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Gate - US
The Gate - UK
The Gate - Canada
The Gate - India
La porte - France
La puerta - España
  • Japanese title:
  • Translated by William F. Sibley
  • With an Introduction by Pico Iyer (NYRB Classics edition)
  • With an Introduction by Damian Flanagan (Peter Owen edition)
  • Previously translated by Francis Mathy, as Mon (1971); now also published as The Gate (Peter Owen)

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Our Assessment:

A- : beautiful sad story of withdrawn and isolated lives

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Sunday Times* . 30/1/1972 Julian Symons
TLS* . 7/4/1972 .
TLS . 20/12/2013 Lesley Downer
Wall Street Journal . 1/12/2012 Sam Sacks

* review refers to an earlier translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "This account of a life endured rather than lived is admirable. The basis for it, which turns out to be Sosuke's and Oyone's guilt about the betrayal of their friend Yasui, is far less convincing, and in fact barely comprehensible." - Julian Symons, The Sunday Times

  • "Mon is essentially a character study of Sosuke (.....) Soseki has a less certain touch with his other characters, whose function is primarily to point the psychological problems facing Sosuke." - Times Literary Supplement

  • "This is a jewel of book, economically written, in which every element fits perfectly. (...) Sibley's excellent translation includes detailed notes and an introduction by Pico Iyer, setting the whole delicate story, with its unspoken but intensely felt emotion, in the context of everyday Japanese life." - Lesley Downer, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Gate (...) will test your patience with its detailed studies in ennui. But, in the end, it rewards; Soseki had a genius for sensitively depicting souls in torment. (...) The key to Soseki, however, is that his characters are slow to act but not to feel or perceive." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Gate centers on the Nonakas, the still relatively young and childless married couple Sōsuke and Oyone, together for the past six years. In some respects they are a model couple, completely devoted to one another, but this and the weight of the past has also isolated them. Practically without family -- Sōsuke has a brother in the middle of his studies who is ten years his junior, while it: "had proved impossible for them to enter into close relations with the Saekis", their only remaining close relatives -- they are practically an island unto themselves, even though they live in metropolitan Tokyo:

The only absolute need to be fulfilled for each of them was the need for each other; this was not only a necessary but also sufficient condition for life. They dwelled in the city as though dwelling deep in the mountains.
       They have their simple routines and mutual understanding. Sōsuke has a job, but he seems to wander through that as through much of life; the novel's perspective remains almost entirely domestic, with barely a glimpse of his day-to-day working routine. Expanding from the close description of Sōsuke and Oyone's daily activity, Sōseki only slowly reveals how they've reached this point. With Koroku -- Sōsuke's brother's -- future suddenly a concern, the very humble conditions the couple live in are also made clear -- as is how they've been taken advantage of, by the Saekis (Sōsuke's uncle clearly having enriched himself when Sōsuke's father passed away) and others.
       The reason behind the Nonakas' resignation and withdrawal isn't spelled out until well into the novel, but hints are dropped along the way. For one, Sōsuke is a changed man, affected and haunted by something that happened. As his aunt remarked:
He wasn't always this subdued. He used to be so full of life -- too lively, in fact, for his own good. And no, over the past few years since we last saw him, he's aged so much I hardly know him.
       Clear from the first is that Sōsuke now goes out of his way to avoid any sort of confrontation -- a character-trait that repeatedly leaves him in a position worse off than he could or should be. The supportive Oyone goes entirely along with this, and so their fate seems sealed. Sōsuke even goes so far as to avoid mentioning possible sources of confrontation (much less discussing how to possibly deal with them with anyone), and when, for example, faced with the possibility of running into someone significant from their past he really immediately thinks:
the most prudent course for the couple would be to vacate their rented house immediately and move somewhere else.
       Indeed, they have already previously tried escape as one way to leave their past behind, but it remains always with them. Initially:
the couple had gone off to Hiroshima, where they continued to suffer. Then they went to Fukuoka. There, too, they suffered. Returning to Tokyo, they remained weighed down by the crushing burden of their past.
       Eventually, the nature of that burden is revealed, a betrayal of sorts that continues to haunt them. The couple seems to feel their misery -- of relative poverty and social isolation -- is deserved, and are unable to move beyond it; the fact that they have tragically been unable to have children, though Oyone has been pregnant several times, is just another part of the burden they bear. A chance encounter suddenly finds them on friendlier terms with their gregarious landlord, but even that only improves their situation slightly.
       Eventually, Sōsuke flees to go on a zen-retreat. Avoidance is his favorite tactic, but having to face his issues at the temple he finds himself incapable of embracing even the solutions proffered there; it is from this episode that the novel's title comes, as Sōsuke finds himself yet again unable to take action, to go through the metaphoric gate. As always, he finds himself: "stranded, without resources or recourse", his destiny something he finds he does not have the strength to influence or alter.
       The Gate is a lively if often terribly sad character-study. Some readers apparently find it slow going, as the narrative follows Sōsuke's rather aimless meanderings, but it's actually a novel full of tensions and action. (Pico Iyer's Introduction is ridiculously titled: 'Sōseki and the Art of Nothing Happening'; The Gate may not be 'action-packed' in the traditional sense, but it bubbles and seethes with activity, with an amazing amount going on, and it unfolds at a very good clip -- it's never less than riveting.) With Sōseki holding back the events that shaped the couple's lives and led them here, even as he presents how, for example, the Saekis have taken advantage of them, and with the somewhat pressing problem of what to do about Koroku requiring more immediate attention, the narrative maintains a consistent level of tension -- wonderfully contrasted with Sōsuke's lost-in-his-own-world sense of calm.
       Sōsuke and Oyone's inability to move on can be frustrating, but Sōseki remains remorseless in his presentation of their fate (as best seen in how he doesn't let them have kids). It does not offer a redemptive story-arc complete with happy ending, yet the novel is elegantly whole -- shaped in the tradition of German fairy tales, that don't conclude: 'and they lived happily ever after' but rather: 'and if they haven't died, then they're still alive today' ('und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute').
       Ineffably sad, but a beautiful piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 December 2012

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The Gate: Reviews: Natsume Sōseki: Other books by Natsume Sōseki under review: Books about Natsume Sōseki under review:
  • John Nathan's Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       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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