BOOK REVIEW: Natsume Sōseki’s “I am a Cat”

A couple of days before the Litro team asked me to review Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat, a friend emailed me a link to an article that had gone viral written by a man describing the vicarious fame he’d attained after his pet cat became a Twitter star. Although mildly amusing, I didn’t give the article second thought – until I started my review, that is. Suddenly, the interplay between cats and their owners became startlingly relevant.

Written in 1905, Sōseki’s work is narrated by an anonymous moggy who spends his days observing the comings-and-goings in the household of his master: a pseudo-intellectual, middle-class teacher in Japan named Sneaze – the misspelling is deliberate.

Divided into three volumes, I Am a Cat isn’t easy to summarise. It opens with the cat’s unwelcome arrival in Sneaze’s home. Much of the subsequent action pivots on the narrator’s observations of the master and his friends: the poet Beauchamp, the scholar Coldmoon and professor Singleman. “If one tapped the deep bottom of the hearts of these seemingly light-hearted people, it would give a somewhat sad sound,” the cat observes.

The only substantial action derives from incidents such as a burglary in Sneaze’s home, a group of schoolboys tormenting the master and the burgeoning courtship between Coldmoon and the daughter of Sneaze’s neighbour. Through none of this do any of the human characters take time to name our narrator. “The fact that nobody, even to this day, has given me a name indicates quite clearly how very little they have thought about me,” he comments.

For lovers of satire, the attraction of I Am a Cat doesn’t lie in the intricacies of the plot, but the wry, and sometimes nihilistic, eye the protagonist casts over the humans he encounters. In terms of his more scathing comments, our narrator rivals anything in Gulliver’s Travels or Animal Farm. “All humans are puffed up by self satisfaction,” he comments. “All” may be an exaggeration, but it’s difficult to argue with the sentiment.

Elsewhere, the cat concludes “human beings were good for nothing, except for the strenuous employment of their mouths for the purpose of whiling away their time in laughter at things which are not funny, and in the enjoyment of amusements which are not amusing.” Although Sōseki plays his satire masterfully, this technique does occasionally lead to the characters feeling a little flat and I did, at times, struggle to tell the individual members of the master’s entourage apart.

One of the most striking aspects of I Am a Cat is the repulsion the characters feel for one another’s (and even their own) physicality. According to Sneaze and his circle, the neighbour’s wife is “just an oaf” with “the face of a woman who keeps her husband under her bottom”, while the master writes in his diary that his “bowels gave forth heavy plopping noises” and deems his wife “deformed” for having developed a bald spot on her head.

Darkly comic, but also symptomatic of the characters’ inability to find anything attractive or sympathetic in one another or even themselves.

Despite this, the writer never allows his characters to be entirely undeserving of sympathy. However ridiculous the master may appear, he is poignantly aware of his limitations, admitting each night as he falls asleep that he “just doesn’t understand anything any more.”

It’s also difficult not to feel tenderness for the feline (anti-) hero as he attempts to prove his worth by capturing a rat and, without revealing too much of the narrator’s fate, the novel’s final sentences are some of the most emotionally harrowing I’ve ever read.

Sōseki also aims his satire at Japan’s Meiji period (1868 – 1912), which the novel portrays. As the first half of the Japanese empire, the era gained a reputation for its hollow erudition and had the dubious honour of coining the term ‘tsundoku’: the habit of buying copious amounts of reading materials and then leaving them to mount up unread. The master is a prime example, with his wife saying, “He has no secret vices, but he is totally abandoned in the way he buys book after book, never to read a single one.”

As the master and his friends gather to read their own haikus and debate arcane philosophers, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my university days, sipping cheap wine and droning on endlessly about Nietzsche in a fellow undergraduate’s room at three am. The debates taking place in Sneaze’s home would have been even more pertinent for Sōseki. As well as being a poet, haiku writer and novelist, he worked as a teacher at several times in his career, which confers definite notes of self-satire on Sneaze’s choice of profession.

Even the feline narrator isn’t immune from the writer’s critical strokes. The cat is as blind to his own flaws as any of the members of the master’s household: lambasting humanity for its self-aggrandisement in one sentence and boasting about his own abilities in grandiose terms paragraphs later. He is also unable to reach a conclusion on the status he enjoys as a cat, oscillating between regarding himself as superior to humans and “just a cat”.

One of Sōseki’s skills is his ability to make biting comments on his characters, and indirectly, the class they represent in just a few words. Political and social upheavals such as the war with Russia are discussed as little more than passing references, while painstaking attention is paid to the contents of Sneaze’s post. The characters are far more concerned with the minutiae of their daily lives than with any external events.

Another of the novel’s central themes is the uneasy balance between ancient Chinese traditions and the modernising Western influence. The narrator, for example, dismisses a neighbouring “Western style” house as “vulgar”, while another character is mocked for wearing his hair in a “Western style”.

It would be a mistake to interpret these characters’ reluctance to embrace Western values as belonging to the writer. Sōseki was crushingly aware of the importance of Westernising traditions in Japan’s future. After leaving university, he applied for a job with an English language newspaper and spent several years studying in England.

A confession: more than once, I found myself turning to Google for beginners’ guides to ancient philosophy. While I’m vaguely familiar with the basics of Confucius, I can’t be the only reader who hadn’t heard of many of the more obscure Chinese philosophers and poets discussed by the protagonists. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Sōseki’s work, but an admission of my own ignorance.

Then, I did wonder if I’d fallen into a trap set by the author. Did he intend for us to endlessly analyze the satire until we tie ourselves in the same knots as the pseudo-intellectuals in the master’s circle? Clever as this approach may be, it can leave those readers not schooled in the finer points of haikus feeling anxious we’re missing some central joke.

More than once, I wished I could grill Sōseki on his intentions, though I imagine he meant many of his themes to be somewhat inscrutable. He clearly didn’t intend for us to attach too much weight to the views of characters who are themselves often ridiculous.

While most of the comedy comes from unpicking the biting satire, there are times when I Am a Cat is genuinely hilarious. In fact, the novel probably contains my new favourite line from any book as boastful character Waverhouse comments “marriage is little more than two people bumping into each other in the dark. […] It doesn’t much matter who bumps whom.”

I do, however, wonder if my affection for this line says more about my personal life than my literary tastes. Likewise, a housemate asked me what I was laughing at when I read the cat’s comment that humans are foolish to walk on only two of the four legs they have at their disposal.

While much of I Am a Cat is preoccupied with the clash between ancient and Western philosophies, I was struck by how much of the novel resonates with twenty-first century debates around tech and culture. The cat, for example, becomes convinced he has attained celebrity status after being (or at least believing himself to be) captured as the main image on a string of postcards sent to the master. I instantly flashed back to the article on the celebrity cat owner.

During the master’s tirade on the dangers of the rise in individuality, many of his comments foreshadow the reactions against modern ‘snowflake’, Millennial or Gen-Z culture. Sneaze, however, goes one further and predicts the growing focus on selfhood will lead everyone to commit suicide in some imagined future.

A major frustration with I Am a Cat is its tendency to fleetingly introduce themes with the potential to be fascinating but leave these unexploded. The cat tells us he has some supernatural abilities. “Quite apart from the precision of my hearing and the complexity of my mind, I can also read thoughts.” Sōseki conjures images of an opium-soaked orient oozing supernatural intrigue, but our narrator refuses to elaborate. “Don’t ask me how I learned that skill. My methods are none of your business.” While Sōseki’s gaps in information are clearly deliberate, they simply reinforce our sense we’ll never fully know our enigmatic narrator.

One of the most interesting features of I Am a Cat is the unique vantage point offered by the narrator’s feline status. “I can, better than all such bookmen, make myself invisible. To do what no one else can do is, of itself, delightful,” he says when sneaking into the neighbour’s household. At another point, the tension is unremitting when a burglar enters the master’s house in the middle of the night: although the cat is a witness, he is unable to rouse his human housemates.

Throughout the course of my research on I Am a Cat, I discovered the book was turned into a film in 1975. It would be interesting to track this down and see how the cat’s unique perspective is rendered on camera.

When tackling the novel, it probably helps to be armed with the knowledge that Sōseki originally wrote the first chapter as a standalone story for a literary magazine and the editors persuaded him to develop his tale further. I Am a Cat perhaps works more successfully as a collection of individual pieces rather than a cohesive whole. The humans’ lengthy digressions on the history of eating peacocks are fascinating, as is the cat’s lamentation on human nudity. I would have loved dipping into the various chapters when in a misanthropic mood, but reading the work in its entirety can feel like something of an epic task.

Did I enjoy I Am a Cat? While the work can be a slightly exhausting read, I’d definitely advise anyone to stick with it as the payoff of the ending alone is worth the effort. To finish with an embarrassing confession: I’d never heard of this novel before being asked to review it and wasn’t sure what I’d make of it. I certainly didn’t expect to encounter something so intellectually challenging, utterly exasperating and darkly hilarious.

Katy Ward.

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