Sōseki on writing

Sōseki again, this time on writing. This translation is a bit rougher than Monday's, sorry. Also, the first paragraph is rather heavy going if you don't care about Japanese literary styles. From the second paragraph on is where it gets more general.

The question of which buntai [文体, literary style] is best for describing nature is one for which I have no answer. Genbun itchi [言文一致, unification of written and spoken style] is the most popular today, but a lot of work in this style would be perfectly fine gabun [雅文, traditional literary style] if you removed the casual sentence endings like de aru or no da. So while genbun itchi is no doubt useful, one couldn't really argue that it would be impossible to describe nature without it. On the other hand, the question of whether a formal Chinese-influenced style or a more colloquial style that allows writers to explore nuances is better is worth thinking about in terms of taste and detail and the like.

Although it does depend on one's understanding of taste and detail and so on, I have not yet seen writing which included detailed description but was also rich and suggestive in feeling. Writing which causes a given scene to appear before one's eyes by describing it in an orderly fashion from top to bottom probably does not exist. I do not believe it could exist. In my opinion, one need not describe nature — that is, narrate — in minute detail. Even if one were to do so, the results would not necessarily be of great value. For example, I could describe this six-tatami room in great detail — there is a desk, books, I am sitting here, my tobacco tray is there, the tobacco tray is placed like so, the brand of tobacco is such-and-such — but I fear that this would only make my writing more impenetrable to readers, and be of no value whatsoever. It is enough, I think, simply to present what is distinctive about the room. A dim lamp, a cluttered floor: it is enough if these appear vividly before the reader of the work.

The same is true of painting. In the West, there are many similar debates among painters, and while the work of Japanese artists like Toba Sōjō 鳥羽 僧正 contains not a jot of what one might call detail, we can nevertheless see a crow in a single dot, a sleeve in a single curved line. What is more, things seen in this way are highly agreeable to the eye. The same is true of writing. This, I believe, is why the work of Izumi Kyōka 泉 鏡花 leaves a deep impression on people. When the central aspect of a scene is rendered with skill in a single stroke of the brush, the result is highly agreeable, and appears vividly before one. The rain in early summer, a moonlit night: to show the most important part — or, rather, the core point — of the scene to readers in an agreeable way is, I feel, the test of a writer's skill.

To summarize, writing which seizes and presents only the core point in each phrase, such as Chinese writing and haiku, is in my opinion far more suggestive and richer in feeling than writing which simply narrates in detail and at great length. That is, it is impossible to describe nature in perfect detail, and even if it were possible the results would be unlikely to have great value. As proof of this, consider the fact that if one reads narrative writing closely and in detail, one occasionally runs across errors such as buildings that originally faced west later turning to face east instead. Errors like this occur even in works of some fame, and yet no-one raises this as a point of criticism, and indeed I have never heard of an attack on these grounds.

Whether describing nature or events, then, it is sufficient to present only enough of the core points to suggest the rest. Detail that renders a work dull is of no use at all.

Note that Sōseki has anticipated just about every mainstream review of Japanese literature (and cinema, and music, etc.) that would appear in translation in the West over the following century. Ink paintings! Haiku! Minimalist impressionism! It's all there.

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