Natsume Soseki is not an author I know much about but according to brief research he’s often regarded as a transitional author who helped bring the Japanese novel into the 20th century (I feel like almost every literature has a figure like this — Maugham, James, Wharton, etc). So I read a few of his novels, and I realize that he’s constantly referencing his predecessors in the same way that I found his name often referenced in later Japanese novels.
This is a more complex novel than I thought I was dealing with when I found myself halfway through. We begin with a young college “senior” glomming onto a master or sensei character, seeing a life well-lived full of pensiveness, thoughtfulness, simplicity in action and complexity in thought. He decides to befriend him, not out of sympathy or pity, but out of a kind of respect and intended emulation. Through his persistence, they do in fact become friends and he realizes that this older friend experiences a kind of profound loneliness and isolation in the world, despite their friendship and despite the sensei’s marriage. As they talk about love, and marriage, and death, the young man seems to consider his own future. But as this first section comes to a close, the young man has long conversations with the sensei’s wife, and begins to understand there’s more under the surface than just placid isolation.
The young man goes home in the second section and lives with his parents for a while, considering his future and reckoning with the potential death of this father.
In the last section, we have a long testament or letter from the sensei telling the young man of his own youth, of a tragic friendship, and with the complications of life.
The book feels small and simplistic at times in the early sections, but as the longer final narrative unfolds with a lot of narrative and emotional complexity it becomes clear that the early section is simplistic because the narrator is simplistic in his understanding of the world. When a more complex person begins telling the story, the novel follows suit.
Botchan is the story of “Professor Darling” a figure all of us is familiar with either in real life or others novels or films. A young and recent graduate of college, not as smart as he thinks he is, but cold and angry and cocky in stead, he moves to a provincial village to become a middle school math teacher. As happens, the young class of boys see right through him and begin terrorizing him. We see more and more officiousness as he goes through his experiences, and if you’ve ever been a teacher, especially a new teacher, it’s easy to recognize many of the assumptions, presumptions, and miscalculations, sense of justice, sense of superiority, and undeserved confidence that many young teachers (especially men) find themselves portraying when the horrible alternative is to admit not knowing what they’re doing.
This book is also told from the perspective of the young teacher, and because his attitude and tone is so awful, the irony is drenching the text throughout. It’s often quite funny, especially in a galling way. After reading Kokoro, which is very very heavy and emotionally draining, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read another novel by Natsume Soseki, but I was glad there was such a dramatic shift in tone between these two novels.