The Tower of London
Many thanks to you all for being here tonight. I'm very pleased to see you.
You know about five years ago I attended a function about Japan's greatest writer, Natsume Soseki, here in London. It was the centennial anniversary of Soseki's arrival in London in 2000 and Soseki's grand-daughter Yoko Matsuoka McClain who lives in America specially came over to Britain for it. Soseki's grand-daughter speaks fluent English and the event was held in London, but the whole thing was conducted in Japanese and hardly a non-Japanese person was in the audience. As far as everyone was concerned, Japan's greatest writer was somebody who only the Japanese should celebrate. It wasn't even considered odd that virtually nobody in the English-speaking world knew who he was.
Part of the reason for this state of affairs lies of course in colonial history; Europeans have spread their literature and culture throughout the globe, while Japan has for a long time tended to remain in hermit-like cultural isolation. I really wanted to do something about this, but there were a lot of problems. For example, a lot of Soseki's works had already been translated into English, but most were out of print. So I decided to put together a book about all Soseki's writings on Britain and see if I could get it published.
By great good fortune, Peter Owen agreed to publish the book. I think it's a wonderful testimony to Peter's courage as a publisher over the years in introducing important writers from around the world to the British public in this way. And just at the same time, I had contact from a mysterious source. The chairman of a large Japanese company had read an article of mine in a Japanese newspaper and sent one of his employees down to Osaka to see if he could do anything to help. In a manner that was a bit like The Third Man, I met this employee in a coffee shop in Shin-Osaka Station and told him that I would like to try and revive interest in Natsume Soseki in the West. He then disappeared to Tokyo and that was the last I thought I would hear of it, but a few days later I was invited up to Tokyo to meet the chairman himself. I asked the employee if he knew of anywhere I could stay and I was told that the chairman had arranged for me to stay at the Hilton and would that be OK? I said I suppose it would have to do. (Laughter) Well, I met the benefactor, and he kindly agreed to give the project 100% support. Unfortunately he can't be here tonight, but he sends his regards and I offer my thanks.
I would also like to give my great thanks to the Sasakawa Foundation and of course to our kind hosts tonight the Japan Foundation who have lent their generous backing to this project. Once I had managed to put some support together behind my own book, I managed to talk Peter Owen to re-release some more classic Soseki novels which will be coming out later this year. So now we are not just talking about the release of one Soseki book, but more of a complete Soseki relaunch. Once a certain amount of momentum had been reached, all sorts of wonderful things started to happen. I managed to get the artist Kosaka Misuzu to do some terrific calligraphy for the books and I talked Yamada Keiko, the widow of the best-selling author Yamada Futaro to let me put in one of her husband's stories about Soseki encountering Sherlock Holmes in London. And the editors at Iwanami Shoten, who publish Soseki's Complete Works in Japan, became really keen to move everything along.
You know, in the initial manuscript I sent to the the publishers, the first story only had about five paragraph breaks in the first twenty five pages. Paragraphs were a bit new-fangled in Japanese in 1900 and I was very insistent that the English translation should be exactly like the Japanese original - but I had a super editor in Simon Smith who managed to talk me into having a text that people could actually read. (Laughter) Thanks, Simon.
And then it's a well-known fact that classics of Japanese literature are only of interest to Orientalists, but Daniel McCabe has managed to get The Tower of London written about in The Times, The Telegraph and The Spectator and I have broadcast about it on Radio 3. Surely the BBC can't be getting interested in Japanese literature? (Laughter)
Natsume Soseki is a great genius of the novel, but how did England and the Tower of London become connected to the story? I'd just like to explain a little about the background to this.
The irony is that as a young man Soseki had wanted to go to the West - most Japanese of the time did, but it was extremely expensive. Remember that in the late 19th century Japan was essentially a developing nation. So when Soseki was in his twenties he simply did not have the money to go to the West. As he moved into his thirties, he became married, had children and was working as a professor in English in the south of Japan. By now he had given up on the idea of travelling to the West - but suddenly the Japanese government ordered him to go.
Until about 1900, there were only two universities in Japan and all the lectures were conducted in English by Western professors. So the Japanese government's plan was to train native experts by sending them abroad for a couple of years so that on their return they could replace the westerners working at these universities. Soseki was ordered to study for two years in Britain and he essentially felt it to be his duty to go.
It's a well-known fact that Soseki was poor and unhappy in London so it's important perhaps to dwell on the question of money. Soseki was paid 150 yen a month by the Japanese government - this was a huge amount of money in Japan at the time. An average worker in Japan would probably be earning about 20 or 30 yen a month, so Soseki's salary was five or ten times more than many people's wages. So why then did Soseki live in such poverty? Well, the first reason is the exchange rate. Any idea how many yen one pound would get you in 1900? The answer is 10 yen, so Soseki was paid 15 pounds a month, which wasn't so much - so the first reason for Soseki's relative poverty in Britain is the difference in prosperity between Britain and Japan at the time.
But even so, 15 pounds a month wasn't so bad. For 2 pounds a week you could get very comfortable lodgings even in London, so where was the problem? Well, it lay in the fact that Soseki was obsessed with buying hundreds of second-hand books while he was in London. Second-hand books today are obviously quite cheap, but in the days before paperbacks, all books were expensive. In his 'Letter from London' Soseki talks about a set of books he wants to buy which cost 70 yen (7 pounds) so in other words he was proposing to spend half of that month's salary on one set of books.
So this is the reason why Soseki had no money in London, and this is the driving force behind his movements. First of all he arrived at some apartments on Gower Street in Bloomsbury for two weeks but these were very expensive and just a short term option while he found a proper boarding house. Through networking with the other Japanese in London, he was introduced to what seemed like a very nice house in the posh area of West Hampstead. But this cost 2 pounds a week so after a month he moved out again. When he later wrote about this boarding house, he transformed it into a vision of hell - with dark secrets of illegitimacy lurking within it - but exactly how much of this is true we don't know.
Anyway Soseki then moved to a house in Camberwell south of the river. Now this was a big step-down, being an unfashionable part of London, but it was cheap, costing only 4 pounds a month and leaving Soseki 11 pounds a month to spend on books if he wished. Soseki would have probably stayed here for the rest of his time in London, but now money comes into the equation again. The boarding house in Camberwell was run by a couple of sisters and they were virtually bankrupt. They themselves rented the house and they were far behind with the rent and now had to move to a new house even further south in Tooting Graveney. They only had two boarders and so desperately pleaded with Soseki for him to go with them. Soseki was actually keen to jump ship, but again he couldn't find anywhere as cheap so he moved with them to the new house in Tooting Graveney. However he found it much inferior to what he had been promised. Remember that Soseki had a very strong notion of his own elite status and yet when he mixed with any other Japanese in London, all of whom were from very rich and wealthy backgrounds, he found that he was living in a slum in south London while they were all living in luxury up in Kensington.
So eventually he couldn't bear it any longer and moved to his final boarding house in Clapham. While all this was going on, he was becoming increasingly more introverted. He had originally contemplated studying in Cambridge, but abandoned this idea on the grounds of not having enough money, so he stayed in London and attended a few lectures at University College. But these were uninspiring and bothersome to get to, so he opted for weekly tutorial visits to the home of an Irish scholar called William Craig. But after a year, even this became too much bother, so he retreated to his room in Clapham and obsessively read books. He was trying to put together a monumental and revolutionary 'Theory of Literature'. Having a background in Chinese, Japanese and English literature, Soseki was trying to come up with a scientific analysis of literature that would over-ride all cultural differences. Well, after a year of being cooped up in his room, not surprisingly he started to go a bit crazy, and the people around him encouraged him to do something about it.
So he started learning how to ride a bike as a form of recreational exercise, and also went up to Pitlochry in the Scottish Highlands for a couple of weeks for a soothing holiday. Shortly after this, Soseki and his 500-odd purchased books returned to Japan, and once there things went to plan. He was duly appointed lecturer in English at Tokyo Imperial University and at the First Higher School in Tokyo, but the work load got on top of him again and he had more mental health problems, but then finally he started writing. In 1905, his first work 'The Tower of London' was published and after that a phenomenal series of spectacular novels, short stories, criticism, memoirs poured out - his literary career had begun.
So that's roughly what he did in London, but I don't want to give the idea that Soseki's writings on Britain are just describing the London of the day. If that was all they were doing, they would be of interest, but somewhat limited interest - whereas in fact Soseki's writings on Britain have absolutely universal appeal. I want to just briefly explain what they are all about.
They start off with 'Letter from London' which was actually written while Soseki was in London and it describes the boarding house in Camberwell and the move to Tooting Graveney. This is a straightforward factual piece. Soseki is describing the slightly alien world around him. Then after he had returned to Japan he wrote 'Bicycle Diary' a self-mocking satirical account of his attempts to ride a bicycle. Now we are already here out of the realm of the strictly factual - everything is comically exaggerated. London is presented through the lens of someone suffering from paranoid persecution complex, so there's a transformation of the outer world from reality to how it appears in the mind of the slightly disturbed narrator.
In 'The Tower of London' things really start to get complex. This is a true masterpiece. What Soseki is contemplating is the nature of time and existence itself. How does the past coexist with the present? We all live in this present world and think that this is what is primary, and that the past is something that is of minor importance, something that has disappeared. There are just relics of the past left behind, relics like the Tower of London. But think about it another way and you see that every second this present day world is changing, disappearing into the past; the past ultimately sucks everything into it, it laughs at the ephemerality of the present. So in this story 'The Tower of London' we have the Tower presented as a great magnet of the past, which pulls everything - including the narrator - towards it. The narrator enters the Tower by crossing the Thames, and this is explicitly presented as a journey over the river Styx into the Underworld, where the ghosts of the past lie in wait.
