The Gate

Book: The Gate

Author: Natsume Sōseki, a giant of modern Japanese literature. Other works include I Am a Cat.

Genre: Literary fiction

Readers: Reading teacher Emry, retiree Sulyn, stay-at-home mom Colleen B. and literature professor Irene Adler.

Publisher Summary: A humble clerk and his loving wife scrape out a quiet existence on the margins of Tokyo. Resigned, following years of exile and misfortune, to the bitter consequences of having married without their families’ consent, and unable to have children of their own, Sōsuke and Oyone find the delicate equilibrium of their household upset by a new obligation to meet the educational expenses of Sōsuke’s brash younger brother. While an unlikely new friendship appears to offer a way out of this bind, it also soon threatens to dredge up a past that could once again force them to flee the capital. Desperate and torn, Sōsuke finally resolves to travel to a remote Zen mountain monastery to see if perhaps there, through meditation, he can find a way out of his predicament.

Read It If You Love: Classic literature, Japanese culture, Hakuri Murakami, International Fiction

Skip It If You Hate: Slow plots, spare prose, sad books.

Emry  Bio

A primary theme of The Gate is that a small, quiet, seemingly monotonous life does not have to be unhappy. The writing style mirrors the lifestyle it projects; the plot moves slowly, calmly, with little dialogue and even less action. The main characters, Oyone and Sosuke, remain opaque for much of the story. They become endearing, eventually, but the reader must commit heavily to ride out the lengthy introduction before being rewarded with the deeper story. The bitter love story they share is beautiful, grim, and well worth reading. Their dialogue, though rare, is realistic and sweet. Overall, the book is rather grim; it is not exactly hopeful, it is certainly not cheerful, but it is honest and masterfully written.

Grade: A-


Sulyn  Bio

Thank you, William F. Sibley, for translating the beautifully written and engaging novel, The Gate. Sibley’s translation begins with a short Prologue written by Pico Iyer. It is an informative introduction to Japanese customs and traditions, that sets the stage for what is to come.

The Gate is an enjoyable read about love and devotion, relationships and human frailty. Sibley’s footnotes are unobtrusive, offering short, clear explanations that help the reader understand the context of life for people living in Japan in the early 1900’s.

This is a novel our local book club would enjoy reading. With newly acquired knowledge of Japanese history and traditions, much of which is due to Sibley’s research, perhaps I would be able to capture some of the nuances I missed the first time around

Grade: A


Colleen B.  Bio

Lost in translation.  I have read some challenging books in my time but I think this one takes the cake.  I found it lacking in just about every area.  The book started out very slow and I had high hopes that it would get better quickly because of the size of the book.  Unfortunately it never got there for me.  I want to attribute it to the fact that it is set in another country very far from here (America) and because the culture gap is so vast, I just couldn’t understand where the author wanted this story to go.

Supposedly Oyone and Sosuke were very much in love with each other.  I never felt it.  The story was all over the place and the ended didn’t make any sense to me at all.  It felt like another book all together.  I never felt like the book even had a resolve at the end.  It just – ended.

Grade: D


Irene Adler  Bio

Reading this book in the days before Christmas—while feeling tired, under-motivated, and both driven to consume and stretched financially—was an extremely timely experience. The core of the story concerns the relationship between Sōsuke and Oyone, who grow prematurely old together as they passively navigate the paralyzing burdens of financial instability paired with the responsibility to provide for Sōsuke’s younger brother Koroku. The every-day interactions between husband and wife are enveloped by this financial uncertainty in addition to their unspoken guilt about having forsaken a friend from their past, their lingering sadness about two miscarriages and a stillborn, and their subsequent fears that they will never have children. Somehow, their affection for each other amid their difficulties is both immensely strained and incredibly moving, particularly in the moments when one of them is ill and the other is overtaken by anxiety and concern for the other’s well-being. Withstanding the novel’s very specific setting in the outskirts of Tokyo in the early twentieth century, Sōseki’s portrait of the couple resonates for readers in any context. The tensions surrounding their simplest statements to each other, e.g. “Why don’t you take a stroll?” (3), “That’s right, we’ll get by somehow” (32), or “Kyoto is lovely isn’t it?” (147), illustrate the complex emotions girding even the most basic of human interactions and the mundane division of labor in a relationship.

Admittedly, I was exasperated by Sōsuke’s marked passivity and fatalism. He is bullied by relatives into accepting less than satisfactory management of his inheritance, never approaches a problem promptly or directly, and often neglects the physical and emotional needs of his loved ones because of his unwillingness to act or engage in confrontation. Whether because of my role as a Western reader or my position as a largely dependent spouse and caregiver, I was repeatedly frustrated by Sōsuke’s unfailing passivity, impotence, and languor when faced with circumstances that require him to be decisive and selfless.

All frustrations aside, The Gate is clearly a “classic” of world literature, and I celebrate the access to the rich every-day life of Sōsuke and Oyone afforded by Sibley’s translation, which has been published posthumously. Given that so few literary texts are translated into English (only an estimated 3 percent), I am grateful for Sibley’s efforts to compensate for English- dominance within the field of global literature. A window into Sōseki’s fictional world is especially significant given his stated influence on Japan’s literary superstar Haruki Murakami who is among the most widely recognized of Eastern writers. I lament the lack of a translator’s preface or, at least, a note of explanation on the translation that could make more visible some of the negotiations that Sibley undertook to transform into English the understated tensions and evasive interactions between characters in Sōseki’s novel.

Grade: A


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Thanks to NYRB Classics for providing our reviewers with copies of The Gate. You can find them on Twitter and on Facebook. See more of their releases on their website

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