Review of Grass on the Wayside by Natsume Sōseki

Droll and heartbreaking by turns, this so-called autobiographical novel was as easy to read as a series of newspaper articles and only slightly more varied in subject matter.

Soseki excels at bringing to life realistic situations. Making use of a fragmented style, the book is reminiscent of serial novels. He has some of the qualities of Balzac but is not as concerned with detail. He is considered the king of Japanese literature, though I can’t help thinking that Bakin could crush him in just about every way. Soseki proved that he could write with eloquence and style. But his brand of literature was more akin to the psychological involvement one finds in Akutagawa. He lacks some of Akutagawa’s precision as well as some of Toson’s razor-sharp clarity, not to mention Tanizaki’s breathtaking flow. He does have a good consistency though, and this novel is saved by the short chapter segments, in which the characters enact their private tragedies upon each other, quibbling over pennies until they’re bleeding tears until, as a reader you grow truly sad that Soseki, the artist, the sensei of a generation, had to put up with such trivial nonsense.

The family he grew up with, and the authenticity of those family members are explored, along with financial and family politics in general, but in a very dramatic way. Soseki didn’t shy away from depicting his hurt and anger, though this book was one of his last major works.

If you enjoy novels about struggling writers, definitely read this book, along with the story collection: Rosy Glasses and Other Stories by Kazuo Ozaki. What Soseki started was a blend of Western and Eastern ideals and styles which led to a burgeoning of the I-novel in Japan, which is similar to the confessional novel, and which often involves a first-person narrator. This doesn’t seem very revolutionary to us, but Japanese literature sorely lacked the psychological flexibility he brought to the table in that time.

Soseki’s achievement only becomes clear through deep reading. Finishing his complete novels (minus The Poppy which inexplicably remains untranslated) is like getting to know a teacher and friend so intimately that it leaves a permanent impression in your mind. At least, it makes me glad I set out to discover his wry, subtle humor, and his easygoing, polished style. This particular volume is not quite of the same quality as his masterworks, but you would be hard-pressed to find any other Japanese authors who will prove so consistently that they deserve their critical fame. His insights are always affecting and rewarding.

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