When I was a child I would play a game which involved using a jar to catch bees. I’d shake the jar and then open the lid and run away from the obviously infuriated insect. However, on one occasion I shook the jar, dropped it and ran away, but the bee didn’t chase after me. Cautiously I returned to the jar and peered through the glass; the bee was stationary inside, perhaps injured or confused or dead. I felt, at that moment, an intense sadness and shame. When the insects were angry and aggressive their distress was clear, was in my face, but somehow that touched me less and it certainly didn’t stop me playing my game; yet the unmoving bee moved me, it’s quiet and passive acceptance [as I imagined it] of its fate was far more powerful.
Passive acceptance of your fate, quiet undemonstrative grief: these ideas go some way to summing up Natsume Soseki’s The Gate. It is a novel that completely lacks dramatic tension; the despair of the principle characters Sosuke and Oyone is so unobtrusive and well-disguised that it would be easy to speed-read your way through it and come out the other side wondering what on earth the point was. Yet, if one reads slowly and closely one realizes that there is deep unhappiness in almost every line.
The Gate, more than anything else, is a novel of subtle hints or suggestions, and of underlying hopelessness. Sosuke is described as a man considerably changed, as someone who was once full of life, but who is, in the present, unexcitable and unresponsive. A point is made of how young-looking his older relatives are, while he, in contrast, looks physically older than he is [suggesting, perhaps, that his sadness has aged him]. The youthful appearance of his aunt is put down to her only ever having had one child, which draws one’s attention to the fact that the couple have none [why?] and reminds you that at the beginning of the novel Oyone was watching a group of children playing outside the house; and this seemingly innocuous scene suddenly becomes imbued with pathos. The house is situated at the end of the street, beside a mountain, and we are told that there is the impression that there may one day be a landslide. Potential disaster, possible death…and yet even the mountain cannot rouse itself from its torpor and the landslide never materialises.
Sosuke is another one of Soseki’s superfluous men; he is at odds with himself and at odds with the world. He works hard and makes plans for his day of rest, and yet when this day arrives he always wastes it doing nothing. His personality is one of negation: he thinks about buying things, but never does; he wants to talk to his uncle about the legacy from his father, but, of course, he doesn’t do so. The conversations between himself and his partner are always stilted, always trail off; the atmosphere is uncomfortable, strained, oppressive; what is said is weighed down, made leaden, by what is unsaid. Rather than being lethargic, lazy, or disinterested, The Gate gives us a sense of a man who has given up, who has turned off the lights or shut down.
Whilst the book lacks discernible drama or pulsating action it is worth making the point that it is not a novel in which nothing happens. Things do happen, but it is what may have happened previously, prior to our involvement, that is important. As is often the way with Soseki, The Gate feels like a novel that takes place after the significant events; the author is, to my mind, a master chronicler of aftermaths. The almost constant allusions to some psychological burden, or secret, some possible tragedy, that may have contributed to or caused the couple to be the way that they are, gives the impression that these characters are slowly trudging through the rubble, rather than hurtling towards disaster, which may be frustrating for those who are more interested in high octane thrills. So, I could say that this is one of the most moving books I have ever read and some people will find that unbelievable, preferring the pissed-off bees and the wild chase to the profound sadness of the dazed and confused insect that is no longer able to climb out of the jar.