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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography


John Nathan

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To purchase Sōseki

Title: Sōseki
Author: John Nathan
Genre: Biography
Written: 2018
Length: 273 pages
Availability: Sōseki - US
Sōseki - UK
Sōseki - Canada
Sōseki - India
  • Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist

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Our Assessment:

B : solid introduction to Sōseki's life and work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 3/8/2018 Eileen Battersby
Publishers Weekly . 5/2/2018 .
TLS . 10/8/2018 Eri Hotta

  From the Reviews:
  • "In addition to his scholarly advantages, Nathan writes with sympathy and devastating candour about the miserable, habitually unpleasant Soseki. (...) (W)ry and fluid (.....) Soseki and his world deserved an intuitive biography -- here it is." - Eileen Battersby, Financial Times

  • "Nathanís incisive portrait of Soseki as a troubled yet widely celebrated literary game changer (...) will likely drive new readers to his fiction." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Nathan, a master translator and a gifted storyteller, has made a deliberate choice not to delve into the existing academic literature. Rather, he paints a portrait of this singular man based mostly on primary sources, accompanied by convincing textual analyses of the novelist’s representative works. The result is an accessible account of a tortured, difficult and yet ultimately irresistible soul that is touching even to those who are not yet familiar with the pleasures of Sōseki’s writing." - Eri Hotta, 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:

       The subtitle of John Nathan's biography describes its subject as simply Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist, and while there might be some debate about that, there's no denying that Natsume Sōseki is the foundational figure of modern Japanese literature -- significant and influential even to this day -- and certainly among the greatest.
       Born in 1867, Sōseki was a child of the Meiji Restoration, which also saw the continued opening of Japan to Europe and the United States, and the spread of the Western novel, a marked shift from long-standing Japanese literary traditions. And, as Nathan quotes the author, from the first Sōseki wanted to be both immersed in that novel tradition as well as write in reaction to it:

My goal as a student was vague; I knew only that I wanted to master English and English literature and to write important literary works that would astound Westerners.
       (Not that Sōseki moved entirely away from Japanese forms and writing either: Nathan notes he wrote some two thousand haiku over his lifetime, though regrettably few that aren't part of his novels appear to be accessible in English, a (large) part of his output that is too-little known outside Japan.)
       Nathan's biography is very much a birth-to-death study, rarely straying far from Sōseki's side and concluding, almost abruptly, with the author's death: the book's closing words acknowledge that: "Sōseki's death knell still reverberates in Japan" -- but Nathan doesn't go into much detail about the nature of the author's influence and legacy over the past century since his death. Indeed, aside from some discussion of other authors' -- notably Mizumura Minae's -- efforts to complete the novel Sōseki left unfinished at his death, Light and Dark, there's relatively little consideration what Sōseki's mark has been on later Japanese authors and fiction.
       Even Sōseki's life remains, in part, obscure. Nathan opens not with Sōseki's birth but by noting that his early childhood was a surely confusing and "emotionally buffeting" one -- the poor child put up for adoption twice before he was even four. Even though these forms of adoption are more common in Japan, the psychological effect must still have been great.
       The discussion of Sōseki's school and university years -- and, later, his teaching years -- is also interesting for its insights into the Japanese educational system of the time. Meanwhile, Sōseki's infamous stay in London -- he was sent there in 1900 by the Ministry of Education, to "investigate English language pedagogical methods", and spent more than two miserable years there -- is a study in obsession and misery abroad, Sōseki finding that attending lectures didn't bring him much, and instead holing himself up much of the time and immersing himself in reading. He accumulated some four hundred books on his stay -- and even delayed his return in order to ensure the books would get home safely. Chronically short of money, and so unable to enjoy much of English life, it seems to have been an awful experience for him. (Oddly, he also didn't think greater interaction with the locals would help him improve his language skills.) For all that, when he returned it was -- at least in appearance -- as: "a caricature of a pretentious returnee from the West".
       When Sōseki broke through in the literary world, it was with a sudden, impressive rush: as Nathan puts it:
In December 1904, Sōseki's creative energy geysered, bearing him upward in the space of sixteen months into the empyrean of Japanese writers who were taken seriously. His output during the first act of his literary career went beyond prolific
       Beginning with the breakthrough work I am a Cat, Nathan is good both at chronicling the (often serialized) writing of the works, as well as describing them. One by one, the major works are presented in good depth.
       A major shift came with Sōseki abandoning his secure academic post and accepting a contract from the Asahi shinbun (newspaper) -- an unusual, almost shocking step, with Nathan helpfully chronicling some of the deliberations that went into this potentially risky decision. (Sōseki seems to have done well with the arrangement -- though it eventually cost his editor his job.) Sōseki's ambivalence about academic institutions is also evident from an odd episode in 1911 when the Education Ministry wanted to (and then insisted on) awarding him a D.Lit. degree. Sōseki tried to decline it -- leading to a messy back and forth, with Sōseki eventually even quite shockingly (especially for Japanese society) writing in one letter that he has been: "deeply offended by the minister".
       Among other interesting episodes is a fascinating little bit of Japanese publishing history from 1914, when Sōseki was also integral to the founding of publishing house Iwanami shoten, inaugurated with his Kokoro -- though, as Nathan amusingly describes, largely at Sōseki's own expense in: "what amounted to a self-publishing arrangement".
       Nathan describes Sōseki's poor health and life-threatening episodes in close detail too -- including then the death throes of Sōseki's final days. His difficult marriage -- exacerbated by Sōseki's unpredictable outbursts -- is reasonably well-covered, but Nathan struggles a bit in presenting Sōseki-as-family-man. A few memories of their father from some of Sōseki's many children suggests the complicated relationship he had, but there was surely more to explore here.
       Sōseki also was a mentor to many writers, and Nathan does give a good impression of his relationship with those that looked up to him. Particularly of interest is to see how supportive Sōseki was of young Akutagawa Ryūnosuke -- suggesting also what an eye for talent Sōseki had. From schooldays on, Nathan also points to Sōseki's possible homosexual inclinations in close relationships with various friends, but beyond discussing the often very suggestive language that could lead to such conclusions he seems a bit befuddled by the issue -- though noting that, unlike most every Japanese littérateur of the day, Sōseki didn't go in for keeping a mistress, and his eye doesn't seem to have strayed far, even as his marriage doesn't seem to have been a particularly happy one (and yet produced so many children ...).
       Sōseki's relationship with his wife is an odd one, but what Nathan relates of it is striking, from Sōseki's irritation about his wife's bad teeth and baldness to the occasional titbits such as his (long-distance) advice during one of her pregnancies, to: "stay away from novels and other reading that stimulates your emotions -- live a carefree life".
       So tightly focused on Sōseki himself, Nathan does fall a bit short of fully showing just how much the writer meant and means in Japan, beginning with the popular opinion and the reception of his work. The occasional mention -- The Poppy being "the most acclaimed novel of 1907", with the hardback edition selling out its entire five-thousand-copy printing before noon on the day of publication -- is intriguing, and more discussion would certainly have been welcome.
       The works of Sōseki available in English are included in Nathan's 'Selected Bibliography', but the book would have benefitted greatly from more clearly showing what is (and, equally importantly, isn't) available of Sōseki's work in English; as is, even those with some familiarity with his work may find it difficult to track it, or get a sense of what is still missing in English (a lot). With much of Sōseki's fiction based at least loosely on himself and his own experiences, Nathan does follow through on this quite well -- but it's still a bit difficult to get an overarching sense of his output from this study.
       A fine biographical work that also helpfully covers Sōseki's major works in quite good depth, Sōseki is a solid and interesting biography -- but one that still leaves the reader with many questions and eager to to learn more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 May 2018

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Sōseki: Reviews: Natsume Sōseki: John Nathan: Books by Natsume Sōseki under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John Nathan teaches at the University of California Santa Barbara. He was born in 1940.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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