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Masters of Doing Nothing at All’

Favrod Collection/Raccolte Museali Fratelli Alinari, Florence
Unknown artist: View of a Road with Wooden Houses on the Hill of Noge, Near Yokohama, circa 1900; from the book Japanese Dream, a collection of late-nineteenth-century hand-tinted photographs by Felice Beato and others. It has just been published by Hatje Cantz.

Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too. There are few emphases in spoken Japanese—the aim is to remain as level, even as neutral, as possible—and in a classic work like The Tale of Genji, as one recent translator has it, “The more intense the emotion, the more regular the meter.” As in the old-fashioned England in which I grew up—though more unforgivingly so—an individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away. That the relation of surface to depth is uncertain is part of the point; it offers a degree of protection and lets you be yourself. The fewer words are spoken, the easier it is to believe you’re standing on common ground.

One effect of this careful evenness—a maintenance of the larger harmony, whatever is happening within—is that to live in Japan, to walk through its complex nets of unstatedness, is to receive a rigorous training in attention. You learn to read the small print of life—to notice how the flowers placed in front of the tokonoma scroll have just been changed, in response to a shift in the season, or to register how your visitor is talking about everything except the husband who’s just run out on her. It’s what’s not expressed that sits at the heart of a haiku; a classic sumi-e brush-and-ink drawing leaves as much open space as possible at its center so that it becomes not a statement but a suggestion, an invitation to a collaboration.

The viewer or reader has to supply much of the meaning to a scene, and so the colorless surfaces again advance a sense of collusion, which in turn leads to a kind of intimacy (“Kyoto is lovely, isn’t it?” is one of the central emotional sentences in the novel The Gate, written in 1910 by the much-admired novelist Natsume Soseki.1 The response of the other leading character, quintessence of Japan, is to think to himself, “Yes, Kyoto was lovely indeed”). For the visitor who has just arrived in the country of conflict avoidance, the innocent browser who’s just picked up a twentieth-century Japanese novel, it means that the first impression may be of scrupulous blandness, an evasion of all stress, self-erasure. For those who’ve begun to inhabit this world, it means living in a realm of detonations, under the surface and between the lines.

Soseki’s main characters are masters of doing nothing at all. They abhor action and decision as scrupulously as Bartleby the scrivener does with his “I prefer not to”; the drama in their stories nearly always takes place within, in secrets revealed to or by them. This creed of doing nothing is a curious one in a country that seems constantly on the move, but in Soseki’s world doing nothing should never be mistaken for feeling too little or lacking a vision or doctrine.

Turn to his often overlooked novel The Gate, for example (a new translation of which came out in December from New York Review Books2), and you see that its central events include a character who falls terrifyingly ill, only for no terrible drama to follow; a long-feared reunion that never takes place; and a search for spiritual revelation that reveals very little. Again and again the author stresses that his protagonists—the couple Sosuke and Oyone, sharing a small house in Tokyo at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the book was written—inhabit “mundane circumstances,” as befits those who are “lackluster and thoroughly ordinary to begin with.”

But look closer and you see how much is happening between the spaces and in the silences. To take an example almost at random, Chapter 5 begins with Sosuke’s aunt, much discussed but always somewhere else, finally visiting his house, and exchanging pleasantries—you could call them platitudes—with her nephew’s wife. Nothing could be more ordinary or without effect. Yet notice that the aunt’s first comment is about how unnaturally “chilly” the room is, and recall that the external temperature, and especially the slow change of the seasons, are always telling us something about mood and tone in this book. Part of the point of the novel is that it begins in autumn, takes us through the dark and cold of winter, and ends, in its final passage, with the arrival of spring.

We also learn, in the chapter’s opening paragraphs, that Sosuke’s aunt (on whom his welfare seems to depend) looks strikingly young for her age; we’ve already been told that Sosuke—as his aunt likes to stress—looks unreasonably old for his. We read that Sosuke ascribes his aunt’s healthy appearance to her having only one child, yet even that thought underlines the fact that he and Oyone have none. As the laughter of kids drifts down from the landlord’s house up the embankment—the location itself is no coincidence and sounds coming in from outside are at least as important here as the words that are never exchanged—Sosuke’s wife can’t help feeling “empty and wistful.” The aunt then says that she owes the couple an apology—which conspicuously prevents her from actually offering one—and refers pointedly to her son’s graduation from university (since Sosuke, we’ve already been told, owes much of his present predicament to having dropped out).

The whole scene might be taking place around me, every hour, in the modern Western suburb of the eighth-century Japanese capital, Nara, where I’ve been living for twenty years. “Oh, you look so well,” a woman says to another outside the post office, emphasizing, with a craft worthy of a Jane Austen character, that she didn’t before, and might not be expected to now. “It’s only because I have so little to worry about,” the other will respond, to put the first one in her place. “It’s hot, isn’t it?” the first will now say, perhaps to suggest that nothing lasts forever. “Isn’t it?” says the second, and no observer could find any evidence for the combat that’s just been concluded.

