Reading Soseki: A memoir

A few weeks ago, I read Soseki’s Natsume’s Grass on the Wayside; I needed a reboot on the space Soseki’s fiction was occupying in my brain after that Francis Mathy translation debacle. Given what Soseki has been to me, I couldn’t let that horrid memory of literary neglect and abuse linger too long; it wouldn’t have been fair, either to me or to the memory of Soseki Natsume.

Grass on the Wayside was, I think, well translated by Edwin McClellan; at least, it read like a book penned by a thoughtful and talented person, as it was. No horrific grammatical errors or outrageously nonsensical images jumped out at me. I admired it a great deal while I was reading it but it didn’t make a lasting impression.

I don’t think this is the fault of either author or translator. As the first, or one of the first, truly autobiographical novels written in Japan–and by one of my favourite authors, at least at one point–this should have been of extra interest to me. And it was, at least theoretically. Soseki pulled off the unlikely feat of making the life of a published author look hellish and almost without reward with grace and elegance. Thoughtful, careful, quietly but precisely described details of a day-to-day lived under the horror of an insufficient income. Trying to provide for an increasingly large and deeply unhappy family–well, at points, it was actually too acutely observed and became too painful to read except in small segments. I think I’m forgetting it in order to protect my psyche. Gutless, I know.

But this isn’t meant to be a review of this novel per se. Rather, reading it, in such close proximity to The Gate, I’ve been thinking about where my relationship with Soseki began and where it’s going.

I discovered Soseki about 10 years ago, while on a trip to Toronto to see my then boyfriend, now husband; I was living in Kingston, dying the death of doubt and overwork that epitomizes doing a PhD. We were downtown one night, at a lovely and perfect bookstore that has since been swallowed up in this city’s increasingly less bookish concerns, and I saw I Am a Cat on display.

I bought it because of the title and the picture. Yes, really. I like cats. It wasn’t an insipid rendition of a cat. I will further embarrass myself and tell you honestly that had this very same title and cover not been accompanied by a Japanese author’s name, I would never have considered it. That it was in Pages (rather than in a Giant Book Sale next to 20 remaindered copies of She’s Come Undone) sealed the deal.

Luckily, my vapid and cringe-worthy (hopefully now discarded) combination of crazycatladyism and exoticization of foreign cultures paid off: I Am a Cat is a hilarious, mean, silly, brilliant, and intelligent satire on people and their adorable tendency towards self-importance. It got me through a great deal of the stress of writing my doctoral thesis proposal by making me laugh out loud at least once a day while I was reading it.

The quality of the translation? I actually don’t know. I’d read very little in translation at that point, and so didn’t have much of a frame of comparative reference. More importantly, perhaps, I was at that mental stage in my doctoral studies in which I judged my reads almost exclusively by whether or not they’d be useful. Soseki was not, of course, part of my research–indeed, he was part of my conscious and constant refusal to read only for work’s sake–but looking back now, it’s pretty obvious that my research state of mind was bleeding into my reading for fun.

This makes me a little sad. It makes me a little sad because I wonder how much my love of I Am a Cat was simply recognition of its usefulness, even though I would never be called upon to think about it or talk about it or write about it in the same way I thought, talked, and wrote about Shakespeare, and Marlowe, and Kyd. In that frame of mind, quality of writing mattered very little in comparison to the possibilities of interpretation, comparison, contextualization. How else could I have made Isabella Whitney an integral part of my work, for eff’s sake? The woman was awful. But damn, her painful bloody doggerel was useful to my project.

It makes me a little sad because what if re-reading I Am a Cat would reveal a great novel buried in the obfuscations of, at worst, imperfect linguistic comprehension or, at best, an ability to recognize good writing but an imperfect ability to render it into another language?

Yes, this is a memoir. It might also be a eulogy.

You see, I can’t go home again, home being that blessed place in which my enjoyment of translated works isn’t qualitatively different from books written in my first (and sadly, only) language. I will not, of course, stop reading works in translation; being able to come only so close to what an author actually wrote is no reason not to try, I believe. But my time with Soseki has been so mixed. The beginning was unmitigated joy: I Am a Cat, Kokoro, The Three-Cornered World. But things began falling apart with Botchan and have felt painfully tenuous ever since.

I have several other Soseki novels to read, a variety of lesser known Japanese authors, some Abe, some Oe, some Kawakami, and I may read some Murakami again but I’m not sure. (Murakami might really only properly belong to insomniacs and 20-somethings.) I will read them. I will probably look forward to them. Hell, I’ve even borrowed an obscure novel of Yukio Mishima’s from the university library I’ve briefly gotten access to, just because I can. But “just because I can” isn’t generally enough of a reason to read a book anymore. And that’s also a little sad; it means I know I only have so much time on this earth and the time I parcel out to reading must be more carefully disposed of.

Luckily, there’s a person named Stephen Snyder and he’s taken it upon himself to carefully shepherd the works of Yoko Ogawa into English. He is damned good; I never feel like there’s an unassailable barrier between me and Ogawa’s beautiful and twisted mind when I’m reading his translations. So, as I am currently reading his translation of Revenge, I am happy. And that’s also why this is a memoir and/or eulogy about Soseki Natsume and not about Japanese writing as translated into English as a whole.

Still, I’m a little sad. Once upon a time, I dreamed of re-reading I Am a Cat.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Tony says:

    One of the biggest problems for J-Lit lovers – I share your pain. Of the ten Soseki books I own, only two (‘Kusamakura’ & ‘Kokoro’) are translated by the same person (Meredith McKinney), which makes for some interesting reading…

    For what it’s worth, I think ‘I Am A Cat’ would stand up to rereading. It’s one of those comic novels, like ‘Three Men in a Boat’, that will always raise a few smiles πŸ™‚

    1. Colleen says:

      That you compared it to Three Men in a Boat makes your already trustworthy opinion even more trustworthy!! Maybe I will get back to it one of these days…

  2. Tony says:

    P.S. I’ve also had a little translator trouble recently (see today’s post…), and funnily enough…

    …I happen to be reading Trollope too πŸ˜‰

    1. Colleen says:

      I read your post…so frustrating.

      Which Trollope are you reading? I’m actually reading Gissing now.

      1. Tony says:

        ‘The Way We Live Now’ – it’s the only one I’ve read which I haven’t posted on, so I thought I’d give it another reread πŸ™‚

  3. Colleen says:

    I still haven’t read that…but hopefully in the next year!

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