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I Am a Cat-I

By:Natsume Soseki


SōSEKI NATSUME is the pen name of Kin’nosuke Natsume (1867- 1916), the eighth and youngest son of a family of minor town-gentry. The family’s hereditary occupation as ward-chiefs in Tokyo under the Tokugawa shogunate disappeared with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and thus they fell upon hard times, yet Sōseki received the compulsory modern education, both primary and at middle school level, which had been introduced in 1872.
In his mid-teens he switched to a private school for Chinese studies and, though upper-class tradition regarded literature as no more than a civilized diversion, he began to toy with the idea of adopting it as a working profession. However, extensively educated in both the Chinese and the Japanese literary traditions, Sōseki recognized early on the importance of English to any senior career under the westernizing influence of the restored regime and, specifically, to the entry requirements of Tokyo Imperial University-then the only university in the capital. Hoping to become an architect, he entered that university’s Department of Engineering in 1881, but he soon transferred to the Department of Literature that same year. In September 1890, Sōseki joined the Department of English Literature as a loan-scholarship student of the Ministry of Education.
The English department, founded in 1888, had produced only one previous graduate, a student of the first year who became a customs inspector in Shanghai. Sōseki graduated in July 1893 and then briefly enrolled as a postgraduate student. He applied unsuccessfully for a post as a journalist with the English-language Japan Mail in Yokohama and taught for a time at Tokyo Normal College. ln 1895 he suddenly left Tokyo to become a provincial teacher- first in Shikoku (where his university friend, the haiku poet Masaoka Shiki, resided) and later, in 1896, at Kumamoto in Kyushu. There, by formal arrangement, he married Nakane Kyoko, the eldest daughter of the chief secretary of the House of Peers. In 1900 the Ministry of Education sent him on a miserable scholarship to London University. For two unhappy years in London, he seems to have done nothing but read an almost incredible number of books on every conceivable subject and, at the same time, make himself an authority on eighteenth-century literature. His only social contacts with the British appear to have been a weekly private English lesson with W J. Craig-subsequently the editor of the Arden Shakespeare--and a single tea party given in Dulwich by the wife of a missionary whom he had met on the ship bringing him to England. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that Sōseki formed a poor opinion of English social life and that back in japan he was widely rumored to have gone mad.
In 1903 he returned to Tokyo and, shortly thereafter, in fulfillment of the terms of his London scholarship, served four years as a lecturer in English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. During this period he began writing. He had formed various useful literary friendships while he was a student at the university, and, though his close friend Shiki had died in 1902, the editorial board of the influential literary magazine Hototogisu (Cuckoo), which Shiki had founded, still included many men who were Sōseki’s personal friends.
Takahama Kyoshi--one of the editors of Hototogisu, but not a close friend of Sōseki-allegedly asked Soseki to write something for the magazine. Accordingly, during 1904, Sōseki produced his first short story, which he called I Am a Cat. Takahama read it, told Sōseki that it was no good, and, when Sōseki asked for an explanation, provided comment in considerable detail. Today it seems ludicrous that one of the three or four best novelists ever to write in japanese should have been glad to receive guidance from such a relatively insignificant figure asTakahama. However, we must remember that, at that time, Takahama was a wellknown, well-established, and very influential editor (a man with the sensitivity to divine Sōseki’s promise and the kindness to give him guidance), while Sōseki was a virtually unknown young man who had just produced his first, and really rather odd, short story. In any event, Sōseki appears to have accepted the advice (though he later stated that he could not remember what that advice had been) and rewrote the story. Takahama liked the second version and published it in the January 1905 issue of Hototogisu.
Sōseki had not intended to write more than that single short story, which is now the first chapter of a very long book, but Takahama was so pleased with its immediate success that he persuaded Sōseki to write further installments. The subsequent ten chapters that make up I Am a Cat were thus successively published in Hototogisu’s issues for February, April, June, July, and October 1905 and for January, March, April, and August 1906. The seventh and eighth chapters appeared together in the issue for January 1906. This somewhat curious account of the origin and development of Sōseki’s famous novel rests primarily upon Takahama’s testimony in his later book Soseki and I, but there is no reason to doubt that it is substantially correct. The actual book of I Am a Cat was first published in three-volume form, the volumes appearing in October 1905, November 1906, and May 1907. The first single-volume edition was published in 1911.
