Light and Darkness

January 30, 2011 at 11:34 am Leave a comment

Review by Steve Savage

Set in Japan in the early 20th century, the action of Light and Darkness takes place while Tsuda, a recently-married man aged nearly 30, prepares for and undergoes an unpleasant operation and is persuaded to confront his lingering feelings for Kiyoko, a woman who refused to marry him and chose someone else, by arranging to meet her, supposedly by chance, at an inn in the mountains. The novel was unfinished at the death of Natsume Sōseki, its author, and so the reader can only guess at the consequences of the meeting between Tsuda and Kiyoko. The other main character is Tsuda’s younger wife O-Nobu, who is determined to make Tsuda love her, but suspects that all is not right with her marriage.

In the few days covered by the novel, people connected to Tsuda – relatives, colleagues, acquaintances – visit one another and try to achieve certain ends, often disguising their motives. Tsuda himself appears to be motivated by a quite cold self-interest. He knows he has something physically wrong with him that needs an operation. He needs money (but in his aunt’s opinion he is too extravagant) and tries to sponge off his father. He wants O-Nobu to dote on him, but pretends otherwise. He is a modern figure who finds arranged marriages strange. He regards Mrs Oshikawa, the meddling wife of his boss, with cold scorn, so if he lets her nudge him into contriving a meeting with Kiyoko, he must expect something to come of the encounter – but what?

As well as Mrs Oshikawa, Tsuda comes under pressure in different ways from his sister O-Hide and from an eccentric friend Kobayashi. Brother and sister have a frank conversation, culminating in an accusation from O-Hide that Tsuda still cares for someone other than O-Nobu. When O-Nobu walks in on this, O-Hide hastily changes tack, accusing a sulky Tsuda of being unwilling to accept help from her gracefully. O-Hide accuses him of caring only about himself, and O-Nobu of caring only about being loved by him.

As well as being characters in the novel, Kobayashi and Mrs Oshikawa represent Tsuda’s social conscience and self-interest. Sōseki himself may make a couple of appearances in the novel, once as a detective watching Kobayashi (investigating Tsuda’s conscience) and also as a man nicknamed Monkey-face who, like Sōseki, has visited London.

Interestingly, Japanese readers homed in on Tsuda’s wife, and took sides over her ‘modern’ character. Sōseki’s novel exposes the selfishness and self-delusions of his characters carefully and in detail. The reader gradually comes to appreciate how the selfishness at the heart of their actions is powerful but not invincible. As a novel, it stands comparison to other books from the same period that examine motives in great detail — the works of Proust and Musil for example — but is in some respects more concentrated and, in its leisurely way, more merciless.

Steve Savage

Book: LIGHT AND DARKNESS

Author: Natsume Sōseki, translated by V.H.Viglielmo

Publisher: Peter Owen

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Natsume Sōseki Andrew Greig

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