15 September 2013

I Am a Cat (Soseki Natsume)

Hmm, I wonder why I wanted to read this book? :)

Soseki Natsume's I Am a Cat was published serially from 1905-06, and (I'm reliably informed) is considered a modern classic in Japan, a book pretty much everyone has read--I'm super proud of myself for picking up that a curmudgeonly tomcat in the awesome manga Chi's Sweet Home is a homage to this nameless feline narrator's grouchy mentor, Rickshaw Blacky.

The novel's actually less Kitty Adventures and more a human-focused satire, as the cat observes (with jaded eye, natch) the humans of his acquaintance, most notably his schoolteacher owner, called "Mr. Sneaze" in the translation I read--I'm pretty sure everyone's names are punny in the original, but alas, I can't read Japanese and am unlikely ever to learn. Though Sneaze only teaches high school English (and is relentlessly mocked by his students), he considers himself an intellectual and a scholar, and hangs out with a gang of other mediocrities with similarly inflated views of themselves. There's Waverhouse, whose principal joy in life is telling outrageous stories with a straight face and then laughing at those hapless enough to take him seriously; prolific poet Beauchamp Blowlamp, happy to turn his verse to any occasion; perpetual grad student Avalon Coldmoon, whose thesis on "The Effects of Ultraviolet Rays upon Galvanic Action in the Eyeball of the Frog" is held up by his inability to grind a chunk of glass into a perfect sphere; Zen philosopher Singleman, who always has a portentous phrase at the ready. They endlessly discuss life, love, literature, politics--the book takes place during the late Meiji era, when Japan was first opening up to Western influence, a sudden mixing of traditions that caused massive cultural upheaval. There's a crazy chapter, for instance, that centers on Sneaze's battles with the students of the next-door boys' school, who are constantly hitting their baseballs over his fence.

It took me a few weeks to get through the book--it's long, and the register's rather formal, and I found it slow going at first...then somewhere around a third of the way through, I just fell in love. Part of that was getting used to the pace, which is somehow both madcap and leisurely (that's a cat for ya!); part of that was figuring out exactly what kind of book I was reading, picaresque and comic in a way that reminds me (and this is high praise) of Sterne's Tristram Shandy--which is, in fact, name-checked in the text! And while perhaps there's not as many feline shenanigans as I'd expected, when Soseki does turn his eye to cat behavior, he's got it down: "[H]uman beings being the nitwits that they are, a purring approach to any of them, either male or female, is usually interpreted as proof that I love them, and they consequently let me do as I like, and on occasions, poor dumb creatures, they even stroke my head." Or a lengthy passage about the cat's fitness regimen, assisted by an unwilling mantis:
[F]aced with such aggression, I have no choice but to give him a whack on the nose. My foe collapses, falls down flat with his wings spread out on either side. Extending a front paw, I hold him down in that squashed-face position whilst I take a little breather. Myself at ease again, I let the wretched perisher get up and struggle on. Then, again, I catch him. . . . Eventually, the mantis abandons hope and, even when free to drag himself away, lies there motionless. I lift him lightly in my mouth and spit him out again. Since, even then, he just lies loafing on the ground, I prod him with my paw. Under that stimulus the mantis hauls himself erect and makes a kind of clumsy leap for freedom. So once again, down comes my quick immobilizing paw. In the end, bored by the repetitions, I conclude my exercise by eating him.
And there's a gimlet eye for the people, too--I particularly loved the still-applicable passage about how "[m]ore often than not, modern poets are unable to answer even the simplest questions about their own work. Such poets write by direct inspiration, and are not to be held responsible for more than the writing. Annotation, critical commentary, exegesis, all these may be left to the scholars. We poets are not to be bothered with such trivia." Hee hee.

N.B. (and SPOILER ALERT): the book doesn't end well for the cat! I'm usually annoyed when the introduction to a book gives away the ending, but I'm glad I knew that going in, so I'm passing the warning along to you.

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