Book Review: Light and Dark by Natsume Sōseki

Light and Dark by Natsume SosekiLight and Dark: What it is about

Columbia University Press (publisher) says: “Light and Dark, Natsume Soseki’s longest novel and masterpiece, although unfinished, is a minutely observed study of haute-bourgeois manners on the eve of World War I. It is also a psychological portrait of a new marriage that achieves a depth and exactitude of character revelation that had no precedent in Japan at the time of its publication and has not been equaled since. With Light and Dark, Soseki invented the modern Japanese novel.

Recovering in a clinic following surgery, thirty-year-old Tsuda Yoshio receives visits from a procession of intimates: his coquettish young wife, O-Nobu; his unsparing younger sister, O-Hide, who blames O-Nobu’s extravagance for her brother’s financial difficulties; his self-deprecating friend, Kobayashi, a ne’er-do-well and troublemaker who might have stepped from the pages of a Dostoevsky novel; and his employer’s wife, Madam Yoshikawa, a conniving meddler with a connection to Tsuda that is unknown to the others. Divergent interests create friction among this closely interrelated cast of characters that explodes into scenes of jealousy, rancor, and recrimination that will astonish Western readers conditioned to expect Japanese reticence.

Released from the clinic, Tsuda leaves Tokyo to continue his convalescence at a hot-springs resort. For reasons of her own, Madam Yoshikawa informs him that a woman who inhabits his dreams, Kiyoko, is staying alone at the same inn, recovering from a miscarriage. Dissuading O-Nobu from accompanying him, Tsuda travels to the spa, a lengthy journey fraught with real and symbolic obstacles that feels like a passage from one world to another. He encounters Kiyoko, who attempts to avoid him, but finally manages a meeting alone with her in her room. Soseki’s final scene is a sublime exercise in indirection that leaves Tsuda to “explain the meaning of her smile.”

Light and Dark: What I thought

First of all, this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever owned. A hardback, with a pressed-in print of the title and author, a beautiful loose cover. The paper has serrated edges and each chapter starts with a small picture. The paper is slightly shiny and very pleasant to read from. I love this physical book!

soseki1 soseki2

The story of the newlywed couple is fun to read but rather slow. Although the story was written in 1916, it felt quite modern, with O-Nobu, the wife, going her own way as much as she could. She seems quite the feminist. Of course, she hadn’t known her husband for very long (I think the marriage was arranged) so she was more likely to spend time in the theater with her friends than visiting her husband Tsuda in the hospital.

Also the wife of Tsuda’s employer plays a mysterious role in this story. She is an independent woman, too, who hides certain things from her husband and has a connection with Tsuda of some kind. In addition, Tsuda’s friend Kobayashi, who is so poor he has to beg a coat off Tsuda, is a fun character.

The combination of the beautiful book, the interesting characters and the exotic setting in time and place, made this a magical read. However, the story itself never grabbed me enough to keep me reading. I read several pages a day for the month of April and part of May (because of East-Asia Month) but almost halfway, I felt it was enough. I may get back to this book at some point, but for now, I’m just very pleased that I own this beautiful book and that I read some of the story. In fact, since the author died before he could finish the manuscript, I would not be able to read the full story anyway. 🙂

Rating: DNF (Did Not Finish – but: very beautiful!)

Number of pages: 422 (I read until page 188)

First published: 1916 (Japanese edition, Meian; this edition 2014, translated by John Nathan)

I got this book: I won a giveaway by Tony of Tony’s Reading List

Genre: classic (Japanese)



About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

9 Responses to Book Review: Light and Dark by Natsume Sōseki

  1. ‘I am a Cat’ by Natsume Soseki is a great book, very funny and beautifully written. It’s a shame that this one didn’t live up to the reputation of his masterpiece but it is unfinished and he may well have sharpened things up a little if he’d had a little more time.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Alastair, thanks for your comment. This novel first appeared as a series in a magazine, so I’m not sure he would have sharpened things up for the novel. Each instalment would have had to be as good as he could make it. I will try the cat book, heard so many good things about it!

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I do like Soseki generally, but this one was hard going for me also – very Jamesian, very detailed. I think I would have liked it more when I was younger and more patient, now I felt it all a little too nuanced and introspective.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Marina, I also missed the patience to finish the book. I was fine for a while, but it just went on too long. It was my first Soseki, but certainly not my last!

  3. Tony says:

    I’d have to disagree with the comment above. ‘I am a Cat’ was Soseki’s first book, a collection of amusing scribblings for a newspaper – if either of these is the masterpiece, it’s certainly ‘Light and Dark’. It’s a psychological novel in the vein of Henry James and shows the writer’s development over his career. As to Soseki’s best work, ‘Kokoro’ is a candidate, but my favourite (for its mix of light and dark tones) is probably ‘Kusamakura’ 🙂

  4. Laurie C says:

    Interesting review of a book I wasn’t at all familiar with! I’ve liked the Henry James novels that I’ve read, but I don’t like the idea of reading an unfinished novel!

  5. I really enjoyed this book, was sad to discover it was unfinished, but interesting to try to guess what could happen next

    • Leeswammes says:

      I didn’t quite get that far – this time around – but I wasn’t put off by the fact that there wouldn’t be an ending. It can be fun to make up your own ending. 🙂

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