1. April 2014 Events: from Blue Gass to Shakespeare’s Montaigne

    On Being Blue, Still
    Wednesday, April 9, 7 pm
    The New York Institute for the Humanities, New York
    Writers and critics reconsider William H. Gass’s sex- and sadness-imbued On Being Blue and discuss its relevance today.

    Shakespeare’s Montaigne: Performance & Commentary
    Friday, April 11, 6:30 pm
    Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn
    Stephen Greenblatt and leading actors look at the deep resonances and relationship between Shakespeare’s plays and Montaigne’s Essays.

    A Reading and Discussion of Balzac’s Stories
    Tuesday, April 15, 6 pm
    Labyrinth Books, Princeton, New Jersey
    Peter Brooks and Linda Asher will read and discuss Balzac’s short stories, nine of which have been translated in The Human Comedy: Selected Stories.

    Sōseki’s Diversity: A Conference
    Friday, April 18 – Sunday, April 20
    University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
    Scholars will gather at the University of Michigan to reflect on the legacy of Japan’s most widely read modern novelist, author of The Gate.

    Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare’s Montaigne
    Wednesday, April 23, 7 pm
    Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Massachusetts
    National Book Award winner Greenblatt will discuss the influence of Montaigne’s Essays on Shakespeare.

    Literature of the Great War
    Wednesday, April 30, 7 pm
    PEN World Voices Festival, New York
    Authors highlight recently re-discovered classics, including Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, and explore the influence of WWI literature.

    “From Translation All Science Had Its Offspring”
    Wednesday, April 30, 6:30 pm
    Barnard College, New York
    Peter Platt and Philip John Usher discuss the revised and annotated edition of John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essays.

  2. Sōsuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence, and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. They went to the draper to buy cloth for their kimonos and to the rice dealer for their rice, but they had very few expectations of the wider world beyond that. Indeed, apart from provisioning their household with everyday necessities, they did little else that acknowledged the existence of society at large. The only absolute need to be fulfilled for each of them was the need for each other; this was not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for life. They dwelled in the city as though living deep in the mountains.

    —A loving but tempered Valentine’s post, from Natsume Sōseki’s The Gate.

  3. “… were it possible, he would choose to linger amid the shadows of the nearly spent year”


    Image: Caged bush warbler and plum, attributed Utagawa Kunihiro, c. 1829; collection of The LIbrary of Congress.

    “Watching the people all around him intent on making the short winter days even busier with their frantic activity, as if driven by the ebbing year to fill every moment, Sōsuke felt all the more weighed down by this nameless dread of things to come. It even popped into his head that, were it possible, he would choose to linger amid the shadows of the nearly spent year. His turn at a chair having come at last, he caught sight of his reflection in the cold mirror, whereupon he asked himself: Who is this person staring out at me? He was draped in a white sheet from the neck down, and he could not make out the color or pattern of his suit. It was then that he noticed, in the background of the reflection, a wicker cage that housed the barber’s pet bird. The tiny bird hopped lightly about on its perch.

    “When Sōsuke emerged onto the street, his head fragrantly anointed and his ears ringing with the barber’s hearty farewell, he felt utterly refreshed. Feeling the cold air against his skin, he had to admit that, as Oyone had claimed, a haircut can go a long way toward improving one’s mood.”

    A New Year’s scene from Natsume Sōseki’s The Gate, in which the perennially disappointed hero attempts to cheer himself up with a haircut.

  4. 'Masters of Doing Nothing at All'

    In Japan, as is often noted, there are separate words for the self you show the world and the one that you reveal behind closed doors; where we regard it as a sin to be reserved at home, the Japanese take it as much more cruel to be too forthcoming in the world. This reticence has little to do with trying to protect oneself, and everything to do with trying to protect others from one’s problems, which shouldn’t be theirs; it’s one reason Japan is so confounding to foreigners, as its people faultlessly sparkle and attend to one another in public, while often seeming passive and unconvinced of their ability to do anything decisive at home.

    'Under the sun the couple presented smiles to the world,' Sōseki writes, in one of his most beautiful sentences here; 'under the moon, they were lost in thought: and so they had quietly passed the years.' At one point Oyone asks her husband, 'How are things going for Koroku?'

    'Not well at all,' he answers, and with that they both go to sleep.

    —Pico Iyer on Natsume Sōseki’s The Gate, in The New York Review of Books. The essay appears in slightly different form as an introduction to the book.

  5. "Sōsuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple."

    That they nonetheless lived out each and every day with the same stoical spirit was not because they had from the outset lost all interest in the wider world. Rather, it was because the wider world, after having isolated the two of them from all else, persisted in turning a cold shoulder. Blocked from extending themselves outward, they began developing more deeply within themselves. What their life together had lost in breadth it gained in depth. For these six years, instead of engaging in casual interactions with those of the outside world, they had explored the recesses of each other’s hearts. To the world they continued to appear to be two people. But in their minds they had become part of a single organism that it would be criminal to split apart. Their identities were so merged that the slenderest nerve endings in one of them were entangled with those of the other. They were like two droplets of oil on the surface of a large basinful of water. They had joined not through having repelled the surrounding water but rather through having been propelled by water into converging courses that brought them together in a single sphere.

    —from Natsume Sōseki’s The Gateabout the couple the book revolves around: Sōsuke and Oyone.

  6. "Featureless days"

    It took me years and several viewings before I finally started to love the films of Yasujiro Ozu, one of the greatest directors ever. Coming from the perspective of someone raised on fast-paced action sequences, these films seemed unbearably slow. Nothing happened; indeed, the characters were actively avoiding activity. It seemed Ozu simply put the camera on a tripod and left while his actors had tea. Of course, there was something there, because I kept trying, and not just because people kept saying that Ozu was the master. Little by little, truly over years, I began to see the silent agony in these films, the kind of ever-present weight we labor under in real life as we go about our business, trying not to dwell on it. I knew nothing about Natsume Sōseki or The Gate (Mon, 1910; tr. from the Japanese by William F. Sibley, 2012) when I began it, but within just a few pages I recognized and warmed up to the style as a man relaxes on the veranda and says to his wife, ‘Beautiful day, isn’t it.’

    —from The Mookse and the Gripes review of Natsume Sōseki’s The Gate, and they’re not the only ones making the connection between Sōseki and Ozu. If you’re looking for a starting point into Japanese modern literature, look no farther. Donald Keene called Sōseki “the most esteemed novelist of the twentieth century”, and his Wikipedia entry says (citations needed of course) “In Japan, he is often considered the greatest writer in modern Japanese history. He has had a profound effect on almost all important Japanese writers since.” He was also on the 1,000 Yen note until 2004, and if you get the approval of the central bank, you must be doing something right.

  7. "The Art of Nothing Happening"

    Sōsuke had been relaxing for some time on the veranda, legs comfortably crossed on a cushion he had set down in a warm, sunny spot. After a while, however, he let drop the magazine he had been holding and lay down on his side. It was a truly fine autumn day, the sun bright, the air crisp, and the clatter of wooden clogs passing through the quiet neighborhood echoed in his ears with a heightened clarity. Tucking one arm under his head, he cast his gaze past the eaves at the expanse of clear blue sky above. Compared to the tiny space he occupied here on the veranda, this patch of sky appeared extremely vast. Thinking what a difference it made, simply to take in the sky in the rare, leisurely fashion afforded by a Sunday, he squinted directly at the blazing sun for a few moments, then, averting his eyes, rolled over to his other side and faced the shoji. Beyond its panels his wife was seated, busy with her needlework.

    —the first paragraph of Nasume Sōseki’s The Gate, translated by William F. Sibley and on sale today. The Gate is a classic of the Japanese Meiji era, and it was Sōskei’s favorite of his own novels. Pico Iyer, in the introduction to this edition, writes that, “in Sōseki’s world doing nothing should never be mistaken for feeling too little or lacking a vision or doctrine.” Sam Sacks, reviewing the book in the Wall Street Journal, notes something else: “Sōseki had a genius for sensitively depicting souls in torment.”