Sunday, 18 July 2010

Sōseki's Books

The Chase is a fairly unremarkable middle-class street off a fairly unremarkable stretch of parkland on Clapham Common, and all that unremarkable clean drabness suited my purposes perfectly last week. I was visiting the Sōseki Museum, an intriguing site of non- or anti-experience.

The Museum is a weirdly precise reminder of the impossibility of the immediate, literary tourism turned into its opposite, quantity into quality, a recreation of Sōseki’s London showing no such thing exists, a monument to anti-travel. I mean none of these terms to disrespect Tsumematsu Ikuo, the Museum’s founder and funder; his love and effort are apparent in each detail and item, and the staff member at work when we visited was friendly and helpful. But it’s this sense of missed experience that’s stuck with me from the visit, an uncanny play between the objects and the world they recreate. Doublings, traces: the mediated memory of Sōseki’s London produced by the Museum finds fascinating – for me, anyway – echoes in his own work.

For starters, this is a shrine to Sōseki that acknowledges its own artifice and construction. It’s the Sōseki House but not the Sōseki House, which is across the road. The books are Sōseki’s but again not his, being identical editions bought reconstructing reading lists the author kept. A Sōseki shrine in London is ironic in obvious ways, too, when we remember how much he hated the city: “I lead a most miserable life amongst the English and felt like a dog thrown into the company of wolves.” We come to Sōseki’s London through his writing, where one of his most memorable stories considers the Carlyle House, now host to a disproportionate number of Japanese visitors, “lured by Sōseki’s mystical depiction” [Flanagan, 160].

Sōseki’s London tales are some of the greatest works of metropolitan Modernism, detailing the bewildering and destabilizing effects of anonymity and mass urban life, the dislocation of the subject amongst pictures wearying out the eye and “unmanageable sights”, but of course – as Damian Flanagan points out – these dislocations for us now provoke images of Tokyo far more than the sleepy affluence of Clapham. The Museum guide offered me large-scale reproductions of Booth’s famous social maps to add to this sense of dislocation (Franco Moretti on Booth: “it is the confusion evoked with fear and wonder by most London visitors; confusion, in cities is always a problem”).

The confusion here, though, is in traveling to last century’s London in order to imagine today’s Shinjuku:

Last night, throughout the night, I heard a pattering echo above me pillow. This is thanks to having the great station of Clapham Junction in the neighbourhood. In the course of a single day, over a thousand trains crowd into this junction. If one tries minutely dividing that, it means that about one train comes and goes here every minute. In times of deep fog, each train signals that it is on the brink of entering the station by contriving to rise a firecracker-like noise. [Fog]

The Museum’s recreation of Sōseki’s lodgings, its doubling of across the road, recreates something of the sense of anonymity and urban loss the prose worries around:

As I walk along, I recall the houses I have just left. The strange street, with the same four storeys and the same colour everywhere, seems somehow distant. I feel like I would have no idea where I should turn and which way I should walk to get home. Even if I did get back I probably would not be able to pick out my own house. Last night the house had stood in the midst of utter darkness. [Impression]

I felt a silly excitement handling these books: how great that Sōseki liked books I like!

Or, if not books I like, then books folk I like liked, such as Burns’ favourite Man of Feeling.

A more uncomfortable and unwelcome personal echo, though, when I learn from Flanagan that social nervousness made Sōseki convince himself that buying and reading books was a better use of his time than socializing or getting to know Londoners (“Over a two-year period he appears to have spent a third of his entire salary on books and bought as many as five to six hundred volumes, all crammed on to the shelves, table and floor of his boarding-house room until he could ship them safely back to Japan with him” Flanagan, 13).

Stranger doublings and echoes again in these examples of Japonisme.

Within them Sōseki may well have read examples of the clichés and Orientalist tropes which would come to dominate the Western imagination’s approach to Japan.

Sent to England in order to engage in intensive study of English Literature, Sōseki returns with all sorts of items bearing with them the mark of those first contacts in the Meiji Era.

This journal, which Sōseki subscribed to up until his death, was particularly beautiful.

There’s a fascinating article by Chris Gosden at Material World, which argues that “museum objects to some degree conceal the mass of relations that lie behind them, ranging from the people who originally made and used the objects, to all parties to their trade and transfer and ending, for now at least, with the curators, conservators and visitors who make up the museum community in the present” and which makes the case for a new kind of relationship and Museum.

The Sōseki Museum attempts none of that; these are items for the fiction of a preserved moment. What makes it uncanny, then, is the way these relations are submerged so deeply that, like the man digging his way to China, they somehow appear out on the other side: a writer on London’s past sets you thinking about Tokyo’s present, a shrine to immediacy sets off thoughts about mediated memory, a writer whose work ironises journeys to the House of a great writer finds his own hated lodgings turned into a site for similar tourism.

And some other things never change:


All quotes are from Damian Flanagan’s translated collection The Tower of London (Tokyo: Tuttle, 2005). Flanagan’s long introduction is an excellent, and detailed, contextualisation of Sōseki’s London work. He’s a neat proselytizer too (Sōseki’s “a finer writer than Tolstoy, Proust, or Joyce”).

The Moretti quote is from p. 78 of Atlas of the European Novel 1800 – 1900 (London: Verso, 1998).

1 comment:

  1. I sense dislocation and the surreal in every line you've written here - I enjoyed being informed about this writer and his London experience, and in turn, gathering some sense of your own experience of visiting the house across the road from the actual house etc. Fascinating stuff.