The Gate by Natsume Söseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

There is something very compelling about Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, the sort of quiet, contemplative novel I find myself increasingly drawn to these days. At first sight, it may seem a relatively uneventful tale of an ordinary Japanese couple trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, everything is happening here; we just have to tune in to the author’s style in order to see it.

the-gate

First published in Japan in 1910, The Gate revolves around the lives of Sösuke, a lowly clerk in the Japanese civil service, and his wife of six years, Oyone. As the novel opens, Sösuke is relaxing on the veranda of his home in Tokyo; it is Sunday, his one day of rest. Before long Sösuke sets out for a walk on his own, and in the process of this excursion, we learn a little more about his situation, in particular his mindset and outlook on life. It soon becomes clear that the monotonous routine of life as a commuter has left Sösuke mentally paralysed and physically drained. As he strolls around the city, it is as if he has never really noticed his surroundings before. In time, the gaiety and sense of ease he notices in those around him only serve to highlight the dreariness of his existence, and as the afternoon draws to close he is reminded of the inevitable stresses of the week ahead.

Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that had accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work – the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large, all but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “Nonaka-san, over here, please…” (pp. 14-15)

From the opening pages of the novel, there is a sense of detachment about Sösuke, as if he is merely existing in the world rather than participating in it. As the story unfolds, we start to hear a little more about his backstory and the reasons behind his current demeanour. Although Sösuke and Oyone are still very young (late twenties, I think), they seem stuck in a form of stasis that one usually associates with middle age. Once a quick-witted and lively young man, Sösuke now seems to have accepted his lot in life. In time we learn that some years earlier Sösuke was forced to abandon his studies at university following a scandal that had emerged at the time, a sequence of events that ultimately resulted in strained relations with his family. There is a darkness in Sösuke and Oyone’s shared past, something shameful that seems to have haunted their lives ever since.

Moreover, the novel raises the idea that fate may be punishing this couple for their previous misdemeanours by failing to grant them a child, or at least one that survives for more than a few days. (Three pregnancies have ended in tragedy, a source of much sadness particularly for Oyone as she feels the burden of guilt very deeply.) As a consequence of all this, Sösuke and Oyone have cut themselves off from the wider society, avoiding all unnecessary contact with others wherever possible.

In their effort to avoid the stress that comes with living in a complex society, they eventually cut themselves off from access to diverse experiences that such a society affords, and in so doing came to forfeit, in effect, the prerogatives regularly enjoyed by civilized people. […] 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. (pp. 132-133)

Much of the tension in The Gate centres on a problem relating to the support and education of Sösuke’s younger brother, the rather selfish and impatient Koroku. When Sösuke’s father died some years earlier, he left a house along with significant debts. Not having the mental resources to deal with the situation at the time, Sösuke handed the estate over to his uncle to sort out on the understanding that part of the legacy was to go towards funding Koroku’s school fees. Now the uncle has also died leaving the issue of what, if any, funds are due to Sösuke completely unresolved. What’s more, Sösuke’s aunt claims that she is no longer in a position to be able to continue with the payments for Koroku’s education as the money previously provided by Sösuke has run out – the implication being that Sösuke should step in and assume responsibility for Koroku’s school fees. Needless to say, this is an expense that he and Oyone simply cannot afford. As Sösuke wrestles with this problem, we sense his unwillingness to tackle the issue head on. Rather, he gravitates towards a position of inaction, preferring instead to put off any possible discussion with his aunt for fear of sparking a conflict.

All the same, once every day or so, the figure of Koroku hovered indistinctly at the back of his mind and triggered the reaction, for the moment at least, that he must give serious consideration to his brother’s future. The next moment, however, he invariably stifled the thought on the grounds that there really was no cause for haste. Thus Sösuke passed the days, unable to dispel the nagging sense of indecision lodged in his breast. (pp. 47-48)

Sösuke’s reluctance to resolve this matter proves to be a constant source of frustration to Koroku, a feeling that only continues to burrow away as the weeks and months slip by. In particular, Koroku finds it annoying to see his brother lazing around doing nothing on a Sunday afternoon when instead he could be off visiting his aunt with the aim of resolving the question of funding once and for all. This element of the story also enables Söseki to draw the comparison between the old Japan (as represented by the quiet, traditional and unassuming Sösuke) and the new, emerging economy (typified by Sösuke’s cousin, the bright, dynamic and enterprising Yasunosuke).

