Natsume Soseki: The Gate

It took me years and several viewings before I finally started to love the films of Yasujiro Ozu, one of the greatest directors ever. Coming from the perspective of someone raised on fast-paced action sequences, these films seemed unbearably slow. Nothing happened; indeed, the characters were actively avoiding activity. It seemed Ozu simply put the camera on a tripod and left while his actors had tea. Of course, there was something there, because I kept trying, and not just because people kept saying that Ozu was the master. Little by little, truly over years, I began to see the silent agony in these films, the kind of ever-present weight we labor under in real life as we go about our business, trying not to dwell on it. I knew nothing about Natsume Soseki or The Gate (Mon, 1910; tr. from the Japanese by William F. Sibley, 2012) when I began it, but within just a few pages I recognized and warmed up to the style as a man relaxes on the veranda and says to his wife, “Beautiful day, isn’t it.”

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

The man is Sosuke, a fairly low-level clerk who works hard and makes just enough to get by. The novel begins on a Sunday, his day off, and his wife, Oyone, suggests he take a stroll. Their conversation is broken up by long periods of silence; or, rather, the silence is broken up by brief moments of conversation. There is something that needs to be done: Sosuke has something unpleasant to discuss with his aunt, and he wants to do it via letter, though Oyone says a letter won’t cut it. Nevertheless, he decides at this point a letter is the right way forward and he goes out to take the tram to Tokyo for his stroll.

Little has happened, but going back and rereading it now I am struck by how much this simple scene set up the rest of the book. A lot is going on as the two communicate and the languor of the slow Sunday settles in.

The Gate takes place in the autumn of 1909. Only a generation before, Japan lived under a self-imposed policy of isolation that had been in place since the early 1600s. After over 250 years when no Japanese were permitted to leave the island and few foreigners could enter, in 1868 the doors opened again and the influence of the outside world began to penetrate. As Sosuke takes his stroll through Tokyo, we see him a bit frightened by the way his life is going.

Neither physically relaxed nor mentally at ease, he was in the habit of simply passing through these places in a daze and had not recently experienced even a moment’s awareness that he lived in a thriving metropolis. Normally, caught up as he was in the busyness of his daily routine, this did not bother him; but come Sunday, when granted the opportunity for relaxation, his workaday life would suddenly strike him as restless and superficial.

Sosuke has not completely embraced this change to Japanese society, though he was born a few years after the shift. We’ll later see that the rest of his family has embraced the West, has become successful, and holds out their success to cause him offense — in the most passive-aggressive manner thinkable. This all might not have been terrible had he felt at peace in the life he chose to live with Oyone.

As we move through The Gate, little by little we learn about the things not said, about why Sosuke and Oyone live on the fringe and in a state of ennui. We know that Sosuke’s family essentially despises him for having married Oyone notwithstanding their disapproval. She was a bad match. As the years have passed, even Oyone thinks they may have been correct; after all, the couple has not been able to have any children, a circumstance she thinks is punishment since she abandoned her previous husband to be with Sosuke.

The pressure builds (though, again, we don’t know this because the characters explicitly state it) when Sosuke’s little brother comes to them for help and Oyone begins to get sick.

It’s a powerful novel, and when I stand back and look at it I see that there is so much going on, so much conflict, so much tenderness and pain, and it’s all the more powerful as we watch Sosuke and Oyone do anything but talk about it.

As I mentioned above, I had not heard of Natsume Soseki before this book showed up in NYRB Classics’ catalog. It appears that this book is the third in a loosely structured trilogy and that many people think the others are even better. I didn’t need to hear that before I decided I needed to look into all of this author’s work, but it certainly is encouraging. It’s a high recommendation I give when I say a book made me want to go read everything else the author wrote.

10 thoughts on “Natsume Soseki: The Gate

  1. jb says:

    Just started this one myself, and 50 pages in, I’m struck by both how little and how much has happened. The backstory has been developed so well that I almost forgot it was backstory. It’s the sort of book you don’t want to rush through, but I am looking forward to getting to spend some more time with it tonight.

  2. stujallen says:

    I ve this lined up for tony’s J lit month in Jan ,sounds like one I’ll like although mine not the nyrb edition its the peter owen one

  3. Trevor says:

    jb, I hope you’ll return and let us know how you felt about the book in the end. I didn’t rush through it, either, taking about a week and a half to read it, which was perfect :) .

    Stu, I don’t know much about the Francis Mathy translation, but I loved this newer one by William Sibley. There are some notes here that mention it is a substantial step up from the older translation. Anxious to hear how you like it and the translation in due time.

  4. Trevor says:

    After a comment on The Mookse and the Gripes Facebook page, I did a little digging to see how easy it would be to pick up the other books in this trilogy as well as other Soseki books.

    The other two books in the series are Sanshiro (1908) and And Then (1909). Sanshiro is published by Penguin Classics (I love their books as well). And Then was published last year by Tuttle Classics (I don’t know them). Penguin Classics also publishes Kokoro (1914), which I have seen bandied around as Soseki’s best, and Kusamakura (1906); their edition of Botchan (1906) is coming out next March.

  5. Like Stu I’ll be reading this for Tony’s J-Lit reading challenge in January but I’ve actually got a copy of the NYRB edition. I’ve never read any Soseki before but the style sounds perfect for long winter nights. :)

  6. Isabel says:

    This novel is in my “to read” list also. Thanks for the review. I had a “feeling” it would be a worthy read.

  7. jb says:

    Like Trevor, finishing ‘The Gate’ made me want to check out the rest of Soseki’s catalogue (in English).

    I found Sosuke a wonderful central character – the flashback-y sections did a wonderful job of filling in his entire life, really. Part of me would’ve liked some more time spent on the very early part of their marriage, if only for more context on how badly separated from their respective families they were, but I also know that wasn’t really what this novel was about.

    And thanks for bringing up that it’s part of a trilogy of some sorts, which I learned here. Will certainly be looking for the other two soon…

  8. Roman Tsivkin (@Zenjew) says:

    Soseki’s Kusamakura (an older translation has it as “The Three-Cornered World”) is one of the most treasured novels in my collection. It’s billed as a “haiku novel” — a short novel that leaves the reader with much, much more than just the sum of its words. It somehow manages to penetrate into the artist’s — any creative artist’s — very mode of being. Can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve read other Soseki novels, and though I liked them all to various degrees, none seem to strike as deeply as that one.

  9. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the high recommendation, Roman. I have been trying to decide which of his books to read next, and I think you’ve just convinced me.

    Is the Meredith McKinney translation the one to get (the one published by Penguin Classics)?

  10. Roman Tsivkin (@Zenjew) says:

    Trevor, I have the older (1965) translation by Alan Turney. That’s the one whose title is “The Three Cornered World.” The translation’s a bit outdated and clunky in parts, but this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book at all. I heard good things about McKinney’s translation, though, and it’s probably more widely available than the older translation. I’ll probably end up reading her translation as well, as I really loved the book and am curious to see how this new version holds up. Just to whet your appetite, here’s a snippet:
    “Artists 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.”

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