Takahama’s account of how this story came to be a novel explains the unevenness, even jerkiness, of the early parts of the book. Indeed, though the first chapter is adequately articulated into the total work, it is as clear from that chapter’s ending as from Sōseki’s own later remarks- “When the first chapter appeared in Hototogisu, it was my intention to stop there” -that he originally meant to write no more. There are, moreover, one or two minor points in that first chapter that an ungenerous critic might highlight as inconsistent with subsequent portions of the book. The second chapter, nearly the longest of them all, shows Sōseki still feeling his way towards the right chapter length. He did not really hit his stride until the third chapter, which finally established the tone, length, and character of the remaining eight.
The circumstances of the book’s construction no doubt largely account for its rambling structure and discursive content; however, Sōseki must very quickly have realized that the technique used by Laurence Sterne for the construction of The Life and Opinions if Tristram Shandy would very neatly solve his own problems. Though Sōseki’s total book is held together by the continuing theme of a nameless eat’s observations on upper-middle-class Japanese society of the Meiji period, the essence of the book resides in the humor and the sardonic truth of those various observations, not in the development of the story. The eat’s eventual drunken death in a water-butt comes without any particular reason or structural build-up, and one is forced to the conclusion that Sōseki simply drowned his hero because he had run out of sufficiently humorous observations to offer on Meiji society. Consequently, it is possible to take almost any single chapter of the book as an isolated short story.
It is also worth stressing the apparent oddity of choosing for the main character in one’s first published writing a stray kitten, and a stray kit ten world-weary from the moment of its birth. However, much of the charm of I Am a Cat resides in its diverting presentation of a eat’s view of mankind. The satire is of man in general but the as**sociated case for the superiority of cats, however entertainingly and persuasively put, is not inexhaustible; so that the unique cat-ness of the opening chapters simply could not be maintained in its original and beguiling purity throughout the further chapters demanded by a happily insulted public. Sōseki himself was clearly alive to these considerations, for as early as the opening paragraph of the third chapter the cat apologizes to readers for his growing resemblance to a human being and for his consequent new tendency to criticize humanity as though he, too, were human. Thus the satire beginning in Chapter 3 is less specifically feline. In yet later chapters the eat’s viewpoint becomes almost totally human, while the object of satire narrows from mankind in general (albeit as exemplified in Meiji, middle-class society) to a concentrated satirization of the particularities of that particular society. By? a combination of sheer literary skill and a seemingly endless inventiveness, Sōseki contrived to maintain the vitality of his book throughout eleven chapters and some quarter million words: but one understands why, eventually, he had no choice but to drown his hero. It would, however, be unreasonable to denigrate the first-rate satire of the later parts of I Am a Cat simply because they lack the full felinity, the quite exceptional beguilement, of the earlier parts of the book. Moreover, one has only to read Sōseki’s other comic novel Botchan (The Young Master), of 1906, with its entirely human style of human satire, to realize that, however much humanity seeps in to soften the later portions of I Am a Cat, even their most uncatlike passages contain that glint, that claw-flash under velvet, which stamp them ultimately aluroid. In addition, choosing a kitten for the main character has a two-fold meaning as Soseki was, in fact, himself a stray kitten. As soon as he was born, Sōseki’s parents had put him out to nurse. In his first year he was adopted by the Shiobara family. He only rejoined his own family when the Shiobaras were divorced some eight years later. And even then he only learned that his parents were his parents from the whisperings of servants. Sōseki lived his life as do all those who feel themselves born middle-aged.
While at the university Sōseki wrote several other books, notably Botchan (a satire reflecting his teaching experience at Shikoku), but he disliked university life and, rightly, considered himself very poorly paid. He accordingly resigned as soon as he could (1907) and became the literary editor of the Asahi Shimbun. He continued in that journal’s employment, publishing several novels as serials in its pages, until his death in 1916 from complications arising from the stomach troubles that plagued the last ten years of his life.

