The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

I-novel

BEFORE

1890 Mori Ōgai’s short story The Dancing Girl, in which a Japanese student in Germany has a doomed relationship, heralds a trend for revelatory autobiographical writing.

1906 In Tōson Shimazaki’s The Broken Commandment a fearful teacher struggles for self-realization as he tries to keep secret the fact he belongs to the outcast social class.

AFTER

1907 Tayama Katai’s Futon, the confessional tale of his unconsummated passion for a student, is the first overtly factual and autobiographical example of an I-novel.

1921–37 Shiga Naoya’s A Dark Night’s Passing is an I-novel with poetic spirit depicting the inner struggle of a tormented man in search of serenity.

The “I-novel” is a Japanese literary genre that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. Although called the I-novel, the genre has little in common with the Western concept of a novel; it is a form of confessional literature in which the story’s contents are usually autobiographical. The genre takes its name from the first-person perspective, “I”; narrators are always sincere (and never unreliable). The Western practice of using multiple viewpoints to tell the narrative was considered misleading, because a writer could not tell the objective truth about anyone’s perspective but their own.

Heartless humans

Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) is arguably the greatest writer in modern Japanese history and his I Am a Cat is a major (and witty) example of the I-novel. The cat-narrator’s tone is snooty and supercilious, as though he regards himself a nobleman, looking down upon the errant behaviour of humans. The autobiographical element of the I-novel comes through the cat’s owner (Mr Sneaze) who, like all the humans in the book, is mercilessly mocked, and is based upon Sōseki himself. It is through the eyes of the cat that Sōseki paints his self-portrait.

I Am a Cat was first published in instalments in the literary magazine Hototogisu, which had mainly showcased haiku verse. Most of the instalments can stand on their own as short stories.

"Living as I do with human beings, the more I observe them, the more I am forced to conclude that they are selfish."


I Am a Cat

See also: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion