On the front of an unassuming townhouse in The Chase, Clapham is a Blue Plaque bearing the name Natsume Soseki, who lived there between 1901 and 1903. The Japanese writer, beloved in his own country for his poetry and novels, spent two influential but unhappy years there, alienated from English society as a virtual recluse. Alexandra Warren tells his story.
Novelist Natsume Soseki has an enormous reputation in his home country, Japan.
The author is often referred to as the father of Japanese modernist literature, his books are studied in schools across the country and he was even the face of the 1000 yen note between 1984 and 2004.
But in London, where Soseki studied between 1900 and 1902, he is virtually unknown.
Born in 1867 as Natsume Kinnosuke, the young Soseki attended school and then university in Tokyo.
Although entering university with the intention of becoming an architect, Soseki switched to English Literature in 1890, quickly mastering the language.
He then became an English teacher, first in Tokyo, then in Shikoku and Kyushu, islands in the west of Japan.
In 1900, the Japanese government sent Soseki to study in England as Japan’s first English literary scholar.
But if Soseki had high hopes for the trip, they were dashed. He said of the experience: “The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years in my life. Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”
Soseki’s original plan was to study in Cambridge, but he soon realised this would not be possible on the meagre stipend for the Japanese Ministry of Education.
He ruled out studying in Edinburgh on the grounds that he did not want to pick up a Scottish accent, and perhaps reluctantly settled in London.
During his time in London, Soseki moved four times. The first three lodgings, at 67 Gower Street in Bloomsbury, 85 Priory Road in Hampstead and 6 Flodden Road in Camberwell, were unsatisfactory – either too expensive or too miserable.
In his short story The Boarding House thought to be inspired by the lodgings in Priory Road he describes the sallow landlady telling the narrator on his very first day that England was cold, cloudy and unpleasant to live in.
He settled at 81 The Chase, Clapham, after placing an advertisement in The Telegraph which read: Board Residence wanted, by a Japanese gentleman, in a strictly private English family; with literary taste.
Priscilla Leale, who ran the boarding house with her sister Elizabeth, impressed Soseki with her knowledge of Milton and Shakespeare, and her fluent French, and he stayed at the Chase for a year and five months.
Scholastically at least, Soseki’s stay in London was a success.
In order to improve his English he hired William James Craig, a famous editor of Shakespeare, to be his tutor.
Soseki found Craig to be odd, noting later that his teacher only ever wore flannel shirts and felt slippers and had no furniture in his room, only piles of books.
He also said Craig’s handshakes were uncomfortable, as his teacher would offer a hand but not grasp or shake his in return, with Soseki later saying that he “would be glad if this formality would cease altogether.”
Despite often not understanding Craig’s Irish accent, and never understanding his handwriting, Soseki seemed at least to be content with his lessons.
Outside of his studies, Soseki’s life was consumed by misery. A large contributing factor to this was the constant worry about money.
In letters home Soseki complains that he cannot afford to buy the souvenirs he desires, have his picture taken to send to his wife in Japan, or socialise with Japanese acquaintances.
He also complained about the cheap clothes he has been forced to buy, which resulted in a frock coat where the sleeves are too wide and an overcoat where the sleeves are too narrow.
Despite this, Soseki managed to buy around 400 books during his time in London, and spent the majority of his time shut up in his room reading.
He certainly suffered from loneliness, making almost no friends at all, but suffered even more from what we might refer to today as culture shock.
Japan was only “opened” to the West half a century earlier, after no regular trade or discourse with the Western world for 200 years – and the gulf culturally between a Japanese gentleman and Victorian London would certainly have been hard to bridge.
Soseki was once laughed at for inviting someone to go snow-viewing – a popular pastime in Japan – and confused his English listeners when he described how moved Japanese people are by looking at the moon.
On another occasion he complimented the moss that had grown on some pathways in a friend’s garden, only to be told that a gardener would be told to get rid of it soon.
Soseki also felt his difference physically, especially his height, and was repelled by the image he saw in the mirror.
For a scholar of English literature, the difficulties he faced in the country of his literary heroes certainly would have had a profound and painful effect.
In 1902, Soseki left London swearing never to return.
But the time he spent here, although not happy, certainly was a big influence on the author’s work.
His early stories, The Tower of London and Kairo-ko, a version of the legend of King Arthur, were directly inspired by his stay in the UK.
His later works, too, seem to have been influenced by his experiences in London, and often deal with themes of loneliness and alienation, and the relationship between Japan and the West.
His most famous works are the satirical novel, I am a Cat, published in 1905, told entirely from the perspective of a cat, and Kokoro, published in 1914, which tells the story of a relationship between a student and a teacher.
While writing his final novel, Light and Darkness, in 1916, Soseki died, aged 49, from a stomach ulcer.
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