Life and unhappy novels

[An issue of my newsletter Leaflet]

“In spring everything becomes drowsy. The cat forgets to chase the mouse, and men forget that they have debts.” —Sōseki, The Three-Cornered World


I’ve been interested in Sōseki since reading, a few years ago, a Penguin translation of his 1914 novel Kokoro. Something about its plainspoken, depressive, somewhat crypto-gay view of the world spoke to me. A month and a half ago, I read his 1915 novel Grass on the Wayside, his only novel drawn directly from his life. It’s about a man in early middle age who has returned to his wife and children in Japan after a long sojourn abroad. The bonds between him and his young family seem damaged, and both he and they seem ambivalent, even reluctant, about letting the bonds heal. The bickering between him and his wife is fierce. He’s having trouble finding his way back into his professional life—money is a problem. And then his former adoptive father shows up, saying he wants to adopt him again. It’s a confusing request. The older man may only be asking for a handout, now that the protagonist has secured a place for himself in the world, however tenuous.

Their relationship is a little hard to explain, I think even to Japanese readers. Like Sōseki himself, the protagonist of Grass on the Wayside was given up for adoption by his natural parents at a very young age, for reasons unclear, and the placement was in many ways an unhappy one. “He did not mind so much being owned physically,” Sōseki writes, of the protagonist’s feelings about his adoptive parents, “but even his childish heart grew fearful at the thought of becoming emotionally enslaved to them.” The placement hadn’t lasted. After his adoptive father left to live with a new girlfriend, the child was returned to his biological parents, who took him back only grudgingly. It’s understandable that the novel’s protagonist wishes for the dispiriting, humiliating story to stay in the past. He owes nothing to the man, everyone around him repeats. To protect his finances, to keep his emotional balance, he really has no choice but to turn the man away. The problem is, some of the most vivid memories of his childhood are associated with this adoptive father.

The two of them often went out boating, accompanied by a boatman dressed in the traditional straw skirt. When they were some distance from the land the boatman would cast his net, and Kenzo [the protagonist] would watch the gray mullet with their silver scales dancing frantically as they were brought to the surface. Sometimes the boatman would take them three or four miles out and catch gilthead. On such occasions the boat rocked so much that Kenzo could hardly keep awake. He enjoyed himself most when a swellfish was caught. As it puffed up in anger Kenzo would tap it with a chopstick as though it were a drum.

If the protagonist has any pleasant childhood memories associated with his biological father, in the novel they go unmentioned. Turning his adoptive father away, therefore, is an act of mourning, made more bitter and more complex by a perceived social obligation to deny that there is anything to mourn.

The character takes out some of his bitterness on his very young daughters, whose appearance he disparages. “One ugly child after another, and to what end?” he complains. The outburst seemed a little shocking to me, in such an openly autobiographical novel—didn’t Sōseki worry about what his actual daughters would think?—and last month I read John Nathan’s 2018 biography of Sōseki, in part because I wanted to know more about the relationship here between fiction and reality. It seems that Sōseki struggled with mental illness all his life and went through periods of believing that those closest to him were persecuting him. Several of his children were to recall him as irritable, unpredictable, and violent. Though Nathan’s inclination as a biographer seems to be to honor his subject, he seems thrown by the cruelty that Sōseki showed his family. In letters to his wife, for example, he reprimanded her harshly for what he perceived as her baldness and bad teeth. Perhaps the best that can be said is that Sōseki did not leave much of his own moral ugliness out of the portrait that he drew of himself in Grass on the Wayside, in which the husband is decidedly not more sympathetic than the wife (confusingly, Sōseki did omit from his novel the paranoid delusions that he experienced, which might have extenuated the moral ugliness), and that it and Kokoro still feel to me like groundbreaking, moving works, despite my knowing more about his personal shortcomings.


