Thursday, 3 May 2018

The True Meaning of Local Democracy

On a broad, leafy avenue linking the popular suburbs of Fallowfield and Chorlton in South Manchester, there is a seemingly infinite array of political party placards - every single one for the same party. Labour, Labour, Labour...

You wouldn’t think that Labour would have to campaign too hard in these parts - they currently hold 95 out of the city’s 96 seats and between 2010 and 2016 held all 96. Yet through the door come multiple Labour leaflets, while in many areas of the city, the Conservatives mount no active campaign at all.

In fact, for many years the Conservatives struggled to find anyone who would stand as candidates in the wards of England’s second city. You would have to be a complete mug, it seems, to even try.

I am one of those mugs...In many parts of England, standing as a Conservative may be the safe, establishment thing to do: not in Manchester, where there has not been a Conservative councillor in over 25 years. Here it feels like you are a reckless and gutsy guerrilla fighter.

I am running in the ward of Didsbury East, on paper at least the type of place where you might imagine the Conservatives would flourish. It has plenty of Edwardian and new-build mansions and is beloved by the chattering classes.

Yet I can’t think I have seen a Conservative placard on display anywhere in Didsbury, or indeed any part of Manchester, in the last 20 years.

I wonder if any academic studies have been undertaken on what the “tipping point” is that support must fall to before it becomes socially unacceptable to display a placard. Actually, not just socially unacceptable, but positively dangerous - inviting a torrent of doorstop abuse or your car being keyed.

It was going to be interesting trying to root out those “hidden Conservatives”... I announced to my 8-year-old daughter that I was going out campaigning, but she got the world “campaign” mixed up with “champagne” and started telling me how she tried some once but she thought it was fake (it was sparkling apple juice), all of which left me nonplussed. When I asked her if she would like to join me on the campaign trail, she enthusiastically responded, “Are we going to do that champagne thing now?”

I rather like the idea of going “champagning” rather than “campaigning”, though I suspect the connection of the word campaign to champagne might be premature. I personally hand delivered 2500 Conservative leaflets, and was amused by some of the responses. “Haven’t seen any of these in a while”, said one retiree. When I put the leaflet in one letterbox, a furious young man with a beard raced down the street and shouted at me, “Don’t put this **** in my letterbox!”

But there were numerous positive responses too. When a dog barked furiously at me as I passed one carefully tended garden, its owner hushed it with, “Be quiet, it’s the Conservatives!” Another lady stopped me on the street and told me how delighted she was that the Conservatives were back campaigning in Didsbury.

When I bumped into a LibDem delivering leaflets on the same street, I jokingly offered to deliver his leaflets for him, while noting there was a bin nearby.

What I take most from this process of walking up to hundreds and hundreds of doorsteps over many hours, so that my feet are quite blistered, is the importance of the democratic process itself. Like many people I tend to get irritated by endless political leaflets coming through the door, and admit I have sometimes in the past transferred them directly to the recycling. And in my campaigning too, some people in Manchester when offered a leaflet, refuse to take it when they see it is from the Conservatives.

Yet I think they are making a mistake, not because I want them to vote Conservative, but because they fail to appreciate how difficult it is these days to get minority parties to mount any kind of campaign in areas they don’t consider “winnable”. Pretty soon, people in Manchester just get used to the idea that Labour will win without their bothering to vote - after all the national turnout in local elections is around 30% - and the only possible alternative is the LibDems.

But this type of thing is a travesty of true democracy. I consider it my mission as I pound, solo, Manchester streets not just encouraging Conservative voters, but offering everyone a true democratic choice. It is appalling that Manchester has slid into being a one-party state - where none of the business of government is scrutinised by any kind of opposition in the Town Hall - and yet noone appears to be remotely bothered about it.

Just to be completely even-handed about these things, I wish to also tell you that it pains me that a few miles south, where family members live in the wealthy area of Bramhall in Cheshire, Labour never mount any campaigns or push any leaflets through the letterbox.

Do people in Manchester seriously think that 95 out of 96 councillors being Labour is a good thing? Or that people in Cheshire have no need to even read what Labour campaign promises might possibly be made to them? Whatever your politics, don’t you think that councils are likely to be better run, more diverse and democratically legitimate with some other parties represented? But no, in a “powerhouse” Northern city all they do is put up placards: Labour, Labour, Labour...

