I finally finished Natsume Sōseki's The Gate (1910) a few weeks ago, and for the first time since college (I think), I turned right around and read a book over again. Partly this is because the novel is that good. In fact it is exquisite. But to confess, another reason is that it took me a long time to make my way through the books's humble 214 pages the first time and give it the attention it requires and rewards. It kept putting me to sleep. Granted I had a very busy fall term and was pretty sleepy by the time a got into bed every night and picked up The Gate. I felt the book deserved another go-round, and I was right.
"Sōseki and the Art of Nothing Happening" is the title of Pico Iyer's introduction to the NYRB Classics translation by William F. Sibley, and (spoiler alert?) it's quite true that not much happens from a dramatic point of view as the story unfolds. We follow the quiet lives of the main characters, the couple Sōsuke and Oyone, as the events of their past quietly haunt them and potential new crises loom but never materialize. In the book's climactic final chapters, Sōsuke's quest to "find a way to attain serenity in life" leads him to a Zen retreat. But enlightenment seems to elude him entirely, unless you count the lovely, funny, and ambiguous, epiphany(?) of the novel's final line.
Iyer asserts that much of the narrative and psychological action takes place in the novel's elisions, and also its physical descriptions, as if the "external details.... are in fact the emotional heart of the story." I can't agree: Sōseki often takes us inside the minds of the characters, in particular Sōsuke, and his inner turmoil is what the book is about. But it is also true that The Gate relies on fine descriptive writing to set the tone. Sōsuke's deep unease, for example, becomes tangible as he is led by the monk Gidō across the dark monastery grounds to an audience with the Zen Master: "Dark as it was, the green of the leaves was still visible. It all but soaked into the weave of their clothing and sent a chill through Sōsuke." Sibley's excellent translation reads as if the book were originally written in English by a master of the period.
The Gate is, simply put, a great work of art. It is also a gentle, unconventional, and powerful love story. I'm tempted to go for round three.