“There is not a single Western dish, with perhaps the possible exception of salad and radishes, which could be said to have an attractive color. What the nutritional value is I am unable to say, but from the artistic point of view, their food is extremely uncivilized.” —Sōseki, Three-Cornered World


There is more pathos, though again much sorrow, in the episode in Sōseki’s life just prior to the unwanted return of his foster father. In 1900, after Sōseki had become a successful professor of English literature, popular with students despite his rigorous demands on them, his employer, the Japanese government, ordered him to study English-language pedagogy for two years in London. Perhaps sensing that he lacked the psychosocial wherewithal to thrive on his own abroad, Sōseki tried to get out of it, but the ministry of education only relented to the extent of allowing him to study literature rather than language pedagogy. “The two years I spent in London were the most miserable time of my life,” he later wrote. “Among the English gentlemen, like a stray dog mixing with a pack of wolves, I eked out a pathetic existence.” He contacted and studied with several English dons but did not make a meaningful connection with any of them. His stipend from the Japanese government was inadequate, and in search of quiet, clean lodgings, he moved many times. He socialized little. Perhaps in an attempt to justify his isolation, he complained repeatedly in his diary that his command of English language and literature was better than that of native English speakers around him. “I mostly stay alone and lose myself in my reading,” he wrote to his wife. He bought four hundred volumes of English literature, including Spenser, Burney, Austen, Meredith, and James, and read incessantly, almost self-punitively, as if trying to cram into himself a knowledge of all English literature in just two years. Two landladies of his told a visiting Japanese colleague that he “stayed in his room for days on end, weeping in the darkness,” Nathan writes. Reports reached the Japanese ministry of education that he had gone insane.

Upon his return to Japan, Sōseki was so unwell, psychologically, that his wife took the children and moved in with her parents for two months, for safety. This was the period fictionalized in Grass on the Wayside. Despite his illness, he was able to keep up a public front, and he taught Johnson, George Eliot, and Shakespeare to great acclaim at a higher school and then at Tokyo Imperial University. But what was he looking forward to? It must have seemed to him that he was condemned to spending the rest of his life teaching and studying the literature of a country where he had been deeply unhappy. But then, in late 1904, inspired by Laurence Sterne, he began a satirical novel told from the point of view of a cat (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read yet). It was a hit. Two more novels quickly followed, and in 1907, Japan’s largest-circulation newspaper offered to pay him a monthly salary to print his future novels in serial format. He left the academy and spent the rest of his life not studying English literature but remaking Japan’s.

Bayesian realism

But what happened? I found myself asking, a couple of days ago, after I finished Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Investigation. I think this is a natural if philistine question. The book presents itself as a detective novel, after all. The opening scene even takes place at Scotland Yard, in an office that seems like an archetype of the genre. Here’s how the hero, a novice detective named Gregory, describes the room:

Gregory noticed Queen Victoria eyeing them from a small portrait on the wall behind the desk. The Chief Inspector looked at each of the men in turn as if counting them or trying to memorize their faces. One of the side walls was covered by a huge map of southern England; on the wall opposite there was a dark shelf lined with books.

One of the pleasures of Lem’s novel is that instead of being set in a realist London, it seems to take place in a postwar Polish novelist’s idea of detective-novel London, into which elements of a 1950s Eastern European city keep inadvertently seeping (arcades, overgilded hotel lobbies, city-periphery rabbit-hutch apartment buildings).

The Platonic ideal of a detective novel, however, always ends with a dénouement, in which the culprit is nabbed, and an éclaircissement, in which the detective explains what gave the culprit’s diabolical plot away. The Investigation has neither. The only explanation offered of its central mystery fits the evidence so poorly that for it to work, one incident has to be omitted. And no one even tries to explain some of the most disturbing phenomena. It is left up to the reader, for example, to come up with a theory for why a corpse left in a mortuary in winter would spontaneously return to a living person’s body temperature.

The Investigation, in other words, is one of those detective novels that break the rules because they are to some extent about detective novels—and about the philosophical implications of detection, as a way of seeing the world—like The Crying of Lot 49 or Twin Peaks. (A side note: Like Albert in Twin Peaks, one of the minor characters in The Investigation is a forensic medical examiner with a rebarbative personality, whose name is Sorensen: “It suddenly occurred to Gregory that Sorensen had done well in choosing a profession in which he associated mainly with the dead.” I feel like at some point in Twin Peaks, more or less the same thing gets said about Albert.)

The “crime” at the heart of The Investigation is resurrection. Across London, dead bodies are going missing or being discovered in altered positions that suggest that they briefly came back to life. Scotland Yard’s chief inspector assigns the case to Gregory somewhat reluctantly. “I would prefer not to give this case to you . . . but I have no one else,” the chief says. Maybe he’s reluctant because Gregory is only a junior officer, a “beginner,” but maybe it’s because the chief doubts the case will be congenial to someone with Gregory’s mindset. “You might not like the solution,” the chief warns. Gregory’s mindset is resolutely empirical and focused on finding an individual human culprit, as befits a detective. As Gregory himself puts it, “I absolutely refuse to believe in miracles, and nothing is going to make me, even if I go crazy.” Behind any event in the world, Gregory expects to find a person, acting out an intention. Crimes, according to his way of thinking, are the expressive activity of criminals; society is the sum of the acted-out intentions of the people who comprise it.

As a habit of mind, always needing to find a culprit is a little like always seeing the world as God’s creation, and there are hints that the supernatural is what Gregory has come up against. When the chief agrees with Gregory, half-heartedly, that it would be unprofessional to chalk the events up to a miracle, he makes a religious allusion: “We all have to be doubting Thomases in this case . . . It’s one of the unfortunate requirements of our profession.” And when the chief tries to suggest to Gregory that at the end of the day there might not be any resurrectionists behind the resurrections, he makes his point by asking, “Who makes day and night?” The two men even discuss the possibility that they’re living through a recurrence of circumstances that last obtained “about two thousand years ago.” As Gregory reminds the chief inspector, “there was a series of alleged resurrections then also—you know, Lazarus, and . . . the other one.” Gregory worries that he’s being asked to catch “the creator of some new religion.”

An irruption of the divine would explain the novel’s mysteries neatly, but it’s hardly an option that a novel published in a totalitarian Communist nation was able to consider at much length (per the copyright page, Investigation came out in Poland in 1959). Within the novel, what deranges Gregory’s intentionalist view of the world isn’t faith but a statistical view of things taken by a colleague of his named Dr. Sciss. Sciss doesn’t see any need to explain why a particular corpse has crawled out of its coffin. He’s content if he’s able to calculate that there’s a numerical constant in “the product obtained by multiplying the time elapsed between any two incidents, and the distance separating any two consecutive disappearing-body sites from the center, when multiplied by the differential between the prevailing temperatures at both sites.” Like a researcher working in artificial intelligence today, Sciss doesn’t feel any compulsion to look inside the black box of his algorithm. It suffices to him if the algorithm is capable of making Bayesian (or Bayesian-like) predictions reasonably well. He forecasts that the next reanimation will occur in a circular strip in the London suburbs “no more than twenty-one miles wide.” If it occurs at all.

This is pretty broad, as predictions go. Even as Lem casts statistics as his novel’s uncanny other, he may be making a little fun of the science. Gregory is impressed by Sciss’s talk, however, and resolves to read up on statistics. Only to discover that as a way of understanding the world, it doesn’t satisfy him—much as it’s unlikely to satisfy anyone looking to read a detective novel. From the perspective of statistics, Sciss tries to argue, resurrections aren’t any more remarkable than the fact that in some London neighborhoods, people happen to be more resistant to cancer than they are in other neighborhoods. Coming back to life, considered mathematically, is more or less the same as not-dying-of-cancer transposed from above zero to below it; in the aggregate, a pattern of corpses moving around is a lot like a pattern of living people not dying of cancer shifted on the axis of aliveness. Gregory acknowledges that this might work on graph paper but insists nonetheless on knowing the specifics of how the reanimations are happening. Sciss sneers: “You’re acting like a child who is shown Maxwell’s theorem and a diagram of a radio receiver and then asks, ‘How does this box talk?'” Sciss himself doesn’t care what the mechanism is. Maybe it’s flying saucers, he says, or maybe it has to do with the dead cats and dogs that have been found near some of the moved corpses. Why would any scientifically minded person feel he needs to know? Any intuitive sense of the world is just an illusion. “So-called common sense,” Sciss lectures Gregory and a few friends, a few nights later, over dinner, “relies on programmed nonperception, concealment, or ridicule of everything that doesn’t fit into the conventional nineteenth century vision of a world that can be explained down to the last detail.”

By the end of the book, Gregory is trying to make this language his own:

>What if the world isn’t scattered around us like a jigsaw puzzle—what if it’s like a soup with all kinds of things floating around in it, and from time to time some of them get stuck together by chance to make some kind of whole? . . . Using religion and philosophy as the cement, we perpetually collect and assemble all the garbage comprised by statistics in order to make sense out of things, to make everything respond in one unified voice like a bell chiming to our glory. But it’s only soup.

It’s at this point—at the end of a long ramble that Gregory makes while staring at one of the pictures of dead people that the chief for some reason keeps on his walls at home—that the chief, recognizing that Gregory has exhausted his intellectual resources, offers the explanation that doesn’t really explain anything but allows them to close the case, at least as a matter of bureaucratic procedure.

It doesn’t feel right, of course—not to Gregory, not to the reader. Understanding the world as a sequence of shifting patterns is inimical to the way detectives understand the world, and to the way most other humans do, as well. In his extremity, Gregory seizes for a while on Sciss as the likeliest suspect, since he seems to understand what’s going on better than anyone else, but Gregory loses his nerve; he’s unable to trick himself into believing that Sciss is really guilty. Along the way, in his intellectual desperation, he elaborates Sciss’s casual mention of flying saucers into an intriguing, completely bonkers theory: maybe the agent spreading the not-dying-of-cancer isn’t something like a virus but rather a set of microscopic “information-gathering instruments” sent to Earth by an intelligent alien civilization:

Once on Earth they ignore living organisms and are directed—programmed would be a better word—only to the dead. Why? First, so they won’t hurt anyone—this proves that the star people are humane. Second, ask yourself this. How does a mechanic learn about a machine? He starts it up and watches it in operation. The information-collectors do exactly the same thing.

It’s natural that we humans don’t understand what’s going on, Gregory theorizes, because we don’t have a native information-collecting device like this on Earth: “The information-collector seems to act rationally; therefore, it isn’t a device or tool in our sense of the word. It’s probably more comparable to a hunting dog.” More than half a century ago, in other words, Lem was predicting AI search agents.

In the same novel, he also predicted universal artificial-intelligence surveillance. Sciss comes up with it. Demoralized by the then-incipient nuclear arms race, Sciss foresees an accompanying race in command-and-control systems, as they are perfected and expanded.

There must be more and more improvements in weaponry, but after a certain point weapons reach their limit. What can be improved next? Brains. The brains that issue the commands. . . The next stage will be a fully automated headquarters equipped with electronic strategy machines. . . . Strategic considerations dictate the construction of bigger and bigger machines, and, whether we like it or not, this inevitably means an increase in the amount of information stored in the brains. This in turns means that the brain will steadily increase its control over all of society’s collective processes.

A prediction that seems to have come true, though Lem was slightly wrong about the inciting force. The motive, in the event, wasn’t binary but multipolar: rather than being driven by the rivalry of just America versus the Soviet Union, the digitization of everything was driven by the rivalry of thousands of capitalist firms jockeying for market share.

So what happens in The Investigation? A novel isn’t a set of falsifiable hypotheses, but my sense is that Lem was imagining, by means of a deliberately broken detective story, what it was going to feel like when, instead of seeing the world as a field for intentions and actions, either ours or God’s, we began to see it as merely information in flux, subject to collection and to some extent prediction by artificial intelligence.

Sparrow’s “Abraham”

One of our neighbors, a retired union organizer who happens to be 101 years old, has a son who goes by the name Sparrow, and at a party in our building, a few months ago—in the before time, back when there were parties—Sparrow, who is a poet, gave me a copy of his new novel, Abraham.

Reading it was effortless, like eating my way through a bag of candy. (That’s the highest compliment one can pay a work of literature now, isn’t it—comparing it to something bad for you.) Abraham has absolutely no plot. The reader is told at the outset that the book is the diary of a chiropractor in upstate New York with an unmotivatedly eccentric way of recording the date and time. But as little as possible is made of this premise. To the best of my recollection, the chiropractor never mentions his chiropractice, and although he has a wife and a four-year-old son, they are rarely more than conceptual, serving mostly to represent the idea of a wife and the idea of a son. The only real, full presence is the diarist’s voice, which is to say Sparrow’s—a witty innocent, a deadpan enthusiast—and this is enough. It’s the voice of a dedicated talker, of someone who knows almost too well how to entertain himself with talk.

He happens to be obsessed with Abraham Lincoln. He reads whatever he comes across that mentions Lincoln: biographies, children’s books, websites, ads for TV shows, the Time magazine Civil War issue. (I wondered, once or twice, whether I might have inadvertently contributed to this indiscriminate mix, because, as a reviewer who can’t read everything he’s sent, I leave galleys of American history books in the lobby of our building every so often. Maybe Sparrow picked one up while visiting his parents?) And he takes everything he reads with the same seriousness, which is to say, with an indifference to winnowing that is inimical to the methods and ends of scholarly history and biography—impishly, deliberately indifferent, one suspects, and no less entertaining for that. I, for one, don’t think it’s likely that Lincoln had homosexual experiences or suffered from clinical depression, but homosexuality and depression are common elements these days in popular representations of Lincoln, and though Sparrow’s diarist registers some doubts when he first encounters them, he soon loses track of his doubts, and wanders into, for example, speculation about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln having been lovers. Which would be maddening if one were reading Abraham as history. But it’s not—not any more than it’s a novel. I think its genre is written talk. It reminds me of Boswell’s account of Johnson. Or maybe a Donald Barthelme spoof of Boswell’s account of Johnson. Or maybe it’s like Enter Isabel, the epistolary dialogue about Melville that Clare L. Spark had with the novelist Paul Metcalf, who was Melville’s great-grandson.

There’s lovely writing in Abraham. This simile, for example, took my breath away:

A tree fell over in the woods behind my house in March, but its buds are opening anyway, just like a drunk who collapses onto the floor of a barroom and continues his conversation, unaware that he’s horizontal.

As did this one:

I thought the chicory was all gone, but Grange [the narrator’s son] and I found two plants today, gleaming like the hard blue eyes of an 82-year-old sculptor.

And there are sharp ideas, like this insight: “One reason wars are periodic is that warmongers must wait a generation for memories of the last slaughter to fade.” Or the suggestion that “the poor are often more erudite than the rich” because “the affluent can afford the latest mediocre novels—in hardcover!—while the poor must content themselves with Milton, Shakespeare, Cervantes,” in used paperbacks.

It’s tempting just to keep quoting. But I’ll quote just one more, a diary entry of the chiropractor’s that is more or less an apologia, I think, for what Sparrow is up to:

Rereading this journal, I am embarrassed how unserious it is: summaries of comic books, facts from the New York Times Book Review, amateur sonnets.

But history is a collection of fragments. The jumble in an antique shop—paintings without titles, greenish vases, aging photographs, a book with a half-illegible name inscribed, slightly moldy quilts—that’s history, before it’s been domesticated by historians.

“Overthrow,” as thing & as tour

I just got sent a copy of Overthrow as a finished book.

Overthrow by Caleb Crain

Plus, here’s the schedule for bookstore events in August and September. Please come, if you’re in Brooklyn, Manhattan, San Francisco, or Los Angeles! And please consider supporting these bookstores by buying your copy from one of them. Thanks!