I personally take no glee in seeing different parts of the country dominated by one party or another, and then rather than attempting to make a comeback in areas where they have been rooted out, funnelling all resources into utterly dominating areas they already control.

The worst travesty - of which all parties are guilty - is treating local elections as national elections, concerned only by the end of the night with the grand totals of seats won and lost and what that spells for Westminster. But really, that type of thing is of much lesser importance. What really matters is that every party is fully represented and campaigning and engaging with the public in every local area. That is true local democracy at work.

What we have at the moment is a system that is grotesquely distorted, broken, and profoundly undemocratic.

For me, it will be a triumph not so much if I get elected, but if I have managed to connect with thousands of people in a ward in which they had come to think that there were at best two choices, that the Conservatives simply did not care about them and that it was hardly worth voting. I have put myself forward in order to offer a viable, important third option - whether they choose to take it is far less important than their actually having it.

If just some of the people of Manchester appreciate this revival of the more genteel, less world weary and less polarized politics of yesteryear, then I will truly consider my “campaign” to be worthy of “champagne”.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

A Tantalising Glimpse into a "Rogue" Soseki

There has been a truly fascinating and important discovery in the world of Natsume Soseki scholarship, one which begins with the tiniest of inscriptions...

According to the April 4 evening edition of the Asahi newspaper a postcard has emerged sent by the Japanese engineer Nagao Hanpei to a Japanese scholar of German literature then living in Berlin called Fujishiro Teisuke. The postcard depicts Robbie Burns and the Burns cottage in Ayr, Scotland and is co-signed by a “Natsume Kinnosuke” (the real name of Natsume Soseki). The card specifically indicates being in Edinburgh on November 1 1901.

Why does any of that matter? It has always been thought that during the two years Soseki spent in the UK between October 1900 and December 1902, apart from a single night spent in Cambridge at the very beginning and a stay of a week or two in Pitlochry, Scotland at the very end, Soseki never left London. But this postcard potentially explodes that idea.

About Soseki’s first year in London we have a pretty detailed knowledge because Soseki kept a diary. But a year in, the diary entries dry up and what he actually got up to becomes mysterious. This is just after the time that Soseki ceased his weekly sessions with his Irish tutor William Craig and became isolated and neurotic, obsessed with writing his “Theory of Literature”.

To adopt the parlance of “Apocalypse Now”, Soseki was about to “go rogue”, famously reputed to have sent his employers at the Ministry of Education in Tokyo a blank sheet of paper as the annual report on his progress. The gossip amongst the Japanese in London meanwhile, telegrammed back to Tokyo, would soon be that Soseki had “gone insane”.

Now suddenly we see Soseki pop up in Scotland and Edinburgh, one year ahead of schedule...

For me this opens up far more interesting possibilities. For example, I’ve always strongly felt that Soseki must have visited Manchester Art Gallery - above all art galleries, including the Tate in London, it is the art works contained there that most powerfully connect to Soseki’s later writings. Yet there is no proof that Soseki ever visited Manchester - indeed, quite the reverse, it has always been firmly believed that, with the above two exceptions, he never left London.

But now we have a glimpse of another “rogue” Soseki, failing to report on his movements, who could potentially have visited many places in the UK we simply do not know about. However if we look at the pattern of Soseki’s earlier and later life, then we can see that an impulse to travel, particularly as a form of alleviating stress, is a consistent feature.

The secret life of Soseki’s dark year in the UK, when he went metaphorically “up river”, is a mystery that still throws up tantalising clues and glimpses into the enduring enigma of Soseki.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Wandering a Psychological Ice Palace

In the northern hemisphere we are approaching the coldest part of the year so I thought I might talk about a couple of favourite novels called 'The Ice Palace' and 'The Birds' by the great Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas:

It is winter time in Norway. At the edge of a rural village a waterfall has frozen and been transformed into an ice palace, an awesome structure of icy caves and cliffs. In a classroom at the local school, there is a new arrival, an eleven-year-old girl called Unn. She is quiet and enigmatic and so she is regarded with suspicion by her new classmates. But suddenly she forms a mysterious bond with a popular girl called Siss.

