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| An Introduction to The Tower of London |


The following feature on Soseki’s classic story ‘The Tower of London’ was broadcast by Damian Flanagan on the BBC Radio 3 show Nightwaves on January 31 2005.


Tower of London Cover Cover of
'The Tower of London'
by Natsume Soseki
Translated and
Introduced by
Damian Flanagan.


This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the publication of 'The Tower of London’, the book that helped to launch the extraordinary literary career of the man described as the Japanese Dickens, Natsume Soseki. To mark the anniversary, Nightwaves asked the translator of a new English edition of ‘The Tower of London’, Damian Flanagan, to offer an appreciation of Soseki and to explain the influence of London on Japan’s most famous writer.)




In the autumn of 1902, an urgent telegram was sent from the Japanese Embassy in London to the Ministry of Education in Tokyo. It contained only the words: ‘Natsume has gone insane in London’.  

Desperately hard-up, isolated and constantly confined to his room with nothing but hundreds of second-hand books to keep him company in a grim boarding house in Clapham, behind his locked door Natsume Soseki could sometimes be heard sobbing aloud. Intense cultural shock and social alienation had it seemed finally caused the Japanese lodger to completely lose his mind.

But this is the man who was to become Japan’s greatest literary hero. He is the most featured writer by far in Japanese university entrance exams; the most widely read of Japanese authors; the man whose life and works have been so endlessly analysed and argued over that no bookshop in Japan is complete today without a good two shelves filled with criticism of his works. And then, for the last twenty years he has been that deceptively mild-mannered, moustachioed visage looking out at you from every thousand-yen note. National fame does not get bigger than this. And it was London that shaped his entire literary career.     ...

It was in May 1900 that Soseki had been ordered by the Japanese government to leave behind his pregnant wife and child and embark on two years of intense study in distant London. Soseki would be given only a meagre stipend, insufficient to pay for both books and comfortable lodgings, and have to endure great loneliness and unhappiness in an unknown land.

Moving out of Japanese waters on his long sea passage to the West, Soseki, previously an accomplished composer of Japanese and Chinese verse, noted in his diary that he could not bring himself to write haiku any more in such alien surroundings. For two years in London, Soseki wrote almost nothing at all, but struggled with the concept of the fundamental nature of literature itself. Hoping to produce a revolutionary quasi-scientific ‘theory of literature’, Soseki set about voraciously reading a whole variety of scientific, psychological and historical works. He suffered repetitive nervous breakdowns. He was 37 before his professional writing career even commenced. 

It was a very different man that twelve years later would lie dying on a tatami mat in Tokyo. By then, the impoverished lodger from Clapham had produced the finest collection of novels, memoirs, criticism, and short stories the Japanese language has ever seen. He had assembled around him a coterie of adoring acolytes known as ‘the mountain range’ that included some of the most precocious literary, scientific and philosophical talents of the century. With his works indisputably recognized today as the zenith of Japanese literature, the man who lived in quiet obscurity in London passed out of this world transformed into a blazing meteor across the sky of Eastern Literature, Japan's millennium man.

1000 yen

Is he worth his reputation? Put it this way, I know of only one other writer, whose achievements appear to be quite so spectacular, and his name also begins with an S and he lived in Elizabethan England. Don't be fooled by innocuous titles like 'I Am a Cat' or the seemingly simple tale of a household pet scrutinizing the actions of the inept schoolteacher Sneeze. When he wished to be, Soseki showed himself to be the most light-footed and whimsical of humourists, but 'I Am a Cat' moves on to a sharp satirical analysis of a society engaged in headlong foppery and phoney westernization.

Combining influences as diverse as English literature, Chinese poetry, Zen, Western painting and European philosophy, Soseki showed ready mastery of almost any literary form he attempted. He wrote densely poetic Arthurian tales that put Malory and Tennyson in the shade; he wrote of his own dreams, which inspired Kurosawa to make a film in the same vein. In 'The Miner', the tale of a young man fleeing the city and embarking on a journey of ‘degeneration,’ he wrote one of the world's first stream-of-consciousness narratives that flatly denied the existence of ‘character’ long before such things were being attempted in the West.

But Soseki’s imagination had first found inspiration in London. He had written observations of the city while he actually lived there and even wrote amusingly about his attempts to master riding a bicycle.

And so it was that his story ‘The Tower of London’, an unprecedented phantasmagoric exploration of English history complete with profound ideas on the nature of time and existence, set in train his literary career.

Since then, generations of scholars from the other side of the world have been pacing the modern streets of London trying to discern for themselves the area where once he was lost in the fog, and casting their eyes across the river Thames to the sights that now burn themselves in the Japanese literary imagination.

‘When I gaze at this Tower of London, there before my eyes across the river Thames, I lose myself in an intensity of gazing’, he wrote. ‘The Tower of London appears as the centre of a dream of karmic destiny.’

Tower of London The Tower of London
seen from across the

Image from this site.

'The Tower of London is Available through Amazon.co.uk.
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