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Old 07-31-2019, 08:41 AM   #1
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August 2019 Discussion • I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume



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I Am a Cat (Japanese: 吾輩は猫である Hepburn: Wagahai wa Neko de Aru) is a satirical novel written in 1905–1906 by Natsume Sōseki, about Japanese society during the Meiji period (1868–1912); particularly, the uneasy mix of Western culture and Japanese traditions, and the aping of Western customs.

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Old 08-06-2019, 06:45 PM   #2
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It's early, but have at it, folks!

I know many of us are finding it slow going. I'm enjoying it, even though I know I'm missing much of the nuance and depth, but wit is wit. However, reading it all in one go strikes me as a little like reading all of Wodehouse's Blandings Castle works in one swoop. It's really not the best way to enjoy it. I did mean Wodehouse, too, as many of the asides to me have a distinctly Wodehousian flare.
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Old 08-06-2019, 08:18 PM   #3
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Historical and Cultural Context

As asked by issy, here is a very nerdly bit of context, working backwards, for Soseki, his works, and the Japan he was writing in:

I Am a Cat was written in 1905-06 when Soseki was a teacher of English at First National College and English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University. This was his first novel and his first full-time university post in Tokyo.

He studied English in the UK before he became a professor and would have seen and experienced firsthand the clash between Western and Eastern cultures. In 1900 he was sent to England by the Ministry of Education, “to investigate English language pedagogical methods”. This was part of the Meiji restoration that opened Japan to the rest of the world.

Japan was not open to the West at all until 1868, which was one year after Soseki was born. His writing is essentially a lifelong study in culture shock as viewed through a very Eastern mind.

I don't have time to delve into the religious and social systems that would have informed Soseki's life. Sufficed to say, I imagine him going to the UK to study would have felt like an Amish farmer going to LA. In spite of it, he fell in love with the literature of the West, if not the people. His later work is almost always compared favorably with Henry James.

As for I Am a Cat, Soseki scholars view this as a first-time experiment with the unreliable narrator. This is a concept that would not have appeared in Japanese literature in any real ways outside of folk tales. Kawana Sari argues in The Journal of Modern Literature that this novel was the first step towards a signature of Japanese literature - the interior narrative. Much of modern Japanese literature is introspective, first-person, and of varying reliability.

I am sad that many of you don't seem to be enjoying the novel, but I can understand why. I think if I had started with some of the "old" masters of Japanese literature when I first became interested in the language that I would have hit a wall. But I've read a wide range now in both English and Japanese and enjoy seeing the cultural revolutions through the generations of literature.

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Old 08-06-2019, 11:49 PM   #4
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I'm at the same point as issybird. Ready to start Volume III. I agree with the sentiments that it is better enjoyed as if serialized. Otherwise it becomes too tedious and you begin painfully rushing to get through it rather than appreciating the humor and social commentary. Therefore, I'm having an experience of opposite emotions with this book between liking and wanting to abandon it. However, I'm going to have to rush through the last chapters. The book is popular enough that it was on hold at my library both before and after me.
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Old 08-07-2019, 07:51 AM   #5
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Thanks very much for your post, astrangerhere. I was particularly interested that this was a first in Japanese literature for the unreliable narrator. Perhaps his unreliability shows up in the latter half of the book, as it wasn't something that had struck me.

I got as far as the end of Chapter 3 in Volume II, and just couldn't face reading any more. I found what was presumably supposed to be humorous to be laboured.

The misogyny which is rampant throughout the book was no doubt quite normal for the time, and not only in Japan of course. The long section towards the end of Volume I concerning Mrs Goldfield was horrible. However unpleasant a character might be, pages and pages of nasty comments about the fact she has a large nose is not funny - it is disgusting. As the cat thought to himself: "He's still going on about noses. What a spiteful bore he is." I could only agree.

Actually, I quite liked the cat, unreliable or not. I just wished he would get on with telling me the story, instead of waffling on interminably!

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Old 08-07-2019, 07:58 AM   #6
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I thought Mrs. Goldfield's large nose was an explicit signifier that she represented the West in the clash of values and culture and it didn't bother me as such. It perhaps got somewhat labored with repetition, but I didn't take it as misogynistic, or at least no more so than was inherent in the times and the culture.
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Old 08-08-2019, 09:45 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
Thanks very much for your post, astrangerhere. I was particularly interested that this was a first in Japanese literature for the unreliable narrator. Perhaps his unreliability shows up in the latter half of the book, as it wasn't something that had struck me.

I got as far as the end of Chapter 3 in Volume II, and just couldn't face reading any more. I found what was presumably supposed to be humorous to be laboured.

The misogyny which is rampant throughout the book was no doubt quite normal for the time, and not only in Japan of course. The long section towards the end of Volume I concerning Mrs Goldfield was horrible. However unpleasant a character might be, pages and pages of nasty comments about the fact she has a large nose is not funny - it is disgusting. As the cat thought to himself: "He's still going on about noses. What a spiteful bore he is." I could only agree.

Actually, I quite liked the cat, unreliable or not. I just wished he would get on with telling me the story, instead of waffling on interminably!
I think so much of this is cultural context. It took a LONG time studying the language for me to "get" modern Japanese humor. The vintage brand is still discordant, and I can understand why it might be for you.