As Sosuke’s aunt, in The Gate, goes on about how her son is getting into “com-buschon engines,” and on his way to profits so “huge” they could ruin his health, she’s drawing attention to the money she’s not giving to Sosuke, the success of her son by comparison—and, in Meiji Japan, the fact that her son is eagerly taking on the Western and the modern world, and not stuck in his Japanese ways, or the past, as Sosuke seems to be. Sosuke himself, meanwhile, is characteristically absent, at the dentist’s office, taking care of a problem that his wife ascribes to age.

A magazine he picks up in the dentist’s waiting room is called Success, and extols the furious movement that is exactly what seems closed to him. He reads therein a Chinese poem, about drifting clouds and the moon, and finds himself at once moved by the realm of changeless acceptance and natural calm it describes, yet excluded from its quietude as well. When the dentist appears—he, too, has a “youthful-looking face” despite his thinning hair—he tells Sosuke that his teeth are rotting and his condition “incurable.” He then removes a “thin strand” of nerve. Back home, Sosuke picks up a copy of Confucius’s Analects before going to sleep, but they have “not a thing” to offer him.

Nothing much has happened, you might say, if you consider the seven pages that have just passed. But we’ve learned more about Sosuke, his anxiety, his relations with his aunt, his premature sense of decay, and his (and his culture’s) inability to commit themselves either to Success or to the culture of old China than any amount of drama could provide. Everything is there, if only you can savor the ellipses.

Literary critics will tell you that Soseki was almost unique among the writers of his day because he was sent on a Japanese Ministry of Education program to live in England at the age of thirty-three, and brought back from his two years there an even more pronounced taste for the nineteenth-century English fiction he’d already mastered at home. They will remind you that he was born in 1867, a year before the Meiji Restoration changed the face of Japan, and released it from more than two hundred years of self-imposed isolation (since 1635 or so, it had been illegal for any Japanese to leave the nation). They will observe that he became the defining novelist of the Meiji Period in part because he embraced in his life the central question of the day, which was how his country could combine “Japanese spirit, Western technology,” trying to elide through slogan-making what could be whole centuries of differences. The great novelists who would follow later in the century—Yasunari Kawabata, Junichiro Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima—would all, in their different ways, be writing about how Japan had already lost its integrity and its soul to the West.

Soseki’s time in London was famously miserable—he felt himself “a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves” and almost lost his mind among what seemed to him cold people and strange customs—but after his return to Japan, he took over Lafcadio Hearn’s position teaching English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, the country’s Harvard (and Soseki’s alma mater, where he had been only the second Japanese to graduate in English literature). He left the university in 1907, after a series of nervous breakdowns, and then published nearly all his fourteen novels in nine years before dying in Tokyo, where he had been born, at forty-nine, in 1916, four years after the Meiji Period ended. He dabbled in stream-of-consciousness narratives, Arthurian tales, satires, detective stories, and travel pieces, yet even the titles of his books (such as Sorekara, or And Then) often stress the fact of nothing happening.

A little as his life story suggests, the man himself seems at once profoundly Japanese and something of a rebel; over and over in his books we meet a quiet maverick who, because of some moment of passion that he feels he must spend his life atoning for, has all but opted out of society, and abandoned every trace of initiative. His withdrawal from action marks him as a failure in Japanese terms, but it may also suggest his deference to the workings of fate, or “karmic retribution,” as the protagonist puts it in The Gate—and even a pride at not participating in a world of ambition and exploitation. Soseki’s wounds are never far from the surface of his books—the hovering around a gate through which his characters will never pass, figures in dire financial straits with holes in their shoes and leaking ceilings, an obscure sense that there is “guilt in loving.” His characters defect from Japanese society without quite arriving anywhere else.

The Gate, for example, puts us into its prevailing mood—and theme—from its first paragraph. A man is lying on his veranda in the autumn light of a regular Sunday, and very quickly we are in the relaxed, undramatic world of day-to-day life, while also feeling an edge to things, allied perhaps to that character’s “case of nerves.” The novel seems to delight in casual descriptions of Tokyo in 1909—we hear the “clatter of wooden clogs” in the street, see the ads in a streetcar (“WE MAKE MOVING EASY”), read of posters advertising a new movie based on a Tolstoy story. But of course none of these details is casual, and all intensify the sense of restlessness and regret that seems to haunt the man on his veranda. The more Sosuke keeps insisting on how his is a life of no consequence, the more we may wonder what all this deliberate stasis is concealing.

  1. 1

    “Natsume” is in fact the writer’s family name, and “Soseki” a pen name he took on, derived from the Chinese term for “stubborn.” In Japan he is always and only known as “Natsume Soseki,” in the classic Japanese way of using the family name first. More modern writers—such as Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, and Haruki Murakami—are more easily, as here, referred to in the Western order, with their family name last. 

  2. 2

    The translation is by William F. Sibley; this essay appears in slightly different form as an introduction. 

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