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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Light and Dark

Natsume Sōseki

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To purchase Light and Dark

Title: Light and Dark
Author: Natsume Sōseki
Genre: Novel
Written: (1917) (Eng. 2013)
Length: 419 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Light and Dark - US
Light and Dark - UK
Light and Dark - Canada
Light and Dark - India
Clair-obscur - France
Luz y oscuridad - España
  • Japanese title: 明暗
  • Sōseki was unable to complete the novel before his death
  • Translated and with an Introduction by John Nathan
  • Previously translated as Light and Darkness by V.H. Viglielmo (1971)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating novel, if perhaps too much dictated by form

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 16/11/2013 Jordan Sievers
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 17/10/1971 Ivan Morris

  * refers to review of an older translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "This new translation by University of California professor John Nathan updates the prose in both tone, style and, of course, meaning. With previous translations poorly received in the past, Nathan prefaces the novel by stating his intention was to provide the English speaker with an identical experience as a native Japanese." - Jordan Sievers, The Japan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Natsume Sōseki's Light and Dark was published short chapter by short chapter, in serial form, in the Asahi shinbun. Sōseki managed 188 chapters -- and then he died, leaving his great work unfinished. It is nevertheless a substantial work (of over 400 pages), and a surprisingly cohesive one. Even ending as it does at a point where the protagonist has just begun to confront a significant part of his past (with implications on his present and future), the novel is more easily able to withstand not being brought to a full and neat close than most. In no small part this is due to its serial nature: writing episodically in this way Sōseki embraced a piecemeal technique of trying to make practically each short episode stand at least somewhat on its own; there is a flow to the story, and encounters and conversations often stretch across several chapters, but even at barely two pages practically each is also at least partially self-contained. One imagines that Sōseki would have shaped the book differently in its final novel-form, had he been able to get to that -- combining the shorter chapters into longer ones, expanding the scenes which are now presented in this cut-up manner -- and certainly he would have brought his story to a more complete conclusion. But, while more would be welcome, a fairly full picture is already formed by what has been presented here.
       Light and Dark centers on thirty-year-old Tsuda Yoshio, about half a year after he has married twenty-three-year-old O-Nobu. The young couple still rely on money from Tsuda's father -- in part because Tsuda doesn't want O-Nobu to want for anything and they live slightly above their means. When the novel opens, Tsuda learns he has to undergo an operation, necessitated by a recurrence of what are apparently hemorrhoids -- "the lesion extends all the way to the intestine", his doctor explains. He has the operation, and spends close to a week -- which takes up the bulk of the novel -- recuperating in the doctor's clinic; when he is released, he goes to a spa -- medically surely inadvisable (and he doesn't even tell his doctor), but he has a good reason to .....
       Light and Dark is dominated by one-on-one encounters. There are few crowd scenes -- a theatre outing O-Nobu goes to is one of the few where several characters are actively involved in the action -- and while there sometimes are third parties present, such as Tsuda and O-Nobu's maid, these often remain peripheral, as the majority of the episodes simply pit one character against another. Sōseki does dig deep into his characters in narrating their thoughts and actions -- often in minute detail -- but dialogue dominates: this is very much a conversational novel, too.
       Dynamics shift constantly as the characters try to out-maneuver each other. The recently married couple, in particular, is at a stage in their relationship where they are trying to figure each other (and their relationship) out, but several other characters also feature prominently. There is Kobayashi, Tsuda's acquaintance who is so down and out that he's decided to abandon Tokyo and head to Korea, his imminent departure reason enough for him to repeatedly intrude on Tsuda and his wife. There is Tsuda's beautiful sister, O-Hide, who already has two children. There is Madam Yoshikawa, the wife of Tsuda's boss, who has been meddling in his affairs for a while -- and insists on continuing to do so; she and O-Nobu do not get along. And there are the Okamotos, O-Nobu's aunt and uncle, a family she has long been very close to.
       In his Introduction translator John Nathan suggests:

The plot of Light and Dark is a paltry matter: it's 700 languorous pages proceed in an atmosphere of insistently quotidian, if highly charged.
       Indeed, the story is charged, especially in how husband and wife continue to feel one another out. Typically:
     An image of Tsuda in those days flickered in O-Nobu's mind. He was the same person as now. And yet he wasn't. Speaking plainly, the same Tsuda had changed.
       Meanwhile, O-Hide diagnoses the couple:
     All you do, Brother, is adore yourself. And Sister [i.e. O-Nobu] devotes herself to being adored by you. Neither of you sees anyone else.
       Tsuda has kept a secret from O-Nobu -- one that both Kobayashi and Madam Yoshikawa, as well as his sister, know well -- and now that he has tied himself to O-Nobu he finds himself wondering about what he might have missed. Yes, it comes as no surprise that, as O-Hide senses:
You care a lot about Sister, and at the same time there's someone else you also care about.
       Or, as Sōseki finally does some three-quarters of the way into the novel:
     To put it plainly, before he married O-Nobu, Tsuda had loved another woman. And it was Madam Yoshikawa who had encouraged, perhaps even ignited his love. She had manipulated the couple at will, contriving capriciously to push them together and then to tear them apart
       And it is Madam Yoshikawa who engineers another meeting between Tsuda and his lost love, the also married Kiyoko, who is at the spa that Tsuda eventually travels to.
       Tsuda is a mass of unresolved feelings. Still dependent on his father -- though always with the excuse that it is because of his wife -- he is snared in the webs of family and friends (like the also manipulative Kobayashi, and the super-manipulative Madam Yoshikawa). He and O-Nobu prove unable to be completely straight with one another, despite their devotion to one another -- a fascinating depiction of a relationship that is still on somewhat unsure footing. The lack of closure to his relationship with Kiyoko -- whose marriage caught him by surprise -- just adds to Tsuda's uncertainty.
       Forced to remain essentially bed-ridden for much of the novel, Tsuda is not presented as truly helpless -- and as a dinner with Kobayashi and some soaks at the spa suggest, his reconvalescence is a stunningly quick one -- but he is sidelined from much of the activity around him. Repeatedly, however, he tries to maintain control -- by keeping O-Nobu from visiting him at the clinic when Madam Yoshikawa is expected, for example -- but finds himself only partially successful. O-Nobu, in turn, also tries to position herself without being entirely up-front with Tsuda.
       Yes, much remains in the air when the novel abruptly ends -- yet the foundation is so solid and substantial that Sōseki's rich novel is, even in this unfinished form, satisfying. Much of the pleasure comes from the interaction -- scene after scene -- between the characters, each with their own agenda (few act dispassionately here -- indeed, few seem to do as much as lift a finger (or utter a word) without something specific in mind).
       John Nathan's translation seems to try to closely capture Sōseki's tone, eschewing modernization and not reshaping the language any more to Anglophone sensibilities than necessary. Occasionally the results are uncomfortably stilted, but even then it largely seems worth it -- e.g. "Percussing the patient in hopes of stimulating an echo of her genuine feelings".
       It is the regularity of the chapters in Light and Dark, each of nearly the same -- and only two-page -- length that has the most outsized influence on the reading experience, the effect not entirely unlike a train-ride with the regular clipping sound of the tracks. Often concentrated in their insight and observation, there's no getting around the space-limitations of each new bit of the story, which defines so much of the narrative; in an age where we don't regularly read such precisely measured episodic fiction it's a very unusual experience.
       Unusual, in several respects, Light and Dark is nevertheless an accomplished work of art and a fascinating example of Japanese fiction of its time.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 December 2013

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Light and Dark: Reviews: Natsume Sōseki: Other books by Natsume Sōseki under review: Books about Natsume Sōseki under review:
  • John Nathan's Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石; actually: Natsume Kinnosuke) lived 1867 to 1916 and was the leading Japanese author of the Meiji era.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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