The cruelty of fate is a running theme here. At one point, a chance conversation between Sösuke and his kindly landlord threatens to cleave open old wounds from the past, a development which prompts Sösuke to seek spiritual enlightenment in an attempt to ease his anxiety.

For all its quietness and sense of understatement, The Gate is a very powerful novel. There is a feeling of tension and pain running through the narrative, of things unsaid or pushed to one side. Nevertheless, despite all their troubles, Sösuke and Oyone love one another very deeply; they share a warm intimacy, taking comfort and strength from one another in their simple surroundings. While they hold out little hope for a brighter future, at least they have each other.

As was their habit the couple drew near the lamplight. In the whole wide world this spot where they sat together felt like the only source of brightness. In the light that shone from the lamp Sösuke was conscious only of Oyone, Oyone only of Sösuke. They forgot the dark world of human affairs, which lay beyond the lamp’s power to illuminate. It was through spending each evening this way that as time passed they had found their own life together. (pg. 58)

In spite of its beautifully melancholy tone, the novel ends with the arrival of spring and signs of better days ahead for this couple. Nevertheless, Sösuke knows that everything in life in cyclical, and before long it will be winter again – what goes around comes around.

Seamus at Vapour Trails has written a great review of this one, which you can read hereEmma has been reading Söseki’s I Am a Cat – I’ll add a link once her billet is availableUpdate: You can read Emma’s fascinating review here – do take a look.

The Gate is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

55 thoughts on “The Gate by Natsume Söseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

  1. Tredynas Days

    How strange: I’ve been intending reading more Japanese literature for some time, and am currently on stories by Akutagawa (including Rashomon, one of two stories made into the famous film by Kurosawa). I read I Am a Cat when a student, and remember finding it a little thin – but as has been said many times, we read books differently at different times of our lives. I’ve also got Endo’s ‘Silence’ on the list – also filmed recently by Scorsese. (I’m teaching a course on film and literature that includes an element of Japanese new wave, hence the revival of interest). I like the sound of this one – sounds strangely European in theme and tone.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely! In his introduction to The Gate, Pico Iyer likens the novel to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, a comparison that strikes me as being very apt. It makes me want to revisit some of his work, Toyko Story in particular (I went through an Ozu phase many years ago, but it’s been ages since I last watched any of them.) Anyway, The Gate is wonderful, and it comes with a very high recommend from me.

      Silence is on my radar too – as you say, largely on account of the forthcoming Scorsese adaptation. Funnily enough, I saw a piece about it in the Guardian at the weekend as the premiere is being held tonight, at the Vatican no less.

      https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/25/martin-scorsese-silence-premiere-vatican-jesuit-missionaries-japan

      By the way, your course sounds really interesting – if I lived in your area, I would be very tempted to come along!

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        Thanks, Jacqui. It’s a module on a degree programme that I took over last year, so i’ve enjoyed adapting the syllabus to my own tastes – becoming more biased towards literary adaptations (as it’s an English Studies course). I saw the Guardian piece; hadn’t realised how devout a Catholic Scorsese is. Odd place for a premiere. Another connection; the sequence of stories by Akutagawa I’m reading now is about persecution of Christians in 17C Japan – local people evangelised by Jesuit priests – which I believe is the background to Silence (hence the Vatican setting). Reminds me a little of Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission – though its setting and period are different (18C S America), and Brian Moore’s novel Black Robe (also filmed), about which I wrote on the blog some time ago. Two creeds and cultures collide in a colonialist atmosphere.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Fascinating stuff. Yes, it struck me as being an odd setting for a premiere – but then again, I guess it makes some sort of sense given the background to the storyline in Silence. I couldn’t help but think of The Mission as well. Connections, connections. I hope you’ll have a chance to write about Akutagawa’s stories – I would be interested to hear more about those, and about your course in general.

          Reply
  2. Jonathan

    Great review Jacqui. I’ve read other reviews as well and this really sounds like my kind of book. I must get a copy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jonathan. I think you would really enjoy this novel. At first sight, it can seem as if very little is happening in the story, but there is a depth to Soseki’s writing that soon becomes apparent. Well, as long as you’re able to take your time with this book – I read it in two or three fairly sizeable chunks which helped me to tune in to Soseki’s rhythm.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re absolutely right about that last quote, Susan. There is a sense of acceptance, a feeling that Sösuke and Oyone have become resigned to their fate – and yet they take great comfort from one another’s company. It’s a very touching portrait of a couple constrained by their circumstances.

      Reply
  3. Cathy746books

    Gosh this sounds wonderful. It’s interesting you mention similarities to Tokyo Story as I was thinking that when I read your review. It also reminds me a little of Ikiru. A lovely review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a brilliant book. Ozu is a great comparison in terms of style and pace as the action plays out so slowly and delicately. There is a degree of subtlety to everything here – every gesture and every conversation. I’m going to have to revisit Tokyo Story as soon as poss, as I recall loving it back in the day. Ikiru sounds like another excellent reference point (just looked it up on IMBD), so that’s another for the DVD list. Thanks for that, Cathy!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. It does seem very true to life. The characters’ emotions and behaviours are very realistic. The cyclical theme is interesting as it only occurred to me after I had reached the end of the story. There something in it though, this particular rhythm of life with its various ups and downs (perhaps more downs in this case).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Understated is the word here, most definitely. I think we’ve chatted about Mishima in the past, an author I’ve yet to read. I think I’m right in saying you’re a fan of his work?

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    This sounds wonderful. I’ve had a copy of Kokoro in the TBR for a ridiculous amount of time – I will dust it off and get reading, so I can then acquire this with a slightly clearer conscience (the tyranny of the TBR….)!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s excellent. There is a kind of silent pain running through the story that makes it so powerful in a quiet and understated way. I hope you do get around to reading Kokoro fairly soon as I would love to hear all about it. Maybe it will end up being my next Soseki!

      Reply
  5. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui, I love how you capture the tone of the book and the deep, almost imperceptible undercurrent that runs through a lot of Japanese literature. I’m not a ‘massive’ fan of Soseki, I’ve read Kokoro and it struck me that it’s a book that needs a closer read, but he is a great writer all the same. He is very penetrating on the cultural differences between Meiji era Japanese and the younger generation. One to explore in more depth I think (but Kawabata and Enchi remain my favourites!). I suspect I will be returning to Japanese literature soon. For a similar theme in Japanese cinema, Kurosawa explored similar cultural issues in movies like Stray Dog and I Live in Fear; I think the gulf between the ideology of pre-war and post-war Japan is quite stark though, as you state here, gently repressed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda, for such an interest comment about Soseki and the Japanese culture in general. I am still very much a novice when it comes to the literature of this country, but there is something very compelling about it nonetheless. The Gate reminded me a little of Yasushi Inoue’s novella Bullfight, a story that focuses on the nuances of human nature, all set against the backdrop of post-war Japan. (It’s not really about the bulls in spite of the title.) Once again, there is a quiet melancholy running through the story, a sense of private angst and repressed emotions that seems so characteristic of the Japanese lit I’ve read to date. I would love to hear your thoughts on it if you ever decide to give it a try. It’s good to hear that you are thinking of returning to J-lit fairly soon. I’ve enjoyed a couple of Kawabata’s novellas (Snow Country, Beauty and Sadness) and there’s another on my reading list for the Classics Club. Next year, hopefully.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        If you ever get chance, I highly recommend the works of Fumiko Enchi. She was an amazing writer. The Waiting Years and Masks are both amazing, tight psychological books.

        Reply
          1. bookbii

            I think I might have reviewed it on my old blog, it’s a very good book. Intense. If you enjoy Kawabata (which I recall you do) you’ll definitely like Enchi.

            Reply
  6. bookbii

    Oh and I see you’ve mentioned possibly watching Ikiru. Do, it is marvellous. I’ve been watching a lot of Kurosawa movies recently, and Ikiru is one of the best.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I will! I’m glad to hear you are a fan of it too. Many thanks for the Kurosawa recommendations. For some reason, I seem to have missed out on seeing so many of his films, an omission I really ought to rectify at some point. Another thing to add to my list!

