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August 24, 2014

"The Gate" by Natsume Soseki (Book review)

The Gate (Mon), published in 1910, is one of Natsume Soseki's most delightful novels, thanks to the warm-hearted portrait of the happy love for each other of a married couple. There are countless novels in world literature about adultery and broken marriages, but how many are there of couples who are simply happy together?

No that the life of this couple, Sosuke and Oyone, is easy. They live in a sort of gentile poverty, Sosuke earns just enough as a low-ranking civil servant to make both ends meet. They rent a rather dark and cheerless house in Tokyo, and have no contact with family, no friends or acquaintances. Their solitary existence is wholly uneventful. You could almost say that they live as recluses in the big city, their gate always closed.

Engakuji, Kamakura
[Gate of Engakuji Temple in Kamakura - as Soseki had connections with Engakuji, this is probably the temple that plays a role in The Gate - see below]

This seclusion has been caused by a dark spot in their lives. When he was a promising student at Kyoto University, Sosuke had a good friend, Yasui. One year after the summer holidays, this Yasui suddenly set up house with a quiet young woman - the author does not make clear whether she was his wife or his girlfriend - and Sosuke also got to know her gradually. This young woman was Oyone. She and Sosuke fell in love and she broke with Yasui to marry Sosuke. This caused a scandal in the university town - these were strict times in which students were supposed to be models of society - and Sosuke was forced to leave university, ending his prospects for a flourishing career. He was also ostracized by his family and, to get away from scandalous rumors, moved with Oyone to Western Japan. Yasui voluntarily left the university to establish himself as a sort of adventurer-business man in Mongolia. Only after several hard years could Sosuke get his present government job and return to Tokyo, the city where he and Oyone were born.

The joint betrayal of Yasui has left both Sosuke and Oyone with a feeling of guilt. They have remained childless, although they would have liked children. Oyone has had three miscarriages, and they ascribe this fate to the "wrongdoing" which was involved in bringing them together. But their shared feeling of guilt also forms a strong bond and they are happy with each other. Their love is the one abiding element in their lives.

Natsume Soseki gives detailed descriptions of their daily life, the halting conversations they have together, and the Tokyo scenery of the late Meiji-period. The atmosphere of their almost featureless days is unfailingly conveyed, but never gets boring thanks to the superior writing. Of course, readers who are looking for dramatic plots are at the wrong address, Japanese literature is not about plot but about atmosphere. That being said, drama is smoldering quietly below the surface of this novel, all connected to the betrayal that has connected Sosuke and Oyone. For example, after the event Sosuke has become sluggish and a procrastinator - he has even allowed his uncle to strip him of part of his inheritance without speaking up. His younger brother, Koroku, who is still at university, used to be financially supported by that uncle, but the money now stops and Koroku comes to live with Sosuke and Oyone, disturbing their quiet routine. Again, it takes time until a solution is found. On a positive note, the solitary Sosuke has come to know their wealthy landlord, Sakai, an extroverted and generous person, who lives on the hill behind their house and has a large family. Sosuke is often invited for a talk by this landlord and that leads to a small drama: Sakai invites him to a dinner where also a man called Yasui, recently returned from Mongolia, will be present...

Sosuke is completely shaken by this news and to avoid the dinner runs off to a Zen monastery in Kamakura, hoping by meditation to find some way out of his anguish. But already in the early 20th century, Zen was so far from the daily lives of ordinary Japanese, that Sosuke had no idea what was waiting for him in the temple. After struggling for ten days in vain with a koan, on a meager diet, he again leaves in despair. He has been unable to open the symbolical three gates of enlightenment (Sangedatsumon), those of emptiness, formlessness and inaction.

But although enlightenment is not waiting for him, nor the worldly success of his neighbor Sakai, he is happy to be quietly home again. Miraculously, most problems, small as they were, have evaporated as non-occurrences: Yasui has returned to Mongolia without causing trouble, a solution has been found for Koroku (who becomes a shosei, a student lodger in the house of the landlord) and although a restructuring is undertaken in the ministry, Sosuke's job is spared and he even gets a small rise.

In the final pages of the novel Sosuke is back with Oyone and settles down again in a quiet vein behind their own gate. Spring is in the air, Sosuke who has just been to the hairdresser, tells Oyone that other customers were talking about hearing the first bush warbler of the year.
Gazing through the glass shoji at the sparkling light, Oyone's face brightened. "What a sight for sore eyes. Spring at last!"
Sosuke had stepped out on the veranda and was trimming his fingernails, which had grown quite long.
"True, but then it will be winter again before you know it," he said, head lowered, as he snipped away with the scissors.
This is a novel without illusions, but filled with a gentle compassion.

Read The Gate in the excellent new translation by William F. Sibley, published by New York Review Books (and replacing the older translation by Francis Mathy in Tuttle Books). Of the Japanese original many editions exist, and it is also available as a free etext at Aozora.