In literature, there has been much debate regarding how men represent themselves as authors and through writing. Simone De Beauvior assets, that historically, men have envisioned themselves as the powerful ‘subject’ in literature. This, in turn, has allowed for men to be able to write freely, filtering their own point of view that can decide what they deem truth or reality in the world. This essay will argue that the ‘I’ Novel allows for naturalism to play a constructive role in formatting the narrative of a writer’s own ideology and that their own personal experiences play a key role in the creation of the relationship between their art (literature) and themselves. The two texts of critical analysis being discussed in this essay will be Shiga Naoya’s ‘At Kinosaki’ and Tayama Katai’s ‘The girl Watcher’.
One of the major drawbacks when looking at the structure of the ‘I’ novel (shi-shosetsu) is not only the issue of the problematic relationship between the writer’s personal life and their work but also the blurred lines between what we consider ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’. These elements can be seen in Shiga Naoyas short ‘At Kinosaki’ (1917). The stories structure is based on the narrator’s experience with three encounters of death that manifests within the real world. The first experience is the narrator’s near-fatal brush with death when he is hit by a train, which throws the reader straight into an unfortunate event of a crisis on introduction:”I had been hit by a train on the Tokyo loop line and I went alone to Kinosaki hot spring to convalesce. If I developed tuberculosis of the spine it could be fatal,but the doctor did not think I would.” (273)On his retreat to Kinosaki, he becomes sensitive to his own awareness of death which evokes a response inside of him despite being lucky to escape with his life.
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Although the doctor does not imply he will develop tuberculosis of the spine, the narrator fixates of the possibility that he will. Thus, remaining under the shadow of death he feels he has not quite escaped. This causes him to notice things, more aware of the minute details.
However, this incident is not only a narrative but also reflective of a personal experience Shiga suffered, hit by a streetcar in Tokyo in the summer of 1913 he also had a near-fatal experience with death (Starrs, R. 1998, 13). It is probable that this experience influenced the narrative in this work, however, the speculation remains as to how much is true and how much is fiction.The narrators first encounter with death happens when he comes into contact with a dead bee on the roof one morning. The impact of this experience on his consciousness, already preoccupied with death-orientated thoughts is presented in two different ways: the figure of the bee completely devoid of life rolled over with its legs ‘doubled tight under it’ and its feelers ‘dropped untidily over its head’ in contrast with the hive of bees hurriedly swarming continuing on with their daily lives gives the sense of the impermanence of life:”The other bees seemed indifferent to it, quite untroubled as they crawled busily around it on their way in and out. The industrious living bees gave so completely a sense of life. The other beside them, rolled over with its legs under it, still in the same spot whenever I looked at it, morning, noon, night – how completely it gave a sense of death.
” (273).This passage in ‘Kinosaki’ represents a strength in Shiga’s shi-shosetsu: the graphic nature of the natural world and its realness is a poignant reminder that even when death happens life continues on for those around it. In this case, the hive continues to live regardless of the death of a fellow bee.
The narrator’s emotional response evokes his attraction to the peaceful stillness that comes with death. One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether this extract can also refer to the difficulties that humanity faces. For example; in life, we work to live and live to work in order to sustain a comfortable living.
Yet we eventually all pass the same way when we die. After a night of rainfall the roof is washed clean, and the disappearance of the dead bee is clear when the narrator begins to imagine it’s whereabouts:”Probably it was lying quiet, until a change in the world outside would moveit again. Or perhaps ants were pulling it off. Even so, how quiet it must be – before only working and working, no longer moving now.” (274).The narrator’s second encounter reveals how violence and unpleasantness can occur with death. Walking into the town he comes across a noisy crowd of people who are all fixated on the same spot in the river, on further inspection he sees a rat struggling for its life in the water:”A large rat had been thrown in and was swimming desperately to get away. A skewer some eight or ten inches long was thrust through the skin of its neck, so that it projected about three or four inches above the head and three or four below the throat” (274)He watches the unfolding of the events.
The bystanders throwing stones laughing at the rat’s unfortunateness, its struggle to escape climbing up the stone wall catching the skewer on some rocks, falling back into the stream still desperately trying to save itself somehow. Yet, in this instance, the narrator finds this too painful to watch. This marks a key turning point in the narrative, as his first experience with death was an inviting sense of tranquillity. The bee was already dead, he had not seen it struggle of it being caught between life and death, unlike the rat, addressing that the harsh reality of life is that we do not all survive. This sight of the rat overall lingers as a representation of the torment that can be suffered in death which is far more disturbing:”The sight of the rat, doomed to die and yet putting its whole strength into the search for an escape, lingered stubbornly in my mind.
…it was terrible to think that this suffering lay before the quiet.” (275). He is further reminded of the human’s instinct and will that comes with survival, as the event with the rat triggers reminders of his own incident.
He remembers thinking how he could survive and how he did not think of death detaching himself from the fear of death itself:”The question of whether I would die or not was moreover very much mine…
I was surprised afterward too at how little I was troubled by the fear of death.” (275).The narrator’s final encounter with death is the one that remains most harrowing. As he himself becomes the culprit in causing death. In wanting to harmlessly startle the water-lizard, he throws a stone absentmindedly. In a twist of fate, the lizard dies front the unpredicted direct hit. The narrator, shocked by his own actions, feels a sense of loneliness, no longer able to admire death.
Especially troubled by the absurdity of chance:”As it hit, the lizard seemed to jump five inches to the side…I did not think at first that rock had struck home.
..I was filled with sadness for the lizard, with a sense of the loneliness of the living creature. Quite by accident I had lived.Quite by accident the lizard had died.” (277).
In the close of the story, he contemplates: “I knew I should be grateful…To be alive and be dead were not two opposite extremes. There did not seem to be much difference between them.”(277).The overwhelming sense of death and life being two sides of the same coin is imagined as the final lines come to a close. The felt realisations of the narrator, both devastating and enlightening sets an almost nihilistic mood.
In comparison, Tayama Katai portrays his ‘naturalism’ of the ‘I’ novel in a different way. Shiga Naoya focuses more on how death is portrayed within the natural world in ‘At Kinosaki’. Katai’s focus in ‘The Girl Watcher’ (Shojobyo) looks at the life of a middle-aged man and his sexual longing, reminiscing youth in the form of his obsessive fixation with watching young girls on the train, which later becomes the cause of his death. Whilst each author approaches topics of ‘naturalism’ which concentrates on the darker aspects of life, both authors run a narrative that is tailored to their own interpretation as an observer of life existing around them as strong examples of the ‘I’ novel.The short story ‘The Girl Watcher’ (1907) leads us into the life of the protagonist, as told from an omniscient third person narrative. The man symbolises the presence of a midlife crisis and his appearance leaves a lot to be desired with his ‘pug nose’, ‘protruding teeth’, ‘swarthy completion’ and ‘tangled sideburns’ (254). In his youth, he was a man of potential working a job as a promising writer in girls’ fiction.
He now works in an office publishing cheap magazines on a daily basis for a boss he can’t stand. Consumed by his overt obsession with being a girl watcher, his commute provides a cathartic release from his humdrum life allowing him to furtively observe young girls and listen in on their conversations. In one incident, he notes every intricate detail of a schoolgirl, including the little mole just below her ear (256):”There was a reason for his thinking that the girl might not have forgotten him…She had always got on the train at Yoyogi at the same time as he did to go as far as Ushigome. But even so, he’d never gone so far as to speak to her.
He would just sit opposite her, thinking about what a plump girl she was, how fleshy her cheekswere, how big her breasts were, and what a wonderful girl she was.” (256).One of the most important points to note within this text is how Katai makes the connection between the modernisation of transport and naturalism and how this breathes life into the warped fantasy the protagonist has with the young girls he meets on the train. In the first decade of 20th Century, Japan was facing several transformations for urban life within Tokyo. For the commuting route to work, trains had become an increasing part of modern day life.
They embodied the growth of capitalism and a transformation in social interactions of how people not only viewed the landscape around them but also how they viewed each other (Freedman, A. 2000:49).In another incident, Shiga has a brief interaction with a young girl who loses her hairpin walking through Sendagaya. He realises this is the same young girl who gets on the train at Yoyogi Station. After returning the hairpin to her he becomes consumed with lustrous thoughts after she thanks him (257):”His thoughts rambled, “If I were a little younger, and if she were just a little prettier, then there’d have been an interesting tale to tell about this episode..
..” He had idly wasted away his youth. His wife, whom he’d once loved, had passedher prime. He had children.
His life was bleak. He was behind the times with no hope for the future. Such thoughts tangled and twisted, almost without end.” (257)One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether some of this context is derived from Katai’s own personal experiences. The protagonist, much to his dismay comes to the realisation that all his interactions with young girls on the train have been fruitless endeavours and that the attention he craves from them will never be reciprocated.
Katai’s own marriage in 1899 was to a woman he barely knew and although this in itself was not uncommon in Japan during that time period, it caused some unfortunate results in how Katai viewed women (Henshall, G. 1987, 29). Having no physical contact with women prior to marriage, nor investing in girlfriends during his youth may explain some of the perverse desires that run through this text as a form of envy or resentment towards his former self:”When he was younger, he wrote a great number of so-called girl novels, and for a time quite captivated the youth of the day. But for how long could such novels, devoid of proper observation and ideology, be expected to hold peoples interest? Finally he and his thing about girls became the laughing stock of the literacy world…” (259)At one time the protagonist was a promising girls’ fiction writer (shojo shosetsu), a writer who captivated many a young girls mind with his writing.
Now he not only fixates on his years of youth he did not live fully but also his own helplessness that he cannot escape in his everyday life which allows him to embrace his fantasy.Even his friend comments on the unusual obsession he has in his life:”You see, when he was younger he was silly enough to present to believethat love was pure and sacred. But whatever he might say, he couldn’t foodhis instincts, so finally he has to resort to self-abuse for his pleasures.
Thenwhen this got to be a habit, he became ill, unable to satisfy those instincts.” (260)In this instance, his friend states what he is going through is essentially a sickness of the mind due to the repression of his desires and not embracing these desires on instinct. Katai’s own upbringing was in a puritanical family where having sex outside of marriage was seen as impure. In turn, the distortion of these desires that come with the suppression of sexual drives may also explain how the protagonist in ‘The Girl Watcher’ overcompensates for his lack of sexual awareness as a form of self-abuse which creates these distasteful fantasies in his mind (Henshall, T. 1987, 31).In conclusion, the ‘I’ novel stands out as one of the most significant forms of novels produced in Japanese literature. It bridges the gap between naturalist literary and ‘self’, of which allows the author to focus on self as the sole object of naturalistic study. This unique product of the relationship between the author and their ability to incorporate themselves into a narrative whilst still representing ‘fictional’ literature is one that has helped make it possible for ‘self’ to be seen as a subject point of view.
Both these texts represent a clarity that comes with the exposure of self and the philosophical reflection of the author’s current state of mind. Even though The effort of the ‘I’ novel has often been seen as a way for authors to selfishly idealise themselves through their own personal experiences, it is also one of the key features to understanding Japan’s efforts in embracing the exposure to “modernisation”, and the virtual exposure to Western ideas, moving past the historic isolation of Japanese society.