Natsume Sōseki’s novel I Am a Cat (translated by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson) was first published in installments in a Japanese literary magazine in 1905 and 1906. The installments have since been published in three volumes and as a single three-volume set, which is what I read.
As you may have guessed from the title, the main character of the novel is a cat who “as yet [has] no name.” As the book opens, the cat wