Friday, February 11, 2022

Is Natsume Soseki the Japanese Colette?


Yes, I know, you think I am hallucinating, but there are resemblances between the elegant Japanese writer,  Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) and the lyrical French writer, Colette (1873-1954). 

As I read Soseki's comic novel, Botchan,  I was reminded of Colette's four Claudine books:  Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie.  Both writers paint vivid portraits of rebellious characters coming of age.  Natsume Soseki, one of Japan's greatest modern writers, himself a teacher-turned-writer, relates the exploits of a hot-headed math teacher who reluctantly leaves Tokyo to take a job in the provinces.  Colette, the most famous French woman writer of her day, explored Claudine's metamorphosis from saucy, wild student at a provincial school into a depressed girl who followed her entomologist father to Paris and then became an unhappy wife and finally an independent woman.  Different characters, different experiences, and Colette devoted more space to Claudine, yet there's a kinship in style and substance between the writers:  spare, graceful, witty writing and unforgettable characterization. 

 In Claudine at School,  the impulsive Claudine misbehaves at a provincial school, fighting a subtle war against two lesbian teachers who dislike her.  If Claudine had been male, she might have been like Botchan, a young man of no particular accomplishments who accepts a teaching job in a provincial town because he has nothing else lined up after he graduates.  Botchan fightw with students and teachers alike.  He can't wait to go back to Tokyo, where, in his view, there are fewer intrigues.

 J. Cohn's translation of Botchan is slangy and entertaining, and though it lacks the elegance of other novels I've read by Soseki, it is very clever and a work of comic genius.  Botchan's absolute honesty and sense of honor are endearing.  He is not at all academic, and wonders if he should return his diploma.  Later, he tries to give his teaching certificate back to the principal. His musings on his self-declared mediocrity are hilarious. 

For three years I studied about as hard as everybody else, but I wasn't particularly good at it and if you looked for my name in the class rankings you would have had an easier time finding it if you started from the bottom.  Still, incredible as it seemed, when the three years were up I managed to graduate.  I couldn't help thinking that it was kind of odd, but since it wouldn't make any sense to lodge a complaint, I accepted the diploma without protest.

Botchan has no vocation, and has taken the job only because he needs money. He has discipline problems, because he is only a few years older than his students.  After the boys see him gorging on buckwheat noodles and tempura at a noodle cafe, they start a hazing campaign.  And no one helps the inexperienced teacher:  it is as though the hazing comes from all sides.

The next day I walked into my classroom just as I would any other day, only to find someone had written MISTER TEMPURA in  giant letters on the blackboard.  As soon as the students saw me they burst into raucous laughter....  I asked them what was so funny about tempura.  One of them answered:  "But four bowls is too much, na moshi."  I told them that as long as I paid for them and I ate them, it wasn't any of their business if I ate four, five, or any other number I wanted."

And then there are the difficulties of dealing with the faculty.   Botchan has nicknames for all of them, though the names are puzzling:  they fall flat in translation.  Botchan and his fellow math teacher, aka the Porcupine, battle the hypocrisy of the duplicitous assistant principal, aka Redshirt.  Redshirt has stolent affections of the fiancee of another teacher, and then arranged for this poor cuckold to be transferred to another  school.  Botchan and the Porcupine are indignant:  they know that the scheming Redshirt also sleeps with a local Geisha.  It's Botchan and Redshirt vs. the word!

I loved Botchan, only 144 pages in the Penguin, and I recommend it if you're looking for a laugh.  

Happy Weekend Reading!


  1. I read Soseki's Sanshiro a couple of months ago and really loved it, so ordered Botchan right away and haven't gotten to it yet. Leafing through it, I love the first person voice he writes in. I look forward to starting it soon! I haven't read much by Colette -- only My Mother's House and Sido and a few of the short pieces in Creatures Great and Small, which were exquisite. I loved My Mother's House!

    Have you read any other books by Soseki? I have heard that Kusamakura is really good.

    I think I mentioned to you that I recently read Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. Absolutely wonderful. Just recently read her short story "The Watery Realm," also amazing.

    1. Botchan is fun! Hey, I bet you've got the Penguin, too. :) Botchan is ulike other Japanese lit I've read, so funny, and the opposite of understated and elliptical novels of, say, Kawabata's beautiful The Old Capital. Of course I mean that in a good way! I'm adding Sanshiro to my list and have long been meaning to get to Territory of Light. Thanks for the tips!

    2. Yes, both Penguin editions! I sigh to myself, like I'm talking about a crush.

      I'll be curious what you think of Sanshiro and Territory of Light, as well. I have two by Kawabata but have not gotten to them yet. I read a Tanizaki and felt so-so about it. But I'm curious about his book The Makioka Sisters.

      Happy Monday!

    3. I love The Makioka Sisters! I read it because a bookseller referred to it as the Japanese Gone with the Wind. It is nothing like that, and is so very much better!

  2. Okay Colette and Soseki are similar: says they are quite similar; both comic and both artificial and elegant. But to me  several sine qua nons are discernible:  a male is at the center; if he is rebellious, it's outward.  Sex does not seem to be central nor sensuality.

    1. You'd have to read them to see what I mean. It's partly the uniqueness of the narrators' voices. And Claudine IS rebellious, except for the early part of her marriage. But I am honestly thinking more of Botchan and Claudine at School, when the two characters are more of an age.