And Then, by Natsume Soseki

In Soseki's early works, he made sure that they conveyed some kind of lesson, conforming to the then-common notion that fiction should have an educational purpose. The title of this work makes it clear that there will be no definitive ending hammering a moral home.

Daisuke, a 30-year-old Tokyo bachelor, seems from the outside to have a most pleasant and undemanding life. Having received an excellent education, he is supported by his father and brother in his own home where he is free to study his books, visit his sister-in-law, and indulge his aesthetic tastes. However, Daisuke is plagued by anxiety, often feeling his chest to make sure his heart is still beating. His family believes he is intended for great things someday, but he continues to drift from day to day, full of romantic notions but afraid to take a definitive step in any one direction lest he have to deal with the consequences. He is cared for by his elderly housekeeper and his houseboy, Kadono, whom he teased into taking the job, criticising Kadono for being lazy because he didn't work, never noticing his own hypocrisy. With his intellectual and aesthetic talents, he feels superior to his father and brother, who are both successful businessmen.

This life is disrupted when Hiraoka, an old school-friend, and his wife Michiyo move back to Tokyo. For the last three years, Hiraoka has been working in the provincial office of a bank but got caught up in a scandal when one of the men working for him embezzled funds. As a result, Hiraoka resigned and is now asking Daisuke for help in finding a new job and a place to live. Back in the days when they were close, Daisuke actually helped along Hiraoka and Michiyo's marriage, but now he is dismayed to see how distant they are from each other and Michiyo's ill health. He examines his memories of how close he was to Michiyo before the marriage, before his then-best friend asked for his help in gaining her hand and he felt honour-bound to comply.

First published in 1909, four years after the end of the Russo-Japanese war, And Then reflects Soseki's sense of being in the cusp of two cultures. Daisuke's father is part of the culture of pre-Restoration Japan, with its authoritarian precepts based on the Samurai code, while Daisuke's other friend Seigo, a writer, looks ahead to the new culture, with its more naturalistic morality that values individuality over conformity. Daisuke is disillusioned by the heroes of his father's generation, but has not taken the next step of envisioning what a new hero might look like. Daisuke's detachment reflects Soseki's own detachment in writing his earlier novels, where he forced the story to a conclusion that would convey the desired lesson instead of, as here, allowing the story to follow naturally from the characters themselves.

In Chaos and Order by Angela Yiu, I found the interesting notion that And Then is actually based on a traditional form of Japanese drama. In addition to the history plays (jidaimono) of the puppet theater (joruri) and kabuki that feature Samurai warriors, there were love-suicide plays (shinjumono), usually featuring commoners, sometimes a prostitute, who are caught up in a love affair that is in some way a transgression, some kind of forbidden love, where their suffering can only find relief in death. Romeo and Juliet of course comes to mind as a Western equivalent.

I find this very interesting, this idea of using a traditional form but playing with it and the reader's expectations. As Daisuke begins to admit his love for Michiyo, now forbidden because she is married, he invites her over for tea and in preparation fills the room with lilies. This delicate scene took me by surprise, as perhaps it took the readers of Soseki's day by surprise, by not following the script I expected. Being surprised is a good thing, and I very much liked this book, with its (to me) unexpected turns and lovely descriptive passages.

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