Siss invites Unn to the home where she lives with her aunt. It is almost as if there is a kind of strange telepathy between the two girls and an immediate intimacy. Unn has a secret that she wishes to share with the other girl, but Siss begins to feel uncomfortable and leaves. They will never meet again. The following day, Unn sets out to the ice palace on her own and becomes lost inside it. Then the search for her begins...

The Ice Palace, the novel published in 1963 by Tarjei Vesaas, is a work like no other. Broodingly written in a beautiful prose that demonstrates a powerful economy with words, it explores a difficult and fascinating subject: the mindset of children on the edge of puberty. The children are presented not as immature minors, but rather in their own terms, as persons not yet dulled into set patterns of behaviour, and capable of sudden impulsive acts that conform to their own sense of logic. More so than adults they are intuitive and expressive and alive to the mysteries of the world around them. We feel exactly what it must be like to be eleven-year-old girls interacting with one another, but we also explore how one person can enter into another's consciousness like an eternal presence, whose physical disappearance will haunt her for the rest of her days.

Tarjei Vesaas was born in Vinje in Telemark, Norway, in 1897. His family were farmers who had lived in the same house for over 300 years, and a strong sense of place and age-old tradition are central to the setting in many of his novels. Vesaas attended a local folk school and then in the 1920s travelled abroad, mainly in Germany, before returning to live in his native region from 1927 onwards. His wife Halldis Vesaas was also a writer.

Themes such as psychological isolation, guilt and death frequently recur in Vesaas' works. His 1957 novel The Birds, for example, tells the story of a mentally handicapped 37-year-old man called Mattis. He lives with his sister Hege who is slightly older and looks after him. Mattis is constantly aware of being a burden on his sister, who tries to make ends meet by knitting sweaters and encourages her brother to go out and find some work. He begs for work on a neighbouring farm and is asked to help thinning out turnips, but is humiliated by his inability to do the work properly.

Vesaas depicts Mattis in such a way that we see that although he is incapable of doing many basic tasks, of even forming his own thoughts into intelligent conversation, he is by no means lacking in thoughts. He has an innate feeling for the natural world – and indeed it is a great theme of Vesaas that it is those who are isolated from the ordinary adult world like Unn in The Ice Palace and Mattis in The Birds who most vividly connect to the primeval forces of nature.

It is almost as if the people in the ordinary adult world have had their senses numbed by the round of work and social interaction. When a woodcock flies over Mattis' house, it is for him an event of great significance which is entirely incomprehensible to his sister. A local boy hearing about the woodcock comes and pointlessly shoots it – yet only Mattis perceives this as a great tragedy, an affront to the majesty and beauty of the natural world.

Both The Ice Palace and The Birds are full of dark and mysterious symbols. In The Birds two wilted aspen trees are referred to by the people in the village as Mattis-and-Hege, but though both brother and sister are aware of this, they try to keep this insulting information from the other. When lightning strikes and one of the trees falls, Mattis panics that this is a sign that one of them will soon die – but which one of them will it be?

Vesaas' stories are both beautiful and deceptively simple. Reading about the ice palace, for example, almost makes one wish to head up into the north of Norway to find one. It is as if there exists in the frozen wastes something pure and powerful and wonderful, which is solid and yet appears almost as a mirage and then suddenly melts and disappears. It seems a metaphor for the very process of life itself – we wander around a psychological palace with many chambers. But perhaps we are most alive to its power and majesty, its deepest mysteries, not when we are adults but rather in the far-off days of our childhood when everything was new, when we acted on instinct and experienced everything with fresh eyes. When it made just as much sense to wander off on one's own to explore a frozen waterfall as it did to sit in a class and learn everything second-hand and written down.

Monday, 19 June 2017

12 Books to See the UK Through Brexit

Albeit that the recent UK General Election has now delivered a "strong and stable government", it's going to be a long 2 year slog through the Brexit process which formally began today.

It's going to be 1940 all over again: Britain alone, clinging on valiantly against the odds, facing the combined might of the Continent. We will fret whether we are going to survive at all, but secretly we will be rejoicing at having a chance of another long-overdue "finest hour" to triumph over the doom-sayers.

We are going to need to have some fine reads by our side to keep our peckers up and keep Britannia safe and sound. Here are my 12 essential reads to see us through.

1. "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill. (1859)

Listen Frau Merkel and Monsieur Macron, when Mill (pictured left) wrote this eternal paean to freedom, Bismarck was cranking up his political career in Prussia and the French Second Empire was yet to collapse into the chaos of the failed revolution of the 1871 Paris Commune. Mill preferred a more gentle, quintessentially British approach to liberty - not something to be attempted in fits and starts, but something that infuses the whole culture of the land and its people. Wave a copy with pride and send one to Herr Juncker.

2. "Goodbye to All That" by Robert Graves. (1929)

We fought for European freedom on the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele and look what thanks we got...Robert Graves called it right in 1929. We're disillusioned with getting embroiled in the continent and we'll happily give up residency rights - just so long as we can retire on Mallorca and all the other sweet Mediterranean islands.

3. "1984" by George Orwell. (1949)

Orwell had it precisely: Britain should never have been part of "Eurasia" and always belonged to "Oceania". We were always going to get back to the open sea...Now we are out of the way, the EU can get on with a stream-lined supranational state with an unquestioned Big Brother president. Let's have a double think about sex crimes though.

4. "The Trial" by Franz Kafka. (1925)

Joseph K wakes up one morning and finds himself threatened with a gruelling legal process. He bitterly grumbles about it, and yet races obediently to the court hearing though not even summoned....Joseph, why don't you just tell them all to take a flying leap? The trial exists not so much in reality as in Joseph K's own obeisant mind...No deal better than a bad deal? You better believe it.

5. "Far from the Madding Crowd" by Thomas Hardy. (1874)

OK, so Hardy Country can be excruciatingly tedious and lead you fumbling for your passport and the next flight to the continent. But hey, there's something comforting about all those rolling green fields and timeless English ways. Grim and occasionally depressing? Sure, but in a comforting British sort of grumbling, miserable way.

6. "Whisky Galore" by Compton MacKenzie. (1947)

Who even cares if we don't get a trade deal? We've got all the stuff the French want anyway. If we can't sell them our Scottish whisky, we can drink it all ourselves. How wonderful would that be?

7. "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming. (1953)

You think the negotiations are going to be difficult and that we are going to have to hold our nerve? Thankfully we have just the man for the job. Just make sure his martini is very cold and very strong. It's Bond against Le Chiffre: stylish courage pitted against underhand bureaucracy. Just hold on to your vital parts if they sit you down in a chair with the seat cut out...

8. "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. (1818)

Mary Shelley could see it all coming when she jotted down this Gothic horror by a lake in Switzerland 200 years ago. Stitch together a lot of discarded limbs of European states and pump some political currents through them and this is what you get: a rampaging EU monster that is going to take some stopping. We should perhaps try and arrange the Brexit negotiations near the North Pole and lure the EU team into the icy wilderness.

9. "Victory" by Joseph Conrad. (1915)

Let's not get carried away. Conrad meant the title of this book ironically (he was one of those Polish migrants turned British gent after all). But still we need something to give us a bit of vim and remind us of the glorious British Empire and trade routes throughout the world, before we got hung up on this whole European project. Did someone say "Robinson Crusoe"? Never heard of it.

10. "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh. (1930)

Whatever happens we have to retain our sense of humour. After all, we don't actually make anything any more. We just do the finance, make costume dramas and export comedians. We have to make sure that they don't put import tariffs on comedy or we are sunk. If all else fails we must flatter them in such a cunning, idiosyncratically British way that they don't even grasp that we are are having a hilarious joke at their expense.

11. "The Labyrinth of Solitude" by Octavio Paz. (1950)

Why is Mexico and and its people so very different to its neighbour the United States, Paz (pictured left) pondered. Hmm, because they have different cultural influences and histories, he concludes. But that's fine. Solitude is the new cool. Soon everyone will want it and Britain will be the go-to minotaur in the labyrinth.

12. "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (1866)

You've done the crime, now do the time. Why did you murder that kindly old lady who never listened to a word you said and bossed you about anyway? You crazy, crazy people. Get down on your knees and repent. We need the whole world to see that the EU does not take expressions of autonomy and individualism lying down.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

George Sand's Comical Evisceration of Mallorca

Over Easter I spent two weeks travelling around the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. For many British people, this is the very first place they visit when they venture overseas, but it took me a few decades to make the pilgrimage.

Unquestionably the most famous couple to have ever resided in Mallorca were the French novelist George Sand (1804-76) and her lover, the pianist Frederick Chopin (1810-49) who visited the island between November 1838 and March 1839. They eventually moved to the monastery in the beautiful mountain top town of Valldemosa, today a mecca for tourists. Sand's account of her travels, "A Winter in Mallorca" (1842), is sold throughout the island in a variety of languages.

Such vintage travel books can often be a considerable bore, but I thought I would give George Sand - whom I knew little about - a go and I am glad I did: "Winter in Mallorca" is a gem, a true travel classic. However it is considerably different to what you might expect. For one thing, Chopin (pictured right) is never actually mentioned, only obliquely referred to as Sand's sickly companion. Secondly, Sand is corruscating and often hilariously rude about the Spanish in general and the Mallorcans in particular, about whom she has scarcely a kind word to say.

In Sand's depiction, the Mallorca of 1838 is a savage, primitive place where the locals can be sniffed before they appear as they reek of olive oil and garlic and where the only thing that is cultivated properly on the island are the pigs (the only livestock allowed to be exported). There are no lodgings at all to be found in the capital Palma (population 36,000) because tenants have to provide their own windows which take six months to make.

The Mallorcans are depicted as keen to fleece foreigners of every penny they have and very reluctant to offer any hospitality, despite constantly pretending otherwise. Sand caustically writes,

"One cannot look at a picture, touch a piece of material, or lift up a chair, without being charmingly told: 'Esta a la disposicion de Usted.' [It is at your disposal'] But beware of accepting so much as a pin, for that would be an intolerable indiscretion."

Arriving at the hill-top monastery (pictured from approach road, left), Sand's most complimentary words are reserved for the housekeeper who she remarks "had once been good-looking". But the chambermaid is "the arch-witch of Valldemosa" and another young girl "a dishevelled little monster".

At the beginning of this book - which is today enthusiastically promoted in tourist outlets across the island - Sand tells us that, "The Spaniard is ignorant and superstitious; consequently he believes in infection, fears illness and death, lacks in faith and charity. Being miserable and overburdened by taxation he becomes greedy, selfish and deceitful in his dealings with foreigners."

As for Mallorca, the whole island is riven with corruption, cronyism and the psychological imprint of medieval practices. "When one asks on what a rich Majorcan spends his income in a country lacking all luxuries and temptations, the answer is to be found in a specially set aside wing of the house, filled with good-for-nothing loafers of both sexes, who after spending a year in service to their master, have the right to be lodged, clothed and boarded for the rest of their lives."

From the above, it might sound as if Sand simply rucked up in Mallorca and spewed out invective in all directions, but in fact there was a greater architecture of ideas at work. Sand believed passionately that France had evolved through the Revolution and the Napoleonic years into a socially advanced state that was far superior to Spain, still striving to free itself from the oppressions of the Inquisition, which had been abolished only a few years earlier. She saw France as a land of forward-looking art and industry, and Spain as a land of peasant superstition and corruption. Her greatest contempt is reserved for the unthinking or venal servants of the Catholic church in Spain, the hypocrite monks or blood-thirsty priests.

From a historical perspective, it's extremely revealing to understand what a cultural and developmental chasm divided France and Spain back in 1840. When we think today of European colonialism of the 19th century, we tend to think of the European nations as imposing themselves on other continents by virtue of industrial technology. But if you read "Winter in Mallorca", then it's plain to see that huge "development gaps" existed at the heart of Europe itself - Sand regards the large island of Mallorca, only 250 miles off the French coast as an uncivilized, savage place.

But instructive as Sand is about history, she is also insightful about so many universal constants of life. When Sand asks herself, "Why travel?", she provides this response: "Who amongst us has not, at some time, selfishly dreamed of forsaking his affairs, his habits, his acquaintances and even his friends, to settle in some enchanted island and live without worries, without responsibilities, and above all, without newspapers?"

Sand was of course a most extraordinary woman. Married and with two children, she left her husband and embarked upon some "wild" years, before hooking up with Chopin (statue of Chopin in front of the old monastery at Valldemosa, above). She sometimes wore men's clothes and smoked cigars. Her affair with Chopin came to a nasty Woody Allen-Mia Farrow style end ten years later when she accused Chopin of having long been in love with her daughter (Sand had travelled to Mallorca with her two children and Chopin). In her life she found time for affairs with a host of famous artists including Jules Sandeau, Prosper Merimee, Alfred de Musset, Pierre-Francois Bocage, Charles Didier, Felicien Mallefille, Louis Blanc...

But what would Sand (pictured left) have had to say to our current age, as we often shy away from criticizing ignorance and superstition for fear of offending sensibilities, even if the result is chronic social oppression? Sand was quite happy to have the grandest historical monuments torn down if it meant that in doing so people were eternally freed from the tortures - both of body and mind - of the Inquisition. We perhaps in the world today need more fearless free-thinking women like her.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The Man Who Came After Soseki

The wonderful Dr. Laurence Williams, who teaches English Literature at Tokyo University, posted an intriguing picture a couple of days ago of the grave at Zoshigaya Cemetery of his name-sake predecessor at Tokyo University, "Dr. John Lawrence", together with an amusing commentary. It seems that Tokyo University still lovingly tend the graves of their former professors, which is touching.

I hope Laurence won't mind if I write a few words of my own about "Dr. John Lawrence" who taught English literature at Tokyo University from 1906 until his death in 1916.

John Lawrence may today be an almost completely obscure figure, but he played a fascinating role in Japanese literary history. It's fairly well known that in early 1903 the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) - having been groomed for the position with two years study in London - took over as lecturer in English Literature at Tokyo University from the renowned Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). The appointment met with vociferous opposition of Hearn's students, who were hugely disappointed that the popular Irish writer was being forced out.

Despite being initially regarded with suspicion, Soseki soon turned things round and began to attract his own devotees at Tokyo University, even if his lectures were dauntingly analytical compared to Hearn's more artistic approach. Yet Soseki found his teaching burdens at the university increasingly onerous. He was also a lecturer at the First Higher School (a kind of proto-university and feed college for the super-elite Tokyo University): indeed his first wish had been to be a full professor at the First Higher College, but instead he was merely offered lectureships at The First Higher School and Tokyo University.

Soseki taught at Tokyo University alongside a foreign lecturer called Arthur Lloyd and, in a more minor capacity, a precocious literary scholar and poet called Ueda Bin, a Hearn protege brought in to quell the resentment at Hearn being released. The Japanese government's masterplan to replace Western scholars like Hearn with native talents like Soseki and Ueda Bin appeared to be working fine.

But soon everything started falling apart. For one thing, Soseki was increasingly turning against teaching and being an academic: in July 1906 he turned down a professorship at Kyoto University. Soseki wanted to be his own man and speak with his own voice and began pouring out creative works. He wanted out of Tokyo University, but since Soseki had been sent as a government paid scholar to England for two years, he felt rather guilty to just abandon his position. But if some distinguished foreign scholar on a full professorship was to come in to take his place...

At this point, the faculty decided to appoint John Lawrence, an associate of Professor Ker at University College, London, an expert on Medieval Lecture whose lectures Soseki had attended while in London in 1901 (Soseki did not think much of them). When Lawrence arrived in Tokyo in September 1906, he was 55 years old and spoke no Japanese. He had a wandering academic career that had seen him study and work in Paris, Berlin and Prague. He was taking over teaching duties from the greatest intellect of modern Japan: Soseki formally quit in February 1907.

More than that, Soseki's colleague Ueda Bin also quit in November of 1907 to go and study in Europe. The English faculty suddenly had no Japanese teachers at all and the chief responsibility for teaching lay with Japan-rookie, John Lawrence.

Just to add to the mayhem, it turned out that John Lawrence wasn't actually any good at literary criticism, indeed didn't do criticism at all. Lawrence belonged to the "old school" who believed that teaching about literary works consisted not in analyzing them with a fresh eye, but rather in drowning oneself in the minutiae of linguistic and historical details. (I think we all know a few scholars like that today...)

If you enter the world of Soseki's 1908 novel "Sanshiro" (pictured left), in which a student from Kyushu comes to Tokyo University to study English literature, there are clear references both to the fuss surrounding Soseki taking over from Hearn against student protest a few years earlier, and to the current style of classes under John Lawrence. Soseki indeed parodies Lawrence in a description of a class in which Sanshiro learns the Anglo-Saxon etymology of the word "answer".

Lawrence's speciality was such matters as Gothic (an extinct Germanic language) and Icelandic. There is a hilarious account in Nogami Toyoichiro's novel "Mina" of a character based upon him reading a Robbie Burns poem with his students and being asked what the Scots word "stroan't" meant. To his mortification, Lawrence had to explain it meant "urinated".

Unlike Hearn and Soseki, Lawrence published very little, but although he was not particularly admired by his undergraduate students, he was free of the occasionally abrasive personalities of Hearn and Soseki, whose creative impulses were at odds with the strictures of academia. Lawrence by contrast was perfectly suited to university life. He introduced seminars to the English Faculty, though students were required to pass exams to participate in them and only the most linguistically gifted students were accepted into his inner circle. But he would be treasured by a generation of top flight scholars of English literature, such as Saito Takeshi, who would go on to dominate critical studies over the following half century.

The genius short story writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke and playwright Kume Masao - two of Soseki's closest later disciples - were also graduates of the department under Lawrence. They are pictured here, Kume left and Akutagawa second right, alongside their fellow Tokyo University students future novelist Matsuoka Yuzuru second left - who went on to marry Soseki's eldest daughter - and the future writer Naruse Seiichi on the right. The four of them founded a literary magazine, "Shin-shicho" (" A New Trend of Thought") together.

The calibre of the teaching staff at the English Literature department of Tokyo University - boasting figures like Hearn, Soseki and Ueda Bin - was unsurpassed anywhere in the world. It was an extraordinary poisoned chalice for John Lawrence to be asked to take over from such huge talents.

Touching as it is that Tokyo University still tend the graves of their former professors, I can't help thinking the university should take greater pride in its exceptional literary heritage. Might I suggest it sometime run a symposium when it both celebrates and explores the story of English literature at Tokyo University and how it transformed the literature of modern Japan?

Monday, 20 February 2017

Natsume Soseki: Literary Revolutionary or "Ego" Maniac?

I've noticed I am sometimes cited in articles about the great Japanese author Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) - particularly in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth. Last month there was an article about the Soseki android which quoted me in connection with Soseki's experiences in London and last week ran a lengthy feature and I was referred to as a proponent of Soseki on the world stage.

It's always nice to get a mention in these pieces, but I have to slightly shake my head at the way, in pieces originally written in Japanese, all the tropes about Soseki being a writer obsessed with "egoism" and striving to transcend "self-centredness" in his final works are often repeated.

The article on about Soseki ("Japan's Foremost Modern Novelist") - translated from Japanese into English, French, Russian and Spanish (there have been 1800 shares in Spanish alone) - firmly tells you that he was an author obsessed with "egoism". What it should tell you is that the Japanese - struggling with their Confucian traditions - are fascinated with the subject of "egoism" and project their own obsessions onto their "readings" of Soseki.

What "egoism" means in this context is that Soseki is treated as the embodiment of traditional self-sacrificing Japanese values attempting to come to terms with the rampant individualism of Europe and America whose influence was sweeping across Japan in the early 20th century. Soseki in other words is meant to offer a quintessentially agonized "Japanese" response to "Western" self-centred modernity.

I used to regard this "reading" of Soseki as the hopelessly antiquated perspective of conservative, unimaginative commentators from 50 years ago, bolstered by bureaucrats at the Japanese Ministry of Education determined to foist their old-fashioned Confucian values on the populace at all costs.

In the youthful enthusiasm of my thirties, I was determined to show how banal such ideas were. Soseki was in fact, I fervently argued, a literary revolutionary and a radical - his literary genius lay in the fact that he synthesized the cutting edge psychological ideas of William James with the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the satire of Swift and Sterne. He was fascinated by the connections between dream, memory and our perception of the present; between the ways visual art and literature interconnect; he wished to apply the latest scientific and sociological theories to literature.

