Sōseki’s The Gate & Hesse’s Steppenwolf: Halfway Impressions

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.

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June, Lately

Reading

I am still reading (and enjoying) The Gate by Natsume Sōseki. I find more and more I enjoy books about historical zeitgeist, and this is exactly what The Gate embodies: Japan between the old world and the new.

I’ve also picked up Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I was so impressed by Beneath the Wheel that it’s sent me on a mission to read the other Hesse ebooks my library has. The author’s note to Steppenwolf captivated me entirely, along with the first pages introducing a mysterious protagonist. The only reason I’m not well into it by now is because of life busyness. I hope to settle down with it for an hour or two this evening. Any other Hesse readers? I’m shocked he’s not more famous.

Watching

I watched Europa Report (2013) again with my mom, who hadn’t seen it before. I’m not sure if she enjoyed it quite as much as I did, but even on second viewing, it’s still one of my favorites! Told in “found footage” (webcams, vlogs), it reaches a level of plausibility that few sci-fi films can. Most of all, I love the subtle characterizations, social commentary, and gutsy female lead.

I recently reviewed two martial arts films on my other blog: The Swordsman and Shaolin. Both were excellent stories with sumptuous costumes, music, and cinematography. There is something so timeless about the “Robin Hood” story arc, central to The Swordsman and significant in Shaolin, along with the themes of family, love, and betrayal. It really shows you don’t need to reinvent the wheel when you write a good story—you just need to put your own take on it.

And speaking of storytelling… Yesterday I watched Snowpiercer (2013) with my siblings. I enjoyed the trailer and the concept of the story: humanity’s last survivors segregated on a high-speed train during an ice age. I didn’t like the film itself… for me, there was too much unnecessary gore, socialist undertones, and unlikely scenarios, and the story was mostly told through expository dialogue. Your mileage may vary (no pun intended); my brother really liked it. I will say, it was a lot like the novel Blindness except significantly better!

Listening

I’ve been really getting into the band Deep Sea Diver lately, which is actually based here in Seattle. The musicality of the frontwoman, Jessica Dobson, is incredible. The songwriting also reaches that level of depth and philosophy I especially gravitate towards. Their music won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like rock, post rock, and indie folk, it’s worth a listen.

Personal

It’s been about two months since my grandpa passed away, suddenly. The last time I saw him, we were alone in a dark hospital room and I had to trust he could hear me because he couldn’t respond. I didn’t feel like writing about it online till some of the grief had gone. Well, it still makes me cry sometimes, but the reality of his absence has really solidified now.

He left behind a lot of books, many of which I’ve kept because he had excellent taste. He was a skilled learner, maker, and artist, though never one to boast. It faded as he struggled with memory loss in his last years. But what really stands out to me now, two months later, is that Grandpa is one of the few people I know who can be said to have left a true legacy, the family and home he cultivated and the faithfulness he lived. In that sense, he still lives on here on Earth, as well as in Heaven.

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Recent Reads: Shakespeare, Vintage Horror, and Modernism

This past long weekend, having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I settled down in my big blue chair for a mini readathon. I’m dreadfully behind on the 100-book Goodreads goal, so my nefarious scheme is to read a bunch of short works to try to catch up.

The Wife (Kristin Lavransdatter #2) by Sigrid Undset

Now, this is one I actually finished a couple weeks ago, but I owe y’all an update. Without going into spoilers, I did like The Wife a great deal better than The Wreath (book 1). We get the whole fallout of Kristin’s “happily ever after” which, as it turns out, is happily ever disaster. (Ok, it’s not all bad, but it almost is.) I appreciated the realism. I didn’t love the sensationalism, which seems to be a trademark of the book (think the TV series Poldark or Downton Abbey). It’s a decent middle book, and I’m still curious how the trilogy ends, though not champing at the bit to read the last book yet.

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

This is a novel, a Kafka precursor, I wanted very much to love but honestly didn’t. I’ll fully admit I wasn’t in the happiest frame of mind while reading it, so there maybe some personal bias seeping in. But I found Jakob to be a deeply unsettling, sinister story, much more than Kafka even. The writing is more accessible; there were some beautiful passages, too, even some that moved me to tears—I will probably do a follow-up post of favorite quotes. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend it personally, but it’s worth a try (your mileage may vary). I would probably still read more by Walser since I like this kind of writing for itself.

Sonnets by Shakespeare

I have a poor track record with Will… I’ve only read a handful of his plays and the only one I enjoyed was Hamlet. I actually bought this book mainly out of politeness (I hate going into a small bookshop and not buying anything to support the place). All that aside—I really got into the sonnets! Of course, we all know the very famous ones like “Love is not love” and “Shall I compare thee,” but I found some I’d never heard before that touched me deeply. There were two on time I liked very much and some on love and loss that were quite powerful. I think my favorite is 87.

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. ELIOT

I read this on good ol’ Wikisource. I’m glad I haven’t bought any Eliot yet because I was underwhelmed by this collection and even “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” failed to amaze. I enjoy his style and he has some good rhymes and imagery. I just found these poems to be rather forgettable, if I’m being honest. “Portrait of a Lady” was probably the best.

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Wikisource again. I specifically marked this one as “list for 2021,” so read it, I did. It was a bit overwrought in parts, but I found it sufficiently creepy, when read at night. I enjoyed the premise—two guys canoeing down the Danube, the “sensible” one and the “imaginative” one. Pretty soon they start seeing some weird stuff. It reminded me a lot of Malicroix by Henri Bosco (another review I failed to give you, I’m sorry). But like Malicroix, it tried to be a bit more than it could live up to. Still a fun read, though.

“The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft

Wikisource again (again)! Amazingly, this was my first time reading Lovecraft. It won’t be my last, but I’ve been extremely spoiled by the horror stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. By comparison, “Cthulhu” seemed to be too much tell and not enough show. I liked that it was a compilation of notes of other people, but somehow Lovecraft’s version of this isn’t as interesting as Doyle’s or even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He told me many times how Cosmic, Cyclopean, and Bad things were, but I wasn’t feeling it, even at the end. Still, I do love old sci-fi/horror, so I will read more of his stories to get my fix.

In fact—if you have any sci-fi/horror to recommend from this general time period (late Victorian to 1920s), do let me know!

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April Catch-Up – A Little Bit of Everything

Once again, I’ve been really overcomitting myself on the reading challenges, and my “currently reading” shelf stands at 13 books. 😮 I shall try to make heads or tails of it in this post.

The weather has been pretty lovely here, by the way. Still kind of chilly, a classic Northwest April. Daffodils and morning birdsong are the little reminders that life indeed goes on!

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