Saturday 20 November 2010

A Grass Pillow for My Head

Well, I was planning to plough through all my neglected reviews before moving on to new books, but as Robbie Burns pointed out, the best-laid plans of mice and men do, indeed, gang aft agley (especially when it comes to blogging - although I don't know many rodent reviewers myself).  Anyway, I finished a book yesterday and decided that I had to talk about it, and when that happens, you just have to grit your teeth, hit the keyboard, and hope that your body holds out; here goes...

The book which brought on this spontaneous bout of blogging is another novel by the father of Japanese literature, Natsume Soseki.  Translated by Meredith McKinney, Kusamakura (previously translated as The Three-Cornered World) means 'grass pillow' and is a short novel which is the epitome of what people imagine Japanese literature to be.  The main idea of the novel - you couldn't really call it a plot - is of an artist travelling through the wilds of Kyushu at the start of the twentieth century and staying at a hot springs inn while searching for inspiration for a picture.  He comes across Nami, the owner's daughter, and... that's pretty much it.  If you're looking for complications, you are definitely in the wrong place.

You see, Kusamakura, as with many Japanese novels, is more about the path than the destination.  While reading it, the expression 'poetry in prose' continually crossed my mind, and Natsume himself actually described this book (a sort of bridge between his humorous early works and his later, more serious, efforts) as a 'haiku novel' - which probably says more about the book than I could ever tell you ;)  It consists of thirteen short chapters, each around ten to twelve pages long, and I read it as it should be read, taking one chapter at a time, savouring the words, putting it to one side, and then coming back for another slice later.  This is a book for enjoying, not rushing.

The concepts expressed in the book revolve around a few central ideas: the examination of what an artist actually is and what they need to do to live artistically; the contrast between natural rural life and the fevered city existence most people have become accustomed to; and, more allegorically, the difference between the past and the present, East and West.  Soseki's unnamed protagonist is more than happy to just find the nearest rock and drink in the scenery as he ponders these mysteries, gazing into the distance and musing on the challenges of poetry and painting. 

This could get rather repetitive and mind-numbing in the hands of a lesser writer, but Natsume has a subtle and timely sense of humour, allowing his main character to laugh quietly at himself and prevent the thinking from becoming navel-gazing.  When his hero spends a page wondering what has happened to the other occupants of the inn, imagining them lost at sea in an impenetrable mist, or magically transformed into ethereal spirits, the final sentence of the paragraph:
"Whatever may be the case, it certainly is quiet" p.64, Penguin Classics (2008)
pulls us back to the real world with a thud!

One idea I loved was his musing that you don't actually have to create anything to be an artist.  Simply removing oneself consciously from worldly troubles and being able to appreciate nature's artistic qualities requires an artistic temperament; the actual work of art is simply the culmination of this idea (as a lazy writer, I find this idea far too tempting!).  Of course, on a sunny day, relaxing in the mountains (or lounging on the sofa), it's best not to overanalyse these things.  As Natsume himself says:
"To think is to sink into error." p.43

Another point where I am fully in agreement with the writer and his creation is where he discusses the delights of tea (no coffee for me or the characters in Kusamakura!):
"Tea is in fact a marvellous drink.  To those who spurn it on the grounds of insomnia, I say that it's better to be deprived of sleep than of tea." p.87
As you can tell from all these quotes I've provided (something I rarely take the pains to do), I loved this book.  It's less a novel or novella, and more a tract about living life artistically, the Tao of Kusamakura if you will.  I'm sure someone with a bit more energy than myself could create a new religion from Natsume's whimsical musings (and I'm sure it would be a good one), but that would actually defeat the object of removing oneself from daily life.

I'll finish today with a perfect example of how this book can constantly throw up surprises.  After going away for a stroll in the garden, I came back to read Chapter 9 - only to realise on completing it that it was actually Chapter 10...  When I eventually got around to reading the real Chapter 9, our fearless protagonist was conversing with Nami and explaining his method of reading novels, dipping into the book wherever he saw fit and reading a few pages with no context.  When challenged as to the logic of this method, he replies:
"If you say you have to start at the beginning, that means you have to read to the end." p.95
And that is what Kusamakura is all about...