"Kusamakura" is surely one of the weirdest novels of the twentieth century. A very early work by Natsume Soseki, who would go on to be one of Japan's foremost novelists, it's a pioneering one-shot experiment with what the author himself called a "Haiku novel" years before Kawabata Yasunari got the credit for such with his Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. A novel without a plot, where nothing of note really happens, and yet it's an endlessly engaging tale. Or is it a philosophical treatise on aesthetics narrated in the form of a story? Breathtakingly ethereal one moment, it's hilariously crass the next. In genre, it's a heady fusion of the Western novel and the Eastern poem equally at home with Percy Shelley and Yosa Buson, John Millais and Katsushika Hokusai, Oscar Wilde and the Tales of Ise, Christ and Bodhidharma. Staunchly nostalgic and even a tad traditionalist in an age when such things were being pell-mell thrown along the wayside, and yet modernist about a decade or so before its time--arguably ever bit as experimental as Joyce's "Ulysses" in many ways and yet a hundred times more readable and, yes, enjoyable. Indeed, everything I've said up to now may make "Kusamakura" seem rather portentous, but as a work of literature it's utterly unpretentious and approachable. It also so happens, as you may have guessed, to be one of my all time personal favorites.
Which is why nobody could be more thrilled to see "Kusamakura" newly translated and published by Penguin--the folks who have been making classics approachable for decades. Meredith McKinney's new translation here is nothing less than excellent. Unpretentious as it is, "Kusamakura" is nowadays something of a hard nut to crack linguistically speaking, filled as it is with deliberate archaisms of an ornate nature on the one hand and cockney-esque colloquialisms on the other (among other slight puzzlers now obscure in contemporary printed Japanese) and yet McKinney handles Soseki's many voices and sometimes elliptical narration with a surefire grasp of the language and manages to convey the same in highly fluent and idiomatic English. It's carefully accurate and true to the original and yet makes itself at home in its new language to a degree that seems natural and easy but must in fact have entailed much hard work and scholarly care. This edition is also judiciously supplemented with unobtrusive but helpful endnotes following up on Soseki's principal references, and the introduction does a fine job of adequately situating this idiosyncratic classic in the context of Soseki's larger opus and of contextualizing both within the larger framework of Japanese literature and history at the turn of the (last) century without unduly overburdening the book.
In short, this is a wonderful edition of a wonderful book--totally flawless. Okay, not totally; when you first open the book and glance at the half-title page, you'll see in the little blurb the dates for the Meiji period incorrectly given as 1868-1914 instead of 1868-1912. That little nitpick aside, though, this fine book is going to be the definitive edition of Natsume Soseki's early masterpiece for decades to come. Even if you've already read this novel in its previous English version (available in a number of printings, including The Three-Cornered World (Peter Owen Modern Classic) and Three Corner World (Unesco Collection of Representative Works. Japanese Series.)), I highly recommend this new and vastly improved one. And if you've never come across "Kusamakura" before at all, well then, the open road to the deep south awaits you, grass pillow and all!