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Book Review: And Then by Natsume Soseki

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And Then is the fifth book I’ve read by Natsume Soseki, one of Japan’s most highly regarded novelists. And Then is part of a trilogy, and is meant to follow his earlier novel Sanshiro, followed by The Gate (or Mon). Yet these books couldn’t be further from one another, for one does not need to read any or all of them in their designated order.

Oddly, And Then is unlike any of the other Soseki works I’ve read. He tends to lace his books with humor, and will often deliver moments of pathos within them (such as in I am a Cat).

Perhaps And Then most closely resembles Kokoro, save for And Then’s weakness: verbosity and flaccidness at times. While many regard this as his best novel, many also claimed the same for Kokoro, yet I would argue they’re both on par with one another.

Kokoro works better in terms of structure and also brevity, yet at times suffers from the whole suicidal melodrama shtick. And Then also has its moments, but it also drags and lacks concision. Despite Soseki’s attempt at a “serious work” Soseki’s best and most effective work is that which contains his humor (such as Botchan, Cat and even the lesser Sanshiro).

And Then centers on a young man named Daisuke who has spent his life sponging off others. He’s received a top-notch education, he is well read, and has been granted privileges that few others have received. Yet, he is unhappy because he lacks focus and drive, but also feels misunderstood by those around him, including his father, who supports him financially.

Ironically, readers will feel far more empathy towards the father rather than their star protagonist, simply because he creates his own problems and refuses to do anything to change them. Daisuke is very much a common stereotype one can find in the arts: an above-average intelligence and education, yet lacks the discipline and drive to even be able to hold a job at Starbucks. Add to that a sense of entitlement and you’ve got the character.

Daisuke is not the only “failure” in the book however, for he later reconnects with friends from his university, and notices that they too have fallen short of their life goals. One of them is a failed novelist who lives in poverty. Daisuke notices this failure and becomes more detached from people, or at least tries to, for part of his dilemma is that he is unable to really detach fully. His greatest struggle in life is that he suffers from ennui. Boo hoo. Yet Daisuke is able to rationalize his behavior, believing that at least he will never suffer from insanity, since to be insane one must have passion.

And Then does have some nice moments of dialogue and philosophical digression, and the novel does contain some of Soseki’s good insightful moments (save for perhaps what can be found in Cat) but the book fails to resonate emotionally, since the character is not particularly sympathetic and routinely engages in self-pity and melodrama.

Here’s an example of some of his angst:

“At times, the ordinary physical world affected Daisuke with inordinate severity. In extreme cases, he could not even tolerate the sunlight on a clear day. When this happened, he tried to reduce his contacts with society to a minimum and to sleep, whether it was morning or noon. He often employed a faint, lightly sweet floral scent as a part of this stratagem…When this tactic succeeded, Daisuke’s nerves were renewed, and it became easier than before to maintain his contacts with society.”

Scenes as these would have been better if set along some humor to lighten the mood, as Soseki did with Sanshiro, because without it, the character merely comes across as a catalog of whines. Part of Daisuke’s frustration resides in his inability to fully connect with the outside world, which in turn, causes him to rely on others for support. This reliance on others therefore only contributes to his deflated self-worth, which only causes more turning inward, and so on.

The novel also balances the struggles faced from the old ways of Japan to that of the new — a theme Soseki has visited more than once, and is explored more deeply in Kokoro. The ending too, revolves around a triangle involving two of his friends, and also his father’s disillusionment towards his son, which only leads to a non-existent relationship. There are moments of cliché in the end, which are a disappointment, and many of the characters around Daisuke are far more interesting and arguably even more insightful than he. His own brother isn’t afraid, for example, to call him out on his foolishness.

Usually Soseki’s novels convey a warmth, and by the end, Daisuke sees the whole world as red and is “breathing tongues of fire.” Talk about melodrama. Such is not the Soseki warmth I mean.

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About Jessica Schneider