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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Natsume Sōseki

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To purchase Kusamakura

Title: Kusamakura
Author: Natsume Sōseki
Genre: Novel
Written: 1906 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 153 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Kusamakura - US
Kusamakura - UK
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  • Japanese title: 草枕
  • Translated by Meredith McKinney
  • Previously translated, as The Three-Cornered World, by Alan Turney (1965)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing artist's-tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 2/3/2008 Donald Richie
TLS* . 27/5/1965 Anthony Thwaite

*: review of an earlier translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)hat happens is always less interesting than how it happens, or doesn't happen, and in reading Kusamakura the interest is always firmly in the how." - Donald Richie, The Japan Times

  • "The Three-Cornered World (originally published as Kusa-Makura -- "The Grass Pillow") is the first of his novels to appear in English. This is unfortunate, for it is an extreme work, not likely to endear itself to a western audience. The story itself is thin. (...) (I)t is difficult for the reader to adjust to the different demands made on him by a succession of close physical descriptions, elusive and intermittent plot, sententious moralizings, and what read in English like extremely banal nature verses." - Anthony Thwaite, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Kusamakura is narrated by a thirty-year-old artist, wandering about in the countryside and wondering about life and art. There isn't much tourist-traffic in the mountain area he's in, and he's the only guest at the resort he winds up at -- but the odd but striking (she "looks good, but she's a loony") daughter of the owner, Nami, manages to attract his attention there.
       There isn't much story in Kusamakura -- but then that's the way the narrator likes things to be in his art, too. One reason he's out here is that he's looking for the: "intriguingly otherworldly, that 'nonemotional' realm I aspire to" Indeed, his focus is intently on that nonemotional-notion -- not un-emotional, he's careful to emphasize, but truly non-emotional -- and even his way of falling in love is (he claims ) non-emotional. And, as he explains:

The way I read novels is nonemotional too, which is why the story doesn't matter. I find it interesting just to open up the book at random, like this, like pulling one of those paper oracles out of the box at a shrine, see, and read whatever meets the eye.
       And Kusamakura almost lends itself to such an approach, the meandering narrative filled as much with digression -- on art and the creating of art, especially -- as actually progressing in any traditional way.
       The narrator repeatedly describes his attempts at painting and writing poetry -- a process akin to stirring arrowroot gruel until it "will, of its own accord, positively rush to glue itself to your chopsticks", he says at one point. There are many references to artistic theory and artists (including Western ones from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and his Laoco÷n to Oscar Wilde), with discussion of everything from calligraphy and pottery to poetry.
       The narrator certainly is into detachment -- so too in his appreciation of most art, including his own:
You just take it as it's written. Once you start asking why, it all turns into detective work.
       And he certainly doesn't think anything of that:
The usual novels are all invented by detectives. There's nothing nonemotional about them -- they're utterly boring.
       This meandering (non-)tale is, indeed, largely observational. There are a variety of episodes, and occasionally even the narrator can't help himself from wondering what's behind certain actions and events (especially involving Nami); at one point he practically interrogates someone for further information (sounding very much like a detective at work). But while there are questions, there are few answers, definitive or otherwise. The narrator seems happy enough with his trial-and-error approach -- to art, to life.
       This novel was previously translated under the title The Three-Cornered World, which refers to another of the narrator's pet theories -- and explains his world-view: artists, he suggests, live:
in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call "common sense" has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit.
       That, too, is how he explains what is special about what artists create:
     For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it "romanticizing," but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It's just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to the common world; we are beset by obsessions with everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes -- and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his painting the splendor of the steam train, or an Ōkyo gives us the beauty of a ghost.
       Kusamakura is a novel of an artist trying to create, looking for inspiration, trying to reveal some 'scintillating radiance', but Sōseki doesn't force the issue. The narrator dabbles and scribbles, finding some inspiration but for the most part unable to get it just right. Yes, there's a satisfying concluding moment -- but even that is agreeably subdued: art, here does not shout from the mountain-tops.
       Kusamakura is like a meandering mountain-hike. The pleasures of the text are in the small details and shifts, the aperçus and the narrator's nonemotional (and occasionally emotional) thoughts. The setting and the somewhat quirky characters, and the loony tragic-beauty that is Nami, do, of course, help with the atmosphere, too.
       Certainly not for those readers looking for detective-work fiction, but if one is willing to just drift along, Kusamakura offers surprisingly many rewards.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 May 2010

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Kusamakura: 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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