Soseki's London - In Memoriam

Soseki's London - In Memoriam

“Getting out of bed and rolling up the blind on the north window, I look down outside and see everything is hazy. From the bottom of the lawn below to the tops of the brick walls over six feet high that surround it on three sides, nothing is visible. Only a total emptiness clogs the air. And that is silently frozen.”

-          “Fog” (1909), by Natsume Soseki

Soseki, the pen name of Natsume Kinnosuke, was born 150 years ago today. Here he is describing the smog swathed view from his lodgings at Number 81, The Chase, London SW4. The house still stands and is today adorned with a blue plaque, commemorating its famous former resident.

I first encountered Soseki as the face on the 1000 Yen banknote on my first trip to Japan in 2003. Asking a Japanese friend who he was I was told he was Japan’s foremost novelist. He’d lived in the Meiji era and his works are imbued with a sense of fusion between the east and west, written at the time which saw Japan transform itself from a closed and isolated feudal society into globally ambitious Imperial Power. A very dignified portrait of a grand old man of Japanese letters perhaps, yet it seemed to me as if there was something warm and perhaps even rather friendly about his eyes; his impressive moustache and stiffly starched white collar reminded me of his contemporary and fellow novelist, Joseph Conrad. I think the first novel of Soseki’s I read was Kusamakuraor, the ‘Grass Pillow’ (1906), followed by other works, such as Botchan and Kokoro. Along with the writer Yasunari Kawabata (whom I’ve written about before on Waymarks, see here), he soon became one of my favourite writers.

Soseki's last London residence, 81 The Chase, SW4
Soseki had begun his writing career as a haiku poet in 1903, but it was his novels which eventually brought him lasting literary fame. In 1900 he was sent to London as part of a Japanese government sponsored programme to study English language and literature. He stayed in London for two years, first lodging close to the British Museum at 76 Gower Street, while attending lectures at nearby UCL  (University College London). It was a formative time for Soseki, but not one which he relished – he later said that those two years were “the most unpleasant years” of his life. “Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.” It can’t have been easy for him, and acute homesickness aside, his mental health and general well-being were certainly at times a genuine concern to the English families he lodged with, but these two years clearly informed his later works – and his discomfort during this period may well have been somewhat embellished later on for better effect. Returning to Japan he succeeded Lafcadio Hearn, the prolific commentator on life and culture in contemporary Meiji era Japan (whose works are also still widely read today), at Tokyo Imperial University; eventually becoming professor of English literature there, until in 1907 he joined the Asahi Shimbun, and became a full-time writer.

The Soseki Museum, London

Early on in my acquaintance with Soseki I’d read that there was a little museum dedicated to him tucked away in residential London somewhere, but it was only when I read sometime last summer that this small and eclectic little museum was due to close that I found the imperative to visit – which was odd, as being a fan of Japanese literature, I’d made many visits to places connected to famous Japanese writers in Japan itself, somehow the one on my doorstep had always been neglected. Hence on the last Sunday it was due to be open we boarded a bus at Waterloo and followed the road beside the Thames, heading upriver to visit The Chase.

In “Fog” Soseki describes the same bus journey but in reverse. Starting from The Chase he rides a horse drawn omnibus through the foggy streets all the way to Victoria.

“As I cross Westminster Bridge, a white object flaps fleetingly once or twice past my eyes. Straining my eyes and carefully looking out in that direction I dimly see in the middle of the stifling air a gull dreamily flying by. At that moment Big Ben starts solemnly striking ten o’clock. When I look up there is only sound in the emptiness.” 

Later, he attempts to return home to The Chase on foot via Tate Gallery and Battersea Bridge, but all the way he is dogged by the all-enveloping thick fog.

“When one proceeds four yards, another four yards ahead becomes visible. I walk along wondering whether the world has shrunk to four yards square, and the more I walk the more a new four yards square appears. In its place, the world I have walked through passes into the past and continuously disappears.”

In stark contrast it’s a bright sunny early autumnal day with a clear blue sky when we step off the bus at the foot of The Chase. Making our way up the steep paved incline of the street which is lined with tall and imposingly solid-looking Victorian houses I spot a middle aged Japanese couple taking pictures of themselves outside a house on the opposite side of the street, looking up – as I’d guessed – the house they are posing in front of has a small blue circle imprinted into its yellow brickwork. Sadly the house itself is covered in scaffolding and so it is somewhat obscured. As we draw nearer we begin to look for the house opposite which we’ve read is where we’ll find the Soseki Museum, but the place is decidedly hard to spot. A young Japanese girl (a student of English literature, like Soseki himself, we later found out) sees us peering at the various front doors and asks if we too are looking for Number 80b? We are! 

A small plaque about the size of a business card is all that indicates we’ve found the right place. Pushing the door bell a voice greets us through a crackling intercom in Japanese – the door buzzes off the latch and we push it open. Inside the hallway is lined with propped up bicycles, which seems rather appropriate given that Soseki took up bicycling whilst staying here in London. As we climb the stairs I wonder what the residents of the other flats which this old building has been separated into make of the visitors, predominantly from far overseas, who make this pilgrimage of sorts through their communal hallway. 

On this its last open day, the place is brimming with visitors and chatter as a photographer, appropriately enough from the Asahi Shimbun, snaps away with his camera (see here). It’s the end of an era. Crammed with photos and documents from the period, along with a library of books by and about the great writer, the Soseki Museum was first opened in 1984 by Ikuo Tsunematsu, who is now a professor at Sojo University in Kumamoto, Japan. Since then he and his wife, Yoshiko, together have kept the museum open to callers three days a week, but now the scarcity of visitors and the £4 entry fee is no longer sufficient to maintain the museum’s upkeep; and so, just a few months short of the centenary of Natsume Soseki’s death on December 9th 1916, they have decided to close the museum and sell the two small rooms and the landing which it has occupied for more than thirty years. No doubt it will revert back to residential use, but I wonder in time how many of its future residents will know that because of the man who’s name adorns the blue plaque across the street these rooms were once visited by the Crown Prince, Naruhito, and two former Prime Ministers, Kaifu and Obuchi, of Japan? … Maybe all of this will simply recede like a hazy memory, lost to the mists of the past with the slow passing of time. 

Before leaving, we take a stroll further up the road to see the old cast iron Victorian ‘Pillar Box’, leaning at a slight yet venerable angle – its embossed decorations smoothed by the layers of bright red paint accreted over more than a century of service, in which Soseki once posted his letters home to Japan. Pausing a moment, we wondered how many postcards to Japan had been posted here today? … Then, following in his footsteps – we headed back down the hill to catch a bus back towards Westminster Bridge.


Natsume Soseki, The Tower Of London (Peter Owen, 2004)

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