Review of Natsume Soseki's "And Then" (Schwarzenegger Edition)

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I'll admit, I read this book as a person thoroughly out of time and out of context. I might even say, I read this book as a child of the 80s.


The book introduces us to Daisuke, a well-educated thirty-year old who spends his days reading books, playing games of Go with his servant, and finding ways to shirk his responsibility to his family to marry a suitable girl who will help preserve the family's fortune. And he does this all while mooching off his family's money. 


As I read this book, I had a very clear image of Daisuke, the Japanese Meiji era hero, an effete, self-professed coward who regards work merely for sustenance as something dirty (he also enjoys flower arrangements and long silent stares at girls he's attracted to), coming face to face with the robust "hero" of the 1980s. Perhaps a Sly Stallone or an Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie would be an incredibly short one. The announcer says, "Coming this fall, Arnold faces his biggest challenge yet. A college seminar on Natsume Soseki." Arnold reads a passage from the book (in his deep Austrian accent of course) about Daisuke arranging flowers and blushing and his head spontaneously explodes...The End.


I think perhaps that even readers of Soseki's time might have struggled with Daisuke as a protagonist because of his cowardice. Certainly, his cowardice is not unfounded. Daisuke struggles (as we all do) with the contradictions between what society demands of him and his own personal desires. As a character who is estranged from his world and highly contemplative, Daisuke is able to offer poignant critiques, but has no enduring answers. In this way, he is not unlike Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye and Mark Renton from Trainspotting. The similarities are so striking that I would encourage anyone to read one or both of these books side-by-side with And Then.


Each character tries to find his own escape from these contradictions: Holden tries an escapade through New York; Renton tries to escape through heroine; and Daisuke tries to maintain a kind of null space between the demands of society and his own personal desires by putting off getting married and living off his family's wealth. 


[Another interesting similarity: where Holden Caulfield has the infamous scene with the prostitute, the novel makes reference to Daisuke's debauchery with Geisha; the implication in both works is that paying women for their services is a much more honest way to live]. 


In the end, though, even though Daisuke is the most outright cowardly in character, he is the one (in contrast to Holden Caulfield and Mark Renton) who eventually faces his situation head on and accepts the consequences.


If you can struggle through the slow pacing, perhaps some personal aversion you might have for the main character, and culture nuances that may seem strange, then you will find a surprisingly relevant (universal?) story about the tension between societal demands and personal desire. 


The "Afterward" section in my edition (written by Norma Moore Field) was excellent, and gave a full biography of Natsume Soseki and his work. After I had read the book, it helped me situate this novel in Soseki's biography and his overall body of work. You may want to consider reading this section first if you are unfamiliar with Soseki's works.

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