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Reflections in a Glass Door

Reflections in a Glass Door: Memory and Melancholy in the Personal Writings of Natsume Sōseki

Marvin Marcus
Copyright Date: 2009
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  • Book Info
    Reflections in a Glass Door
    Book Description:

    Much has been written about Natsume Soseki (1867–1916), one of Japan’s most celebrated writers. Known primarily for his novels, he also published a large and diverse body of short personal writings (shohin) that have long lived in the shadow of his fictional works. The essays, which appeared in the Asahi shinbun between 1907 and 1915, comprise a fascinating autobiographical mosaic, while capturing the spirit of the Meiji era and the birth of modern Japan. In Reflections in a Glass Door, Marvin Marcus introduces readers to a rich sampling of Soseki’s shohin. The writer revisits his Tokyo childhood, recalling family, friends, and colleagues and musing wistfully on the transformation of his city and its old neighborhoods. He painfully recounts his two years in London, where he immersed himself in literary research even as he struggled with severe depression. A chronic stomach ailment causes Soseki to reflect on his own mortality and what he saw as the spiritual afflictions of modern Japanese: rampant egocentrism and materialism. Throughout he adopts a number of narrative voices and poses: the peevish husband, the harried novelist, the convalescent, the seeker of wisdom. Marcus identifies memory and melancholy as key themes in Soseki’s personal writings and highlights their relevance in his fiction. He balances Soseki’s account of his Tokyo household with that of his wife, Natsume Kyoko, who left a straightforward record of life with her celebrated husband. Soseki crafted a moving and convincing voice in his shohin, which can now be pondered and enjoyed for their penetrating observation and honesty, as well as the fresh perspective they offer on one of Japan’s literary giants.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6409-5
    Subjects: Linguistics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Glass Doors of Natsume Sōseki
    (pp. 1-16)

    If there is such a thing as a Japanese cultural pantheon, Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) surely occupies a seat of honor. This is the renowned author ofI Am a Cat, Botchan,andKokoro,a writer who died of a bad stomach and whose work came to epitomize the spirit of the Meiji era (1868–1912). Born at the dawn of the Meiji and surviving its emperor by four years, Sōseki captured an essential quality of that era and of the modern condition itself. Donald Keene may have echoed the consensus view when he proclaimed Natsume Sōseki as the preeminent...

  5. CHAPTER 1 London Underground: A Rhetoric of Melancholy
    (pp. 17-37)

    The novelMichikusaopens with a brief passage of interior monologue that introduces the protagonist and at the same time identifies him as the author’s autobiographical proxy:

    Exactly how many years, Kenzō wondered, had he been away from Tokyo? He had left the city to live in the provinces and then had gone abroad. There was novelty in living in his native city once more; but there was some loneliness in it too.

    The smell of the alien land that he had left not so long ago seemed still to linger about his body. He detested it, and told himself...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Babashita Traces: Memories and the City
    (pp. 38-66)

    Memory defines us. And we in turn give definition and meaning to our memories. The temper of our times serves as a constant reminder of how crucial memory is to our most basic conception of who we are and how we live. We forget things, and this awareness, however exasperating it may be, in turn reminds us that memory exists—as a fragile, contingent, and magical act of mental prestidigitation.

    As a subject of scholarly research, memory has migrated from its home base in philosophy and psychology to the farthest corners of the disciplinary map, and it now occupies the...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Shōhin Episodes: In Search of a Meiji Upbringing
    (pp. 67-92)

    As noted in the Introduction, Meiji writers explored new modes of self-expression and literary discourse, modes that reflected a complex synergy between imported Western models and existing genres and styles. Poetry and fiction emerged as productive avenues for experimenting with persona and voice. But autobiography in the Western literary mode—which is to say, a coherent recapitulation of one’s life—generated little interest. Likely models—Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, for instance, along with Rousseau’sConfessions—were known within the Meijibundan,but they failed to inspire much in the way of imitation or adaptation.¹

    Natsume Sōseki represents thebundannorm, in...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Burdens of Domesticity: The Writer and His Family
    (pp. 93-116)

    As noted in the Introduction, the Meiji modernization project hinged in part on the creation of a new family institution symbolized by the termkatei(household, domicile).¹ This radical departure from Tokugawa norms and practices would eventuate in sweeping social changes. But the process of breaking with the entrenched shogunal system and adopting Western legal and political institutions was a tortuous one. It was not until the 1890s that the Meiji Constitution was promulgated and a code of civil law enacted. It took this long, as well, for the revamped educational system, conceived as the bedrock of modern nationhood, to...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Inside Glass Doors: The Writer at His Desk
    (pp. 117-155)

    Natsume Sōseki made a living writing about unexceptional individuals and their social relationships. Reminiscent of European novelistic depictions of bourgeois society and circumstance, Sōseki’s fictional works—specifically, the novels beginning withSorekara(1909)—both mirrored and challenged thekateiparadigm of family-centered domesticity that developed late in the nineteenth century. With his very first novel,Neko,the author erects an elaborate edifice of domestic routine, centering on the master of the Kushami household, who is subject to the relentless send-ups of the omniscient (yet contentedly housebroken) feline narrator.¹

    As literary representations of this tangled intersection of self and other, personal...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Literary Portraits: Mentors, Protégés, and Eccentrics
    (pp. 156-187)

    Over the years, many of Natsume Sōseki’s acquaintances in the literary, academic, and journalistic spheres would become the subject of reminiscence. Working within prevailing styles of anecdotal portrayal, Sōseki fashioned an amiable and solicitous voice quite distinct from, yet complementary to, the figure of the study-bound recluse.

    As I have written in connection with Mori Ōgai and hisshidenbiographies, the literary anecdote has stood as a time-honored mode of biographical portrayal, revealing traits of character through the telling detail and episode.¹ Of course biographers have no monopoly on anecdotal characterization. It is equally available to novelists and poets, filmmakers...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Zōshigaya and Beyond: Re-membering Sōseki
    (pp. 188-194)

    This book has traced Natsume Sōseki, through his many literary reflections, from B to Z—the B of his Babashita roots in the early years of Meiji to the Z of his final resting place in Zōshigaya. While drawing heavily upon theshōhincollections, I have included other literary personalia as well—diary entries, poetry, published interviews, and autobiographical fiction. These writings, which strain against their respective genre categories, are stylistically and thematically diverse. They coalesce, I would argue, through the predominant personal voice. At times introspective and intense, at times light and fanciful, Sōseki’s narrator also traces connections with...

  12. Afterword
    (pp. 195-198)

    A sultry early summer’s day on the campus of K University, and I am in the library, at my usual spot, working on a chapter of theOmoidasutext. The translation is not going well. Sōseki’s reflections on mortality weigh upon my mind. Touched by the death and dying hovering in the textual air, it occurs to me that I’ve yet to pay my respects at the author’s grave site in the Zōshigaya. What better excuse to take a break from this ponderous section of theSōseki zenshu,volume twelve. I round up my camera, a water bottle, and a...

  13. A Sōseki Chronology
    (pp. 199-204)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 205-254)
  15. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 255-260)
  16. Index
    (pp. 261-267)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 268-268)