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        There are so many to watch, it’s difficult to watch everything! I’ve only seen Tokyo Story by Ozu, but I would love to watch more. Anything with Toshiro Mifune in I love (basically everything by Kurosawa!) but of Kurosawa’s movies his best are Ikiru, in which Mifune doesn’t feature (but Takashi Shimura does and he’s almost as good), Red Beard, Seven Samurai, of course, and I Live in Fear. But I also have a very soft spot for The Hidden Fortress which was the inspiration for Star Wars of all things. So many great movies.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          The Seven Samurai is the only one I can recall seeing, and that was many years ago (probably when I was much too young to appreciate its subtleties). Ikiru is definitely on the list, so I’ll see how it goes – I can always take it from there. Thanks again for the recommendations. (By the way, I had completely forgotten about the Stars Wars link until you mentioned it here, but that does ring a vague bell with me – I must have heard about the connection at some point!)

          Reply
  7. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    I am glad you enjoyed the read. I think I will enjoy the book as well. When I was reading through I kept thinking whether the book has a melacholic writing style like the Japanese books that I have read before. And then saw that you mention the same towards the end. Yet to read a work of Japanese fiction (except crime thrillers) that does not use this style

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It does seem to be a characteristic of much of the Japanese fiction I’ve read to date. Not that I’m particularly well versed in J-Lit as I’ve only read a handful of books so far. Nevertheless, it does seem to be a running theme, almost like an undercurrent or background tone. I think you would connect with this book too.

      Reply
  8. Guy Savage

    I read this a few years ago and liked it–although I can still remember being frustrated by the passiveness towards the issue of inheritance and money owed. Different cultural behaviours, I know, but I was still frustrated.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting. I can understand your frustration with that as it’s only natural in some ways. I guess I just accepted the passivity as being an inherent part of Sösuke’s character – the author seems to capture this quality very effectively.

      Reply
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  10. Caroline

    I have a small collection of his novels in French, so it’s possible I’ve got this. It’s always hard to know because the titles can be so different. It certainly sounds like a typical Japanese novels. I love Japanese literature for the qualities you mention. Quiet, introspective. Not much seems to happen, yet . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. That’s what I like about these books, the measured pace and slow reveal. I hope you do have a copy of this in your collection as I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. This was my first Soseki, but I would be up for reading another at some point, especially one in a similar style.

      Reply
  11. Séamus Duggan

    Great review Jacqui. It brought back the sense of the book to me. Thanks for your kind mention of my review too. The Kurosawa strand in the comments has me thinking I must chase down a few more of his films.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Seamus. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me a while to get around to reading it. I thought your reference to Revolutionary Road was an interesting one. While Soseki’s style feels very different to Yates’, I can see where you’re going with it in light of your comments on the conformity and the monotony of commuter life.

      Yes, some very interesting comments on films here. Yasujiro Ozu is a great reference point, but Cathy’s and Belinda’s mentions of Kurosawa have left me curious to explore him further too. I think I’m going to start with Ikiru as it’s the one that seems to be closest to The Gate in terms of style/themes.

      Reply
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  14. Emma

    Great review.

    I Am a Cat is different, more on the comedy side. I must write my billet but I didn’t manage to find the right amount of time to write it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. That’s interesting to hear. I’d kind of formed that impression from somewhere — satirical, episodic, a huge tome — even though I don’t know very much about the book itself. It’ll be interesting to read your billet to discover more. The Gate was excellent, and I would love to read another Soseki in this style. Apparently it’s part of a loose trilogy, so I’m going to investigate the other two: Sanshiro + And Then

      Reply
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  17. Max Cairnduff

    I hadn’t realised this was the same author as I am a Cat until I read Emma’s review of that and then returned to this. Very nice. It sounds excellent. If I didn’t already have I am a Cat I suspect I’d make this my first Söseki.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      For some reason, I thought you had already read I am a Cat! Ah well, maybe I’m getting it mixed up with another book. Either way, The Gate is well worth considering, possibly as a follow-on read if you take to the Cat. I liked the subtlety here, very impressive.

      Reply

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