Book review: Sanshiro


by Natsume Soseki
First published in Japanese in 1908
Translated by Jay Rubin
With an introduction
by Haruki Murakami
Penguin Classics edition
ISBN13: 9780140455625
Literary fiction/Japanese literature
235 pages


I recently decided to keep this long format only to review books received for review, and write shorter reviews in my Sunday Posts, right later I finish reading a book.
Well, my review of Sanshiro was getting too long, so here it is by itself. It makes sense, for this amazing classic.
I read it both for the Japanese Literature Challenge, and for The Classics Club (Classics Spin #22).

The ebook I read was The Penguin Classics edition (ISBN13: 9780140455625).
I don’t often mention specific editions, but I think this time it’s important. It contains first a chronological survey of Soseki’s very depressing life. I had no idea, and I think it will give me another perspective on his books from now on.

Then, there’s a fantastic introduction by my dear Haruki Murakami. It’s a real piece of literary criticism, with also elements pertaining to Muramaki’s own life, how he was led to this author, and why this book is one of his favorites.

“Nowadays, of course, Natsume Soseki is the representative modern Japanese novelist, a figure of truly national stature.”

“…depicting with absolute mastery the youth—and the end of youth—of young intellectuals living in the Meiji era.”

Incidentally, it was wonderful to read Murakami outside the novel context I usually read him – which reminds me I own and want to read Haruki Murakami Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa.

I really enjoyed the writing in Sanshiro, with its great though slow flow, and the nice images.

A long wisp of cloud hung across the sky at an angle, like the mark of a stiff brush on the tranquil layer of blue.
Chapter 2

At first, I didn’t like too much Sanshiro’s character, with his hesitation about everything and anything, and his lack of determination. I wanted to slap him and tell him to choose and act.
The text often highlights his lethargy, his lack of courage, even his cowardice. He is not even interested in the university lectures, and spends a lot of his time there daydreaming. And he lets himself be dragged around into all kinds of situations.

He wanted to go into the recesses of the library. He wanted to climb up t the second floor, the third floor, far above the streets of Hongo, and the smell of paper, without a living thing nearby—and read. But faced with the question of what to read, he had no clear idea.
Chapter 3

But I got to like him progressively, and understand better his behavior. As a young man leaving his very rural area to enter university in Tokyo (there’s now there a Sanshiro Pond, a place where the character liked to go), he is arriving in a very different milieu. 730 mile away from home, he is homesick, lonely, and totally lost really (like a “stray sheep”), and having no idea of what to expect. He is experiencing a major culture shock. With dread, he has to go through a series of basically rites of passage including falling in  love.
This is all beautiful conveyed.

Tokyo was full of things that startled Sanshiro.
opening line of chapter 2

Sanshiro stood and watched the activity of the streetcars and the trains, of people in white and people in black, and this was how he felt.
Chapter 2

He stared at the surface of the pond…. Loneliness began to spread across its surface like a veil of clouds.
Chapter 2

Sanshiro Pond

Sanshiro Pond, Tokyo University

Murakami highlights that Sanshiro is very different from typical modern European coming-of-age novels. Sanshiro can hardly be called a hero, and it is not clear whether he matured through it all or not.

The book stands also as an image of the social transition in the Japan of the time, “the adolescence of Japan itself, that turn-of-the-century period known as ‘mid-to-late Meiji’” (Murakami’s words) contemporary to the book (1908). Including  the absence of “the maturation of a middle-class citizenry”, still according to Murakami.

The work, which first appeared as serialized in the course of four months in the Asahi Shinbun newspaper, contains lots of biographical details (this edition has a lot of helpful notes for these).
It is also rich with all kinds of literary references, including Western, thus reflecting Natsume’s profound knowledge of English literature and culture.

I realized that Sanshiro is actually the first book of a trilogy, “The Growing Up Trilogy” to use Murakami’s words. So now I’m reading And Then.

VERDICT: Beautifully written coming-of-age story by one of the best modern Japanese novelists. 

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What’s your favorite book by Natsume Soseki?


17 thoughts on “Book review: Sanshiro

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