Although this novel starts off with young Jiro, who is on his way to Osaka to meet a friend with whom he plans spend a vacation climbing Mt. Koya, the story is really about Jiro’s brother Ichiro. One of Soseki’s later novels, it was written during 1912-3 and appeared as a serial in Asahi, a large daily newspaper. Thus each of the four parts is divided into multiple short sections, each one standing alone as a short short story and yet tied to the others by the overall narrative arc and theme. Scenes are carried over between sections, so that each acts almost as an enjambed line of poetry. This fracturing of the story reinforces Soseki’s exploration of the chaos of modern life.
In Osaka, Jiro stays with a happily married couple, the man being a distant relation, while he waits for his friend Misawa to join him. Jiro has also been charged with meeting and assessing a man who has asked to arrange a marriage with a woman under the care of Jiro’s parents. These events and the stories told by Misawa once Jiro catches up to him—one of a divorced woman and one of a geisha—seem at first unrelated to the second part of the book, when Jiro’s mother, brother and sister-in-law arrive in Osaka on a spur-of-the-moment vacation and carry Jiro off to Wakayama.
However, it gradually becomes clear that marriages good and bad, arranged and romantic are constants in this narrative. Suffering from a kind of existential crisis, Ichiro’s marriage to Nao is in trouble. Ichiro even suspects that his feckless younger brother Jiro has been carrying on with Nao, and voices despairing references to Paolo and Francesca from Dante’s Inferno. The third part of the book covers the period after they all return to Tokyo from their travels. As Ichiro and Nao’s marriage continues to deteriorate, Nao is tight-lipped, refusing to argue or complain, while Ichiro seems close to a nervous breakdown.
The fourth part, in an odd break that Soseki manages to smooth over, is narrated, not by Jiro like the first three, but by a friend of Ichiro’s who has accompanied Jiro’s brother on further travels in the hopes of saving him. This friend has found his comfort in religion and recounts, in a long letter to Jiro, the discussions he has had with Ichiro about religion, marriage and Nietzsche.
This summary may make the book sound like a domestic drama, but it is far more, infused as it is with Soseki’s persistent theme of the anguish associated with the shift from Japan’s feudal past to a modern society. Both Ichiro and Nao try to find space for their independent concerns within the restrictions of their arranged marriage and the world of Ichiro’s conservative parents. Ichiro and Nao strive to become, as we would say today, self-actualised, caught between the formalised order of the past—church, state and family—and the new individualism, rejecting prescribed solutions. Ichiro says at one point, “‘To die, to go mad, or to enter religion—these are the only three courses left open for me.'”
The book was the more interesting to me in that I had just reread Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and was curious to see those ideas played out in the lives of ordinary people. The characters I found most interesting, though, were the women: Ichiro’s wife Nao who could not go wandering off like her husband to seek consolation for her existential angst, the demented woman in Misawa’s story who clutched after her long-divorced husband, Jiro’s sister Oshige for whom he is tasked with finding a husband. Perhaps I will write more about Soseki’s female characters in another post.