I even published a couple of books in Japanese, "The Natsume Soseki the Japanese Don't Know" (pictured right) and "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" to show that the prevailing Japanese notions of Soseki being obsessed with "egoism" and "self-centredness" were nonsense. And, predictably, they sank almost without trace... At about the same time, the Korean-Japanese writer Kang Sang-jung published a book about Soseki called "The Power of Wavering". It sold over a million copies. Its theme? Soseki was a writer obsessed with egoism...

These days, older and wiser, rather than seeing the whole "Soseki and egoism" trope as a nefarious plot of the conservative establishment, I simply recognize it as something which has deep appeal in Japan.

Soseki was a highly intellectual writer, hugely well-read and channelling diverse Western influences as well as numerous Japanese and Chinese influences (rakugo comic monologues, Noh theatre, haiku and Chinese poetry among them). In Japan his career is usually described as having two movements: a "humorous" early phase (1904-1908) that encompassed comedies such as "Botchan" and "I am a Cat"; and a second "serious" phase from 1909 to 1916 which covers his supposed "egoism" obsession culminating in such works as "The Wayfarer" and "Kokoro".

In fact, looked at another way, the chief characteristic of Soseki's early phase is not so much "humour" as an obsessive contemplation of the connections between visual and literary art; and the chief characteristic of the second phase is a wrestling with German philosophical ideas. But for the general readership in Japan - largely unfamiliar with the mostly British art and German philosophy that Soseki was contemplating - it's not surprising that those works become "read" in an entirely different fashion.

"Egoism" is a subject of keen interest in Japan, particularly when they think of the Meiji era, when Japan was opening itself up to Western influences. In the previous Edo period, the age of the "samurai" (literally, "one who serves"), the ideal had been to give yourself up in devotion to your feudal lord. But in the social revolution of the Meiji era (1868-1912), completely new Westernized concepts of "self" were created. Soseki has become enshrined in Japan as the author who contemplates the perils of this modern "egoism".

Naturally, as a man of the Meiji era, Soseki does indeed, on occasion, touch upon these subjects such as in his public talk "My Individualism" (1914). But in most of his novels "egoism" is no more an accurate description of his subject than applying it pointlessly to any author would be (Is "Hamlet" a study in "egoism"? Is "Moby Dick"? Or "Don Quixote"?)

My point here is not to argue the toss about a specific interpretation of Soseki but to show how certain cultures perceive particular writers in often bizarrely fixed terms. We are I think always aware that if we read a writer in translation then we miss many of the nuances and flavour of the original, and that is surely true. But we also tend to think that the nation from which a writer has sprung is likely to have far greater insight into him or her than amateurish interlopers from overseas. Yet the reality is that when you read the critical "readings" of the Japanese on Soseki - while they are superlative on untangling Japanese influences - they often throw far more light on the nature of the Japanese themselves than they actually offer insight on Soseki.

When I published my books in Japanese on Soseki, I would be amused to read online discussions along the lines of "Can foreigners actually understand Soseki?" The acute irony is that a writer like Soseki - steeped in so many ways in Western culture and philosophical thought - is one that the Japanese themselves have the greatest difficulty in fully understanding.

But the broader point is to always bear in mind that national perceptions of authors are necessarily limited. Shakespeare has had a far more thrilling and diverse career in Germany, Japan and countries around the world than he has ever had in Britain. One of the most unfortunate tendencies of recent years (perhaps under the fear of "cultural appropriation") is that foreign authors are often introduced in stilted introductions by someone from the culture from which they sprang. Such notions - sincere in intention - are deeply mistaken.

By all means aspire to read authors in their native tongues and listen to what the critical consensus on them in their homeland is. But also do not forget to apply the utmost scepticism to such "readings".

In this anniversary year, there have been a variety of events, writing competitions and newspaper features which aspire to project Soseki as a "world author". Yet too often this "world-wide projection" is perceived in terms of translation into foreign languages and comparison of Soseki with other great world writers as a point of national pride. A far harder concept for the Japanese to grasp is to understand how their traditional readings of Soseki might be, well, mis-readings. The "globalization" of an author consists not just in exporting indigenous critical ideas, but in the homeland having the courage to revise their own traditions and let go of the concept of "ownership" of even their most-beloved national author.