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Book Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Soseki

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“Walking up a mountain track, I fell to thinking. Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, and you will be swept away by the current. Give free rein to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.”

And so this is the opening to Soseki Natsume’s novel, The Three Cornered World. I remember watching an American Experience episode on Walt Whitman, where one of the commentators read aloud the very first lines that Whitman included within Leaves of Grass, noting that “everything that is great about Whitman is contained in these opening lines.” Well, the same theory can be applied to Soseki’s novel, The Three Cornered World, albeit everything that is both good and bad is contained in those very opening lines. Meaning, there are some good insights and ideas, yet suppressed are they at times by clunky, pedestrian, clichéd phrasing. In just the opening paragraph, while the first line is interesting, readers are soon drenched with the tired cliché of being “swept away by the current,” followed by several predictable, trite platitudes that if just phrased better would have carried the power Soseki intended. Indeed, the quote is correct in that when succumbing to the subjective world of mere desire and emotion, one actually stagnates because gone is the growth one gets from challenge.

Think of a painter who relies solely on emotion, and paints whatever he “feels,” regardless of technique or discipline. Everyone has feelings, but it’s learning how to express them well that makes one an artist. And this “not very agreeable place” that is the world is actually result of the struggle between the mind and emotion, but agreement does come when one learns to balance the two. Thomas Wolfe said something similar once, too.

Soseki’s best work is that which is humorous, for it is through his use of humor how he is able to convey the complexity of relationships far better because he does not allow himself to get bogged down by heavy-handedness and at times, melodrama. He is at his best in works like I am a Cat, Botchan or even Kokoro (which thus far has been his best dramatic work I’ve read). As is, The Three Cornered World is rather an erratic book, and I am inclined to think this is due to the mediocre translation (Alan Turney, who continually adds in “Britishisms” throughout, and loses any potential for passion and wordplay — not to mention the occasional incorrect word doesn’t help).

The story involves a painter who retreats to a mountain spa where he can be free to think and create, without the emotional burden from the outside world. He is left with only himself, though he soon becomes infatuated with a young woman there, and he then takes readers on an internal meditation about life and art. There are a number of insightful observations made, such as the reference to the title:

Putting it as a formula, I suppose you could say that an artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world.”

Yet amid these meditative observations, the text is littered with poorly written poetry — not quite doggerel, but more akin to odorless farts. One won’t recall a single line or image after reading said “poems,” and more than anything, such poor attempts at verse only confirms that Soseki was by no means a poet.

As for the actual narrative? Much of it is internal, and according to some of the footnotes, autobiographical. Within the text, Soseki is at his best when he is philosophical, (such as the above quote) rather than when deliberately dipping into the emotional — as the speaker can come across rather solipsistic and childish when complaining how miserable life can be. There is a fundamental difference between having a miserable life bestowed upon you and you choosing to be miserable. With this in mind, intelligent readers will be rolling their eyes every time he whines.

As for the translation — I only wish it could have been better. Less clichés, less predictable phrasings, and more innovation with the words all would have helped. In itself, The Three Cornered World is not a bad book, but merely a good book that, if better translated — and thus less erratic — could have been easily as good as Kokoro.

It should also be no surprise that Kawabata’s novel, Snow Country, follows a somewhat similar pattern in narrative to The Three Cornered World, albeit Snow Country is by far the superior work. Again, were I to rate The Three Cornered World, I’d give it 75/100. Not bad, but disappointing when you know the ways in which it could have been better. But, hey, I bought my copy in a used bookstore while vacationing in Santa Fe. Not a bad deal for $4 plus tax.

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