Thursday, December 29, 2016

The accident in “And then”

How Japan’s most famous modern novelist borrowed from a real-life mountain disaster

Natsume Soseki
Few would argue that Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916) was greatly into extreme sports. So it’s all the more surprising to happen on a reference to modern alpinism in his novel Sore kara (ably translated as And then by Norma Moore Field). This occurs in Chapter XV, when Daisuke, a typically perplexed and troubled Sōseki hero, is leafing through a “certain popular foreign magazine”:

In one number, he had come across an article entitled "Mountain Accidents" and had been alarmed. The article recounted the injuries and mishaps that befell those adventurers who crawled up high mountains. There was a story of a climber lost in an avalanche whose bones appeared forty years later on the tip of a glacier; another described the plight of four adventurers who, about to pass a flat, vertical rock that stood halfway up the side of a peak, had piled one on top of the other like monkeys; but just as the highest was about to reach for the tip of the rock, it had crumbled, the rope had broken, and the three, doubled one upon the other, had plunged headlong past the fourth into the abyss. In the midst of these accounts were inserted several illustrations of human beings glued like bats to a mountainside as sheer as a brick wall. Daisuke, imagining the wide sky and distant valleys that lay beyond the white space beside the precipitous cliffs, could not help re-experiencing the dizziness brought on by terror.

On reading this account, Daisuke reflects that “in the world of morality, he stood on the same ground as those climbers”. At the same time, he is unwilling or unable to break off the budding liaison with a friend’s wife that is leading him towards moral and social destruction. For the fate that Sōseki has in store for his hero will be every bit as annihilating as the accident that befell the “four adventurers” in the fictional magazine.

Or was that magazine really fictional? Except for the number of people involved, the accident it describes closely resembles the one in August 1899 that ended the career of the English rock-climbing pioneer Owen Glynne Jones (below) and three guides on the Ferpècle Arête of the Dent Blanche.

The original O G Jones in action (photo by George D Abraham)
In that notorious episode, the lead guide tried to surmount a rocky obstacle by standing on an ice-axe held firm by his colleagues. When he slipped, he pulled Jones and two other guides to their deaths. The fifth member of the party, a Mr F W Hill, survived only because the rope joining him to the others snapped under the strain. A detailed post on OG Jones’s life and death can be found on Summitpost.

Could Sōseki have heard of this accident? The dates seem to work. In 1901, only a few years after the Dent Blanche disaster, he was sent to England on a Japanese government scholarship to improve his knowledge of English literature. During his stay, Sōseki unquestionably fulfilled his mandate, spending most of his time closeted in libraries or his lodgings, reading voraciously. It seems possible that he also stumbled across a magazine – but which one? – containing an account of Dent Blanche accident.

The Dent Blanche, as featured in "And then"
Sōseki’s English sojourn was the making of his career. Returning to Japan, he took up an appointment at the First National College in Tokyo and later became the professor of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. Novels started to tumble out at a rate of one a year. Yet his memories of England were more bitter than sweet: ”The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant in my life. Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”

A few of Sōseki’s English friends did their best to alleviate his misery. His last set of landladies, the Leale sisters of Clapham, “successfully urged him to get out more and take up cycling”, or so Wikipedia asserts. Had the sisters been a bit more successful, one could imagine a kind of alternative history in which Sōseki parlays his newfound cycling fitness into a general enthusiasm for the outdoors, returning to Japan just in time to join the nascent Japanese Alpine Club, as quite a few other contemporary writers would do.

You know, it might almost have happened – in Sōseki’s Kusamakura, published in 1906, the year after the Japanese Alpine Club was founded, the narrator opens his account walking down a spring mountainside towards a remote hot spring village. We learn that he is a painter on a hiking tour, not unlike the real-life artists Nakamura Seitarō and Ibaraki Inokichi, who both became keen Sangakukai men.

At least one caution is in order here. A novel's narrator is not necessarily the same sort of person as his author. Thus, although the protagonist of Kusamakura may have been a likely candidate for Japan's new alpine club, this doesn't mean that his creator ever considered joining. Come to think about it, it’s a mercy that Sōseki didn’t sign up as a pioneer alpinist. Japanese literature would in all probability be much the poorer for it.

No comments: