My taste in books is best described as 19th century social commentary regarding countries I have never been to. I love Jane Austen. I love Fyodor Dostoevsky. I love Elizabeth Gaskell. I’ve never been to England. I’ve never been to Russia. I’ve still never been to England. My only engagement with Regency England, pre-revolutionary Russia and Victorian England is through these books. These books were not written for me. They were written for a contemporary audience, living life according to that culture and those rules. And here I am, 200 years later, 150 years later, not knowing those rules and scratching my head at some of these customs, but loving the books.
Another favorite author of mine is Natsume Soseki. He was a novelist of Meiji era Japan, writing a little later than my usual books of choice–early 20th century. I find his work especially fascinating because he was writing about the disenfranchisement of Japanese youth at a time when the country was rapidly changing due to Western influences. His characters are young men and women who were raised with certain expectations about their lives, only to reach their 20’s and realize the world they were promised doesn’t exist anymore. But at the same time, his work feels so universal.
One of Soseki’s novels, Sanshiro, is about a young man from southern Japan–Kyushu–who has gone to Tokyo for university. He’s a country boy making friends with city kids and not realizing how different their points of view are. Sanshiro falls in love with a girl without knowing who she really is or what she needs and he’s shocked when he loses her to another man. There is something so familiar and universal about this story that I used to carry a copy with me whenever I embarked on something new or strange.
And then there is Sore Kara. In English, it’s called And Then… A spiritual sequel to Sanshiro, And Then… is a book about another young man who lost the woman he loved when he was a student, but now we’re going to look at his life after school. We’re going to examine his home, his family, his relationships. What adversities does he face and how does he handle it?
At the time I was reading this book, I worked as a docent in a children’s museum. One of the exhibits–the one I worked at 99% of the time–was hosting a scavenger hunt raffle. There was a large wooden box for patrons to put their entry papers in. We docents had keys to the box, so we used to hide stuff in it. Usually books, but also other stuff that helped us pass the time when we didn’t have any patrons. The exhibit was a traveling one and the museum did not train us to know anything about the subject matter, so we pooled our money to buy a copy of all the books in the gift shop. We kept them in the box and read them when no one was around. If you visited the exhibit when it first arrived, I could not have answered your questions. A month in, I could have answered anything, no matter how obscure. And after I had read all the gift shop books, I hid And Then… in the box.
I finished it on a weekday evening. It was the tail end of my shift and once the school groups are gone, a children’s museum is empty. I walked across the museum floor with a sense of being disconnected to it. The museum was not real. Only the book was real. Daisuke was real.
I realized about a week ago how strongly this book influenced by own writing. I was thinking a lot about Austen and England when I was writing “Side By Side, Apart.” I had not been thinking about Soseki and Japan, at least, not consciously. I realize the statute of limitations on spoilers has probably expired on a novel over a hundred years old, but mine came out last month. I don’t want to spoil that, either.
But right now, I am left feeling like “and then…” is a surprisingly powerful phrase.