The Three-Cornered World [1906/65] – ★★★★1/2
“Thank heaven for all those who, in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.”
In this novel by famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916), a young painter travels the country in search of a source of true artistic inspiration, tying to be completely dispassionate about everything he sees. In his journey “to rise above emotions” and conquer his earthy desires he has the aim to reach the state of total objectivity so that his brush will be able to paint only the “truth” and “bare life”. However, when he stops briefly at a guesthouse of one Shioda in a hot-spring village of Nakoi, he encounters there a woman who may put a stop to all of his pretences to be an unemotional observer and a mere spectator of life. O-Nami is a beautiful and enigmatic young woman who has recently escaped her impoverished husband and may have had an affair with a local Buddhist priest. Intrigued by this woman and engulfed in the sheer beauty of the nature around him, our narrator plunges deep into the very heart of the meaning of art, poetry and life itself. The Three-Cornered World is a gentle novel of deep insights with intimate meditations on life and art, its secrets and manifestations.
The original title of the novel is Kusa Makura, which is translated as The Grass Pillow, and which in its turn means “sleeping outside” or more symbolically still – “a poetic journey”. Our hero in the story is convinced that if one remains a detached observer and not get personally involved in what he sees, events will present themselves in a way which is poetically significant. With this frame of mind, he awaits inspiration to paint when he notices a beautiful divorcee O-Nami at his guest-house and becomes so intrigued by her that he decides to paint her. O-Nami is a perfect subject matter because she resembles the mythical Maid of Nagara who tragically died because she was unable to choose between her two suitors. However, he soon realises something is wrong – something is missing and he is unable to start. Sōseki did study English Literature in England at one point in his life, and there are some barely perceivable parallels between this story and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White  (such as an artist arriving to a new place, being enchanted by one young woman, and the touches of the supernatural). However, Sōseki’s story is much more introspective and defies Western categorisations. It is a journey of self-discovery and the destination is the depth of the protagonist’s heart and mind.
“Life is an inescapable rat-race in which you are constantly being spurred on by materialistic values to wrangle and squabble with your neighbour. For us who live in this world with its East and West, and who have to walk the tight-rope of advantage and disadvantage, love which is free of self-interest is an enemy. And yet, visible wealth is as worthless as dust, and fame which has been avidly grasped is, it seems to be like stolen honey which looked sweet while in the making, but in which the cunning bee has left his sting. The so-called pleasures in life derive from material attachments, and thus inevitably contain the seeds of pain. The poet and the artist, however, come to know absolute purity by concerning themselves only with those things which constitute the innermost essence of this world of relativity. They dine on the summer haze, and drink the evening dew. They discuss purple, and weigh the merits of crimson, and when death comes they have no regrets. For them, pleasure does not lie in becoming attached to things, but in becoming a part of them by a process of assimilation. And when at last they succeed in this, they find there is no room to spare for their ego. Thus, having risen out of the quagmire of materialism, they are free to devote themselves to the real essentials of life, and thereby obtain boundless satisfaction [Sōseki Natsume/Alan Turney, Henry Regnery Company, 1906/1965: 87].
It is utterly fascinating to follow the musings of the protagonist, a highly observant and intelligent artist who also composes haiku from time to time. His mind is active, wondrous, full of ideas and, of course, in search of one objective “truth”. He is searching for that something that makes a piece of art a masterpiece, something ethereal: “you have to paint as though, in the instant when the right colours, shapes and mood all fell into place, your soul suddenly became aware of its own existence” [Natsume/Turney, Henry Regnery Company, 1906/65: 92], and he recognises that art brings the “world of graciousness” and anyone who comes in contact with it can “enter at will a world of undefiled purity…and throwing off the yoke of avarice and self interest…able to built up a peerless and unequalled universe. Thus in all this, they are happier than the rich and handsome; than any lord or prince that ever loved; happier indeed that all those on whom this vulgar world lavishes her affections”. He has opinions on joy and sorrow: “in the depths of joy dwells sorrow, and the greater the happiness the greater the pain. Try to tear joy and sorrow apart, and you lose your hold on life. Try to cast them to one side, and the world crumbles” [1906/65: 14], on art and literature: “placidity and simplicity both indicate the presence of that underlying depth which is an indispensable ingredient of art and literature” [1906/65: 107] and on nature: “this is the great charm of nature, that it can in an instant, discipline men’s hearts and minds, and removing all that is base, lead them into the pure unsullied world of poetry” [1906/65: 18].
Alan Turney’s translation of this novel does not always come out smooth, but I still recommend this partly autobiographical novel which was also influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism. It is both subtle and profound, a delightful fusion of the mysteries of life, poetry and art.
This review is my contribution to the Japanese Literature Challenge 15 hosted by Dolce Bellezza; see also my contributory posts to both the Japanese Literature Challenge of 2021 – Japanese short stories and Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka, and 2019 – The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe and The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo. This book is also relevant to my list 7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art.