I’m approximately halfway through two novels: The Gate (1910) by Natsume Sōseki and Steppenwolf (1927) by Hermann Hesse. By sheer coincidence, these are novels in which seemingly nothing happens. “Rotten luck,” you might say. But so far, I am rather enjoying both books. It could be that those in a flustered state of mind (as I have been lately) will find some repose in a book that doesn’t demand much from you emotionally.
A Metaphysical Werewolf
Steppenwolf, indeed, is what I would describe as a philosophical ramble, more autofiction than fiction. Our main character is caught between two worlds, the bourgeois and the bohemian. He is also caught between two selves, the “wolf” (chaos) and the man (order). However, as the monologue unfolds, he tells us that the real conflict goes beyond polarity and that a human really has a multitude of personalities within them. A rebel, the Steppenwolf manages to break free of the bourgeois only enough to reach its outer limits. Still, there is something that holds him back—nostalgia, perhaps—and anchors him irrevocably to conventional life. Having disdained his first community and found no other, all that is left him is loneliness.
That is a very simplified summary of the book so far, but enough to intrigue me. I see similarities to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, inasmuch as the depressed narrator suffers from what I would describe as too narrow a scope, a kind of self-centeredness that manifests itself as self-degradation. (If I remember correctly, the Steppenwolf even acknowledges this at one point.) A love interest has just been introduced so we will see where the story goes from here, even though the ending was already teased in the first chapter. It’s a peculiar book, but one where I find myself highlighting many quotes and passages.
Money and Marriage
The Gate is a more accessible book—on the surface, a very low-key family drama taking place in 1910s Japan. Those looking for a twisty plot will be disappointed. Personally, I absolutely love character-driven novels, so the plight of Sōsuke and Oyone, a happily married couple approaching middle age, is more than enough for me to chew on.
The novel follows their everyday lives as they try to make ends meet, deal with Sōsuke’s brother’s education, and come to terms with their grief at having no children. Historical, social, and religious themes abound, but they are subtly painted through the life events, giving the reader plenty of space to draw their own conclusions. I especially enjoy the dignity and respect granted to Oyone, who plays an unglamorous role as housewife but is arguably the glue that holds the whole story together.
The Value of Slow
Sad thing is, I suspect if either of these novels were to be pitched to an agent today, they’d have great difficulty finding a champion for them. Rather than demand your attention, The Gate and Steppenwolf merely extend a cordial invitation to spend a little time in an existential crisis—one, gentle and domestic… the other, psychological and ultimately harrowing.
I don’t need to be dragged into a book to appreciate it, and right now, “slow” is just the proverbial chicken noodle soup I need. More than that, I’m personally invested in both stories now and feel they have much to offer modern readers.