Sōseki Natsume is generally recognized in Japan as the best writer of prose to have emerged during the century since contact was re-established with the outside world in 1868. Despite the lateness of his development as a novelist (he was only just short of forty when his first book was published), Sōseki rapidly achieved, and has since maintained, widespread recognition as the best of modern Japanese novelists. His literary reputation reflects not only the variety, quality, and modernity of his novels, but the high regard still paid to his works of scholarly criticism, to his enchanting essays, and, especially, to his poetry. His haiku, strongly influenced by his personal friend Masaoka Shiki, were once considered outstanding but, though they continue to be included in anthologies of modern haiku, their diminutive form was not the natural mode for the expression of his genius. His poems in English, poor imitations of the poorest style of Edwardian poetry, are appalling. But his many excellent poems in Chinese, some written even in the month before his death, are the last (or, rather, the most recent) flowering of a formidable tradition of such writing by Japanese poets which, unbroken, extends right back to the Kaifūsō of 751. Sōseki’s deep scholarship, both in Chinese and in English literature, eminently qualified him for that marrying of Eastern and Western traditions, which was the declared objective of Meiji policy-makers. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries who had learned their English in mission schools, Sōseki approached Western literature with the wary sensitivity of a man deeply versed in the Chinese tradition.
Sōseki was, of course, also well-versed in Japanese literature. However, oddly enough for a man of gentle birth, the main Japanese influences upon his writing are found in the rakugo---comic recitations by professional storytellers-to which his childhood circle had been addicted. The rakugo techniques are especially noticeable in his masterly use of dialogue. It is also worth stressing that, though Sōseki’s Chinese studies resulted in a style as concise as the language traditionally used in the composition of tanka and haiku, much of the vitality of his prose writing comes from his skilled exploitation of colloquial Japanese speech (kogotai).
Sōseki’s writing represents a continuation into modern times of the city-culture which first flowered in the late seventeenth century when the wealth of the towns prospering under the Pax Tokugawa provided the economic base for an urban and specifically non-aristocratic literature. Sōseki’s writing contains an untraditional independence of thought and attitude- a rationalist and (in the best sense) liberal outlook-which is often contrasted with the very rigid samurai attitude that was also prevalent during Sōseki’s time.
Sōseki’s longer novels reflect his as**siduous study of the construction and mechanisms of the English novel and, in particular, his liking for the works of Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Jane Austen. He shared their sly, ironic turn of mind, and their influence’on his work was more deep and lasting than that of George Meredith, as so frequently cited by contemporary critics.
There is an understandable tendency for critics of any literature to emphasize the dependence of a writer on his predecessors, but the “game of influences” is all too frequently played with all enthusiasm that leads to an unfair disregard of the writer’s real originality;’ So far as Japan is concerned, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Sōseki’s originality was a main factor in his popular success-but he also has genuine claims to originality in world literature. World literature has, of course, a long tradition of animal-fables, animal myths, and major groupings of stories around such figures as Renard the Fox and even Brer Rabbit. But Sōseki’s device of dealing with a human world through animal eyes appears to be entirely original.
Sōseki’s modernity is even more strikingly illustrated by the fact that sixty years ago the characters in I Am a Cat (notably “the aesthete”) were all fully engaged in those comic ploys and counter-ploys of gamesmanship, lifemanship, and one upmanship that are now usually as**sociated with the comparatively recent work of Stephen Potter. The passages in the first chapter of I Am a Cat about Gibbon’s History of the French Revolution and Harrison’s Theophano are both extremely fine examples of what Potter has called “rilking.” Similarly, the description of the visit to a restaurant in the second chapter is a particularly well-developed example of Potter’s comic techniques.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Sōseki’s work is that, while deeply conversant with Western literature and while sharply and persistently critical of Japanese society, he remained unswamped (even, perhaps, unimpressed) by Western enlightenment. Throughout his career he remained essentially and uncompromisingly Japanese; his deadly serious attitude is, typically, revealed in that comic, even coarse, account in Koto no Sorane (1905) of the protest by Japanese badgers against contemporary Japanese infatuation with routine badger-tricks (such as the “hypnotic method”) whose sole novelty is that their names have been exported to Japan by “badgers in the West.” Probably for this reason Sōseki’s writings have retained their popularity and, perhaps, even extended their influence. In a public opinion survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun among students and professors at four universities which still produce the social and intellectual elite of Japan, Sōseki‘s Kokoro (The Heart of Things) of 1914 was second only to Dostoievski’s Crime and Punishment in the list of books which had most influenced the thinking of the interviewees. Yukiguni (Snow Country) by Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari was seventeenth.

Sōseki‘s brilliant and extremely concise use of the Japanese language makes all his writings difficult to translate. In the case of this particular book, difficulty arises with the very first word of its title, Wagahai wa Neko de Aru. There being no English equivalent for the Japanese word Wagahai, the main significance of that title, the comic incongruity of a mere cat, a mere stray mewling kitten, referring to itself in so lordly a manner, cannot be conveyed to the English reader. An additional difficulty that faces any translator of Sōseki’s work is his individual literary style: its reflection of his deep scholarship in Chinese, Japanese, and English literature, its consequent exploitation of a singularly wide range of reference and its unique combination of classical and colloquial language. Such problems usually lead translators to beg the indulgence of their readers: but forgive them not, for they know what they do.


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