About the noses... In Japan a large or prominent nose is actually a feature of desirability. The phrase "takai hana" means prominent or noble nose. I can't check the translation right this second, but I am willing to bet that is the phrase used and the translation is just not coming across. This is due to the fact that native Japanese tend to have a low nasal arch. There is at least one journal article out there, I am sure, that would argue that the fixation on Garfield's nose is actually a satire for the newly open Japan being obsessed with all things West, no matter how objectively ugly that thing is.
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Old 08-09-2019, 02:25 AM   #8
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Thanks, astrangerhere. It sounds as if issybird was "right on the money".

I was amused to pick up in Chapter 1 of Volume II, as the cat was ruminating on how cats like to wander around and don't bother about boundaries:

Quote:
... all land-ownership is unnatural and irrational. That, in fact, is my conviction, therefore I enter wherever I like. Naturally, I do not go anywhere where I do not want to go: but, provided they are in the direction I fancy, all places are alike to me.
For anyone who has read Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, that comment is immediately recognisable:

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I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.
The Kipling was published in 1902, and this was published a few years later. It could be coincidence of course, as it certainly reflects the attitude of cats.
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Old 08-09-2019, 02:39 AM   #9
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Another aspect of the book that was initially amusing at least, was the use of very obscure words. Presumably this reflected the delight of those enamoured with all things Western. Rarely have I had to stop to look up so many words, and I think I have command of a reasonably good vocabulary.

Among those which I noted down were:
jobbernowl - a numbskull or nincompoop.
gongoristic drivel - a literary style characterised by studied obscurity and by the use of various ornate devices. (Hmm!)
presbyope - long-sighted (Although the book indicates a few lines along that it is near-sighted. Perhaps a translator's slip.)
franion - an habitual pleasure-seeker or merrymaker; idler, reveler.

At the end of Chapter 3 of Volume II, the cat left Mr Sneaze and his friends "to their endless blather, their carping and flapdoodle" and went out into the garden.

Quote:
The sun is going down. Its reddened light, filtered through the green foliage of a sultan's parasol, flecks the ground in patches. High up on the trunk of the tree, cicadas are singing their hearts out. Tonight, perhaps, a little rain may fall.
I really liked that passage, with its appreciation of things as they are, the cat living in the moment. Would that the humans could learn to do the same!
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Old 08-09-2019, 07:43 AM   #10
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I love the Kipling comparison.

I know I mentioned Wodehouse at one point and the prose to me frequently has that feel to it. I don't have a direct comparison as Bookpossum does, but here's an example that I think could have come straight from Wodehouse's pen (he was a published writer at the time although not nearly the polished writer he was to become):

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It is true that my master's character is based on so firm an inborn bedrock of cold reserve and obstinacy that he is, by nature, one of this world's wet blankets.
For me, the big pleasure of this book is the wordplay and wit.

Last edited by issybird; 08-09-2019 at 06:12 PM. Reason: Fix quote.
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Old 08-09-2019, 06:30 PM   #11
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I liked the imagery, too. Did anyone else visualize the snake pot, with the wriggling snake heads coming out of the pot lid, as a representation of Medusa, the Gorgon's head?
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Old 08-10-2019, 03:00 AM   #12
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I liked the imagery, too. Did anyone else visualize the snake pot, with the wriggling snake heads coming out of the pot lid, as a representation of Medusa, the Gorgon's head?
Yes! That was a pretty funny scene. I was thinking that I would not like to have that snake soup anytime soon based on that visualization! Then I realized that I have tasted snake before, and the adage is true that it is kind of like alligator or chicken. It’s about the seasonings and not so much the meat. Maybe it was a little more bitter than alligator or calamari but not so much different. I read that snake was a delicacy in China but couldn’t find much about snake soup in Japan.
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Old 08-10-2019, 08:27 AM   #13
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I must confess I was too horrified at the idea of cooking a live creature in this way, to think of Medusa.

The story, with its emphasis once again on a woman's looks, was another nail in the book's coffin as far as I was concerned. A few pages later, we have Coldmoon saying:

Quote:
Women today, on their way to and from schools, at concerts, at charity parties and at garden parties, are, in effect, already selling themselves. Their light behaviour is tantamount to such statements as, 'Hey, how about buying me?' or 'Oh, so you're not much interested?'
This isn't funny - it's vicious and full of hatred. Sadly, with all the recent revelations in the #MeToo movement, such attitudes towards women are alive and well.
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Old 08-10-2019, 09:30 AM   #14
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I’ve really enjoyed everyone’s comments! Great observations.

But I’m finding the book difficult to read, much to my disappointment. I was looking forward to a glimpse into Japanese society. But the writing gets in the way by constantly drawing attention to itself. Maybe it just doesn’t age well in that respect. But the style seems more like a ‘display of wit’, than being witty - which becomes tedious.

Also, such scathing, harsh judgements. I understand they’re meant to be allegorical, but it doesn’t make them any easier to swallow. And as Bookpossum has noted - blatant sexism. I expected it, but still!

I don’t mean to be dismissive of a widely regarded cultural masterpiece; likely my take on the book just shows my limited understanding. But honestly it doesn’t feel humorous to me.

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Old 08-10-2019, 06:44 PM   #15
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Yep, I agree with you totally Victoria. I just wasn’t prepared to slog through the second half, as I couldn’t believe it would suddenly improve. I don’t think I have ever abandoned a Book Club book before, but I was prepared to make an exception here.
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