The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CLASSIC EXPAT WRITING: Letter From London — Sōseki

So with my last entry, on James Joyce’s Paris, I was left bemoaning the term Expat Writer. Partly, I’m annoyed with myself for choosing such a term as “Classic Expat Writing” for this series of blog posts. Ultimately, who wants to read a series of posts called “Classic Expat Writing”? It assumes too much and adopts a slightly superior attitude. And, most importantly, it’s dry and not all catchy. Instead, think of this as writing by the displaced.

The reason that I opted to do this series of posts was so I could share some writing that has moved me, and present it to an audience that is likely to in some way be attuned and empathetic to its contents, either through their own personal experience or particular interests. If people then go off and look at the authors in more detail, so much the better. It’s for these reasons why I am particularly excited with this week’s example.

I have to confess that I was not familiar with the name Sōseki until I visited Japan. My knowledge of Japanese literature is embarrassingly slight and doesn’t really extend beyond Mishima and Murakami. But a few years back, when visiting Tokyo, I sought out the Kinokuniya bookstore near Shinjuku because it had a large selection of English-language books. Having a few days before visiting the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, I was keen to buy Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. But when left in a bookstore I can’t help but browse and one book, in particular, caught my eye: The Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London by Sōseki. At this point, I had never before heard about Sōseki Natsume (1867 – 1916), and had no idea about his place in the canon of Japanese literature. If I had been in Japan a few years earlier, it may have passed me unnoticed that the two 1,000 yen notes I would use to buy this book, in fact, featured Sōseki’s portrait.

Instead from a position of ignorance I picked up the book and was intrigued by it. It’s a collection of essays and writings that Sōseki wrote about his time in London.* In the summer of 1900, as a young, unknown professor, he traveled to London on a somewhat meagre scholarship that was provided to him by the Japanese government.  Sōseki was to spend the next two years in the city, unhappy and isolated.

Now being a miserable monoglot, I am entirely dependent upon skilled translators when it comes to foreign (well “foreign” from my perspective) literature. Obviously, I’m not in a position to comment on how accurately Damian Flanagan’s translation conveys the flavor of  Sōseki’s prose, but I did find it to be an incredible read with crisp and clean prose.

The title essay is a phenomenal piece of literature, but it is Sōseki’s Letter from London that I’m highlighting today. Sōseki conveys in a way that I’ve not seen from others that awkward, slippery sense of dislocation of being in an alien country. Even politeness takes on a faintly threatening edge.

One of the things I’ve noticed in the Expat blogging community, we seem to like it when we find writing that we can relate to, that reiterates thoughts and fears that we have had. Of course, there is a place for  that. With Expat blogging it can help develop relationships, it helps builds an audience, and there is very much a place for it. But it can also act like comfort food.

Sōseki, by contrast, has observations and thoughts about the city that I don’t think anybody other than himself could have had. And, for me, that’s what is so interesting and so worthwhile about this book.

This collection, which is published by Tuttle publishing, really should be read by more people. Go buy it and then read it, pronto.

Once outside, everyone I meet is depressingly tall. Worse, they all have unfriendly faces. If they imposed a tax on height in this country they might come up with a more economically small animal. But these are the words of one who cannot accept defeat gracefully, and, looked at impartially, one would have to say that it was they, not I, who look splendid. In any case, I feel small. An unusually small person approaches. Eureka! I think. But when we brush past one another I see he is about two inches taller than me. A strangely complexioned Tom Thumb approaches, but now I realize this is my own image reflected in a mirror. There is nothing for it but to laugh bitterly, and, naturally, when I do so, the image laughs, bitterly, too …

… Generally, people are of a pleasant disposition. Nobody would ever grab me and start insulting and abusing me. They do not take any notice of me. Being magnanimous and composed in all things is in these parts one qualification of being a gentleman. Overtly fussing over trifles like some pickpocket or staring at a person’s face with curiosity is considered vulgar … Pointing at people is the height of rudeness. Such are the customs, but of course London is also the workshop of the world, so they do not laughingly regard foreigners as curiosities. Most people are extremely busy. The ir heads seem to be so teeming with thoughts of money that they have no time to jeer at us Japanese as yellow people. (‘Yellow people’ is well chosen. We are indeed yellow. When I was in Japan I knew I was not particularly white but I regarded myself as being close to a regular human colour, but in this country I have finally realized that I am three leagues away from a human colour – a yellow person who saunters amongst the crowds going to watch plays and shows).

But sometimes there are people who surreptitiously comment on my country of origin. The other day I was standing in looking around a shop somewhere when two women approached me from behind, remarking, “least-poor Chinese”. “Least-poor” is an extraordinary adjective. In one park I heard a couple arguing whether I was a Chinaman or a Japanese. Two or three days ago I was invited out somewhere and set off in my silk hat and frock-coat only for two men who seemed like workmen to pass by saying, “A handsome Jap.” I do not know whether I should be flattered or offended.

*I’m not entirely sure what it says about me that in browsing a large selection of Japanese literature in an effort to get a better understanding of Japan, I picked up a book that is centered around impressions of London and the English.

Img: White Tower, Tower of London, from the South East, c. 1890-1910, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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4 responses to “CLASSIC EXPAT WRITING: Letter From London — Sōseki

  1. ML Awanohara May 5, 2011 at 12:36 am

    I’m not sure if it helps to know this, but Sōseki is thought to be a bit of a manic depressive, which could explain why his stay in London made him so neurotic. As he neared the end of his exile, he began to suffer from paranoid delusions. As he himself described it:

    Amongst the English gentlemen I was a like a poodle amongst a pack of wolves and led a pitiful life.

    You may be further interested to hear, given your London focus, that there is a small museum in London dedicated to the two years (1900-02) Sōseki spent in that city, on one floor of a not easily found house in Clapham. This modest shrine attracts mainly Japanese pilgrims — but I feel certain they would also welcome pale-faced visitors.

    Finally, considering your Twitter avatar, I’m surprised you didn’t pick up a copy of Sōseki’s novel I Am a Cat. Volume One opens with a cat trying to eat some leftover New Year’s mochi (rice cake). Had you read that passage, I believe you would have nominated mochi for Kate Allison’s list of deadly dishes.

    • awindram May 5, 2011 at 1:05 am

      I’ve had mochi with a red bean paste filling. Daifuku? Really not a fan of that stuff. Those fish-shaped cakes, I wasn’t sure about either. Ice cream mochi, however, I enjoyed. Actually, the thing that would have made Kate’s list from Japan was some Earl Grey tea Haagen-Dazs, awful stuff. Bear in mind that I’d been living in Singapore for a couple of months at this point and had developed a bit of a taste for durian flavored ice cream. Actually, I found Asian desserts in general not to my liking. Ais Kacang, I don’t know how anyone over the age of eight could stomach the thought of one of those.

  2. Damian Flanagan May 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Hi, many thanks for this terrific blog. It is so gratifying to learn that there are inquisitive readers like yourself who get beyond the usual slew of Japan cliches and find something fascinating about the story of Soseki in London. Although on one level Soseki’s time in Britain was ‘uneventful’, it is really nothing less than epoch-making in terms of its significance in world literature – it is at the very heart of all the supreme masterpieces which would later pour from Soseki’s pen and quite simply redefined twentieth century literature in ways that are only now being fully understood.

    Soseki I think offers a sort of reverse perspective to all those Western writers who have journeyed to the Orient and found both strangeness and inspiration there: Soseki managed to observe with a steely eye the weirdness of much of Western civilization itself and The Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London was trying to show what the long-term impact of a foreign land like Britain was to Soseki. Soseki starts off by writing incisively about London and his own sense of alienation while he was actually living there, but once he returned home, London and the West became transformed into a kind of mental dreamscape. First his nervous breakdown in London became the butt of his own satire in pieces like ‘Bicycle Diary’; then his experiences become fused with the whole flux of British history and a Zen-like contemplation of the nature of time and existence in ‘The Tower of London’; before finally London is enmeshed within a vast panorama of memory and dream in ‘Short Pieces for Long Days’. This represents I think what all our ‘ex-pat experiences’ are – something which happens to us not just while we are there, but continues happening to us, changing us, as memories of that place and experience flood back into our present for the rest of our days.

    Incidentally, should you be interested, we’ve tried very hard with all the new editions of Soseki’s novels published by Peter Owen in the last few years to try and get over by way of the critical introductions the enormous complexity and profundity of ideas to be found in Soseki. Up until 2005 there was virtually no critical commentary anywhere in English that remotely explained why Soseki is regarded as the greatest of all Japanese novelists and why hundreds of books of criticism have been written about him in Japan. It’s very difficult to get to grips with this vast hinterland of ideas without some kind of guide and perhaps you might be interested to go on and explore Soseki’s fascinating interaction with Nietzschean thought, Zen and Mongolian ‘adventurers’ in The Gate or the supreme complexity (including a few Shakespearean allusions) of a novel like Kokoro. I really hope that these critical intros help explain why these novels are consistently voted by the Japanese as the very best of that nation’s literature.

    If you are interested in the link between Soseki ‘the ex-pat’ and his subsequent writings, I would also particularly recommend the new edition of The Three Cornered World. This is one of the all-time great novels and its unique experiment of attempting to see the whole world from a point of view of detachment and as an ‘aesthetic experience’ is profoundly connected both to Soseki’s own ex-pat experience and to his revolutionary delving in the fundamental nature of literature. I explain in the introduction to that book the extraordinary story of how this novel became the favourite book and lifelong obsession of that quixotic musical genius Glenn Gould, who went through his whole life as eternal spiritual ‘ex-pat’, detached from much of the culture surrounding him and inspired to create his own vision of art.

    Many thanks again for this fascinating blog and look forward to reading many more…

  3. amblerangel May 9, 2011 at 5:01 am

    I’m about to run out and by that now. What an interesting description of the work- and it seems to reveal much about the Japanese as well? I’m more used to studying them than vice versa….

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