The Gate by Natsume Soseki (Mon, 1910) translated from the Japanese by William F. Sibley (2012) NYRB Classics (2012) 256 pp
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 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.”
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.