Title: Kusamakura
Japanese Title: 草枕 (Kusamakura)
Author: Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石)
Translator: Meredith McKinney
Publication Year: 1906 (Japan); 2008 (America)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 152

I don’t know whether it’s the tasteful covers, the velvety paper, the typeface, or the footnotes, but I love Penguin Classics. And I love it that they’re commissioning and publishing new translations of Japanese literature. Immediately before Kusamakura, I read the new Penguin translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, also translated by Meredith McKinney. This is probably not something someone who makes her business studying literature should say, but sometimes the publishing quality of a book makes all the difference for one’s enjoyment. A short but helpful and non-pretentious introduction, cogent yet unobtrusive footnotes, and a fluid and readable translation make texts like Kusamakura so much more worth reading in my eyes. I feel extraordinarily grateful to both Penguin and McKinney for the vast improvement they have made over the outdated Tuttle publications.

Aside from the cosmetic changes, what makes this new translation of Kusamakura worth reading? It is, quite simply, an intensely beautiful book. To put it in a different way, it is an aesthetically pleasing book about aesthetics. Many foreigners could be accused to coming to Japan while chasing a Japan fantasy; Kusamakura is Sōseki’s pursuit of this same Japan fantasy.

A nameless flâneur who styles himself as an artist escapes the harsh words (“fart counting”) of his critics in Tokyo by journeying to a small mountain hot springs village called Nakoi. There he observes the local culture and flora while casually interacting with the daughter of the owner of his inn, the abbot of the local temple, and a few other colorful characters. All the while, the narrator muses on art, poetry, and life. He references Chinese poets like Wang Wei and Tao Yuanming, Nō plays like Takasago and Hagoromo, and Japanese artists like Nagasawa Rosetsu and Maruyama Ōkyo while still sneaking in references to John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia and Gotthold Lessing’s essay Laocoön. All this seems far removed from the military conflicts brewing with Russia and China on the mainland, and the modernity of crowded urban spaces, bustling public life, and anonymous train stations is kept at bay until the end of the novel, when the monk nephew of the inn’s owner is shipped away to war.

I did not read deeply into Kusamakura, but rather took it at face value as a testament to the nostalgia Sōseki must have felt for the old Japanese way of life, which was still preserved in isolated rural areas but vanishing quickly from the cultural landscape. Of course Sōseki does treat his narrator with a small degree of irony and invites his readers to laugh at him as well as sympathize with him, and of course traces of nationalist discourse can be found in this supposedly anti-modernist work, but I feel that the pleasure of this short novel lies in its descriptions of a beautiful mountain village and its vivid portraits of quaint rural characters.

To illustrate the allure of Sōseki’s Japan fantasy, I would like to offer a passage in which the narrator relaxes in the bath….

Chill autumn fog, a spring’s mist serenely trailing fingers, and the blue smoke that rises as the evening meal is cooked – all deliver up to the heavens the transient form of our ephemeral self. Each touches us in a different way. But only when I am wrapped, naked, by these soft spring clouds of evening steam, as now, do I feel I could well become someone from a past age. The steam envelops me but not so densely that the visible world is lost to view; neither is it a mere thin, silken swath that, were it to be whipped away, would reveal me as a normal naked mortal of this world. My face is hidden within voluminous layers of veiling steam that swirl all around me, burying me deep within its warm rainbows. I have heard the expression “drunk on wine” but never “drunk on vapors.” If such an expression existed, of course, it could not apply to mist and would be too heady to apply to haze. This phrase would seem fully applicable only to this fog of steam, with the necessary addition of the descriptive “spring evening.”

2 thoughts on “Kusamakura

  1. I have just started reading “Kusamakura,” and your comments about it are perceptive and useful. I suppose that Nami is the symbolic centre of the novel, and that she likely stands for whatever might be left of “Old Japan,” her name signifying that nameless quality of “beauty” that one might still find if one looks for it in the right spirit. The reference to Millais that you mention of course conjures up the nostalgia for the Pre-Raphaelite version of the Middle Ages which never quite existed, but which exists as a romanticised construction in the minds of all those who have not seen Monty Python’s “Holy Grail.” Another book I am currently reading is Alex Kerr’s “Lost Japan,” and I’ve already read Alan Booth’s “Looking for the Lost;” I seem to fall for this “lost” theme, and in my 3 years in Japan teaching university (1997-2000) spent quite a lot of time looking for it. Soseki was lucky– there was more of it around when he wrote this book– but one can still retrace Basho’s steps or find signs directing you to Chomei’s hut (which is not there). In the end, it’s not the physical objects like those which preserve lost Japan, but the atmosphere created by novels like this one, in which the reader can feel it all around, but yet not see it.

    1. Thank you for your comments! I really enjoyed reading what you had to say about Millais. Just when I think I’ve finally gotten a handle on one aspect of Japanese literary history, it strikes me that I’ve still got centuries of Western literary history to tackle…

      I have very mixed feelings about Alex Kerr, especially his book Dogs and Demons, which is like Lost Japan except infinitely more vitriolic. On one hand, I can see the physical evidence Kerr describes when ranting about how Japan is mismanaging its cultural and natural heritage, and it does indeed disturb me. On the other hand, I dislike how the conclusion to his argument seems to be something along the lines of “and therefore everything about contemporary Japan is bad.” Studying contemporary Japan and its literature, I wonder how much of Japan is “lost” and how much of it has simply evolved. I also wonder how much Kerr is allowing himself to buy into (and perpetuate) the Japanese nostalgia industry, which has been running strong at least since the early Edo period.

      In any case, literary nostalgia for a “lost Japan” is a deep and fascinating topic, and it interests me even though I can make almost zero claim to being able to understanding it. I haven’t read Looking for the Lost, but I think I’ll add it to my summer reading list. Thank you!

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