Review of The Miner by Natsume Sōseki,

ISBN 0804714606 (ISBN13: 9780804714600)

I didn’t expect this novel to leave such a big impression on me. It seemed like a throwaway novel in Soseki’s oeuvre, with hardly any character development, almost no plot and little adornment. But it is a subtle exploration of character, theme and atmosphere. It’s an adventure novel disguised as fictitious reportage. It’s falsely autobiographical, it’s heart-breaking by accident and it managed to worm its way into my psyche.

Soseki wrote it for a fan, based on a scattered retelling of a juvenile anecdote. But he simply couldn’t help but live up to his own standards.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Soseki’s work. Uneven novels like I Am a Cat and unmemorable ones like the Wayfarer are balanced out by amazing experiences like Kokoro and masterful evocations like Three-Cornered World. Sometimes, I’ll reread a passage from a sloppier work and realize my initial reaction was too harsh. You get the sense that Soseki never knew what he was writing about, never really had more than a vague plan. But at other times, he writes with the assured confidence of a literary genius. Too much is made of his experience in London I think. It is treated like a defining moment in his career. Soseki is credited largely with bringing together Eastern and Western literature, but I would argue that Toson did a fine job of it as well. And Lafcadio Hearn understood better than either of those writers the extent and impact of culture clash. Whereas Abe was more readable and experimental, Soseki’s experimentation is always praised, and his mundane repetitions are hardly ever criticized. He wrote from the heart though, and his heart was not always sincere. His characters are always himself, even when they are in the form of a cat, and they are extremely easy to identify with. His women characters are not the best, but his novels are a criticism of his own traditional trappings even as he puts on Western clothes. He explored the mindset of an artist with a hasty, desperate thoroughness. He never had a chance in London – that much is clear from his reportage, and I think he largely wasted his time there. Writers like Nagai Kafu wrote about experiences abroad too, and I believe, brought back more objective observations.

Though it is clear Soseki used a lot of the experience to focus his own responsibility as a spokesperson of the Japanese Everyman, the Miner is an unassuming novel. Like something he wrote against his will. Like a kid’s homework assignment that the student writes with gritted teeth and many resentful tears but the teacher ends up framing. The Miner might be my favorite Soseki novel, though it’s impossible to pin down what makes each novel so good and memorable. One day I side with Botchan, and on other days I remember Ten Nights’ Dreams more fondly. The plots of The Gate, The Wayfarer, And Then, and Sanshiro can blend together, like segments of a single narrative, but The Miner certainly stands apart. It takes place mainly in darkness, mostly within the psyche. In many ways, it reminded me of Kobo Abe’s Ark Sakura. Soseki can be incredibly prolix (as in Light and Darkness) but one of his great strengths is his seemingly accidental insights into people during periods of subtle psychological strains, and just putting that on the page can make for a compelling narrative. It doesn’t have to be something colorful. It’s completely monochrome actually, but it contains a quiet mystery I will never forget.

Haruki Murakami’s personal thoughts are laid out in the Introduction of the 2015 translation. In many respects I agree that this novel changed how I regarded Soseki. It may be difficult to rate his works above Tanizaki’s or Toson’s but I can’t deny that the consistency of his writing and the Everyman narratives give his books a timeless charm.

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