The story is also cleverly set up as a Noh play, because in a Noh play a character first enters the stage along a bridge which takes him into a mysterious world. There he encounters someone from the present who turns out to be the forlorn ghost of a historical figure, and this is exactly the set-up in 'The Tower of London'. The narrator having crossed the bridge and entered a mysterious world encounters a young woman who turns out to be the ghost of Lady Jane Grey. I could probably spend an hour talking about this story 'The Tower of London' and explaining all the influences from Zen thought, Noh theatre, Shakespeare, Dante etc - but I hope you get the idea that there are some very deep ideas going on within it.
Now Soseki would not be the extraordinary writer he is if he didn't proceed in his literary works by means of contrast and anti-thesis. Every time in any Soseki work you get some brilliant idea advanced, you can be sure that in the next one you will find an opposing concept presented. In 'The Tower of London' we had the idea that the present day world around us is ephemeral, that it is the past that dominates. But now look at the story 'The Carlyle Museum'. Once more we are entering into a space frozen in time, a place that belongs to the past, this time Carlyle's House in Chelsea. Once more the narrator crosses the river Thames (the river Styx) to enter into this underworld and confront a fog-bound mysterious world of the past. But now there are no visions, only the objects left behind after Carlyle's 'smoke-like life'.
Carlyle, the visionary thinker and distinguished historian, was someone who understood more than anyone the importance of the past, who spent his life chronicling it - but now in this story what is emphasized is not the power of the past, but rather the impossibility of escaping the mundane distractions of the present everyday world around us. The noises of the outside world - cocks crowing, dogs barking, the piano playing - work on Carlyle's nerves and distract him from his art so he attempts to escape them by building a sound-proof chamber at the top of his home. But having built the attic room, suddenly he discovers new sounds assailing him - church bells and train whistles. Soseki's message then is that for all one may contemplate the ephemerality of this everyday world, ultimately this is the world in which we have to live in, and to lift oneself up in lofty transcendence is a most difficult task.
So we have competing ideas, but Soseki's genius was about to work deeper still. For in his stories entitled 'Short Pieces for Long Days', we now find that the whole of London has been transformed into one vast dreamscape. No longer are mysterious places confined to pockets of London as in 'TheTower of London' and 'The Carlyle Museum', now the whole of London, the whole of existence, is strange and mysterious. The Tower of London was described as a dark hell from which the narrator could escape back into the safety of his boarding house, but now in a piece called 'Lodgings' it is the boarding house itself which is described as being a 'dark hell' - hell once thought of as being distant and historical has now become psychological and everyday.
Soseki is no longer describing the London around him, but the London inside his mind, as memories fuse with dream-like images and chronology becomes confused. So the journey we have undertaken is the movement from a foreigner describing the London of 1900, to an exploration of the nature of time and existence through a contemplation of English history, and on to an entirely internalized psychological world - a city contained within the mind.
There are so many things I haven't had time to talk about this evening - about Soseki's legendary description of William Craig, for example, the Irishman who tutored him in poetry. I'd like to talk about Soseki and Scotland. As a closet Sherlockian, I added into the The Tower of London a wonderful fantasy by the best-selling novelist Yamada Futaro imagining a Sherlock Holmes adventure involving Soseki in London - you know a feature about the book appeared in the Kobe Shinbun on Tuesday and immediately we had an enquiry from the Yamada Futaro Museum in Osaka about how they could get hold of the book - I didn't even know there was a Yamada Futaro Museum. (Laughter)
We have already had reviews of the book, and one reviewer described the book as a fascinating collection of Soseki's minor works. But actually these are not Soseki's minor works. They are short works, but they are every bit as important as his long novels.
And speaking of long novels, let me put in a plug. We have some more classic Soseki novels coming out, The Gate and Kokoro, for both of which I've had the honour of writing introductions. I'm really hoping that with this series of books we can finally introduce Soseki's genius to the English-speaking world. Natsume Soseki is a writer who has brought me an enormous amount of pleasure - he's also brought me quite a bit of pain but that's another matter (laughter) - and I very much want to share that pleasure and admiration with the rest of the world.
I started this short talk with an anniversary - the centennial anniversary in 2000 of Soseki's arrival in Britain. By sheer coincidence, this month January 2005 happens to be the centennial anniversary of the first publication of 'The Tower of London' in Japan and the commencement of Soseki's literary career. After 100 years, I'm hopeful that this auspicious date will mark the beginning of Soseki's conquest of the Western world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, many thanks for listening to my words, please buy The Tower of London for your friends, lovers, family, enemies, enemies' children (laughter) - and never forget that you were here at the beginning of a literary revolution.
© 2005 Damian Flanagan