cover image Soseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist

Soseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist

John Nathan. Columbia Univ., $35 (320p) ISBN 978-0-231-17142-7

Dubbed “Japan’s first modern novelist” in this illuminating biography from Nathan (Mishima: A Biography), Natsume Soseki (1867–1916) could well have been one of the complex, tormented characters from his own novels. After a difficult childhood, in which he was foisted off on foster families until the age of nine, Soseki entered school as a student of classical Chinese before switching to English literature. In 1900, while serving as a school teacher, he was dispatched to London, an adventure that further exposed him to English literary traditions but whose profoundly alienating effect also exacerbated his mental and emotional problems—which later, once Soseki was married and back living in Japan, manifested themselves in paranoid behavior toward his family and acquaintances. In analyzing the novels and stories that Soseki began turning out prolifically in 1905, Nathan cogently shows how his subject’s character-driven fiction—which included, perhaps most notably, I Am a Cat and Kokoro—overturned traditions of Japanese literature up to that time and aligned him “with the proponents of realism who were his contemporaries in the West.” Nathan’s incisive portrait of Soseki as a troubled yet widely celebrated literary game changer—his image adorned the ¥1,000 banknote in 1984—will likely drive new readers to his fiction. Agent: Jin Auh, Wylie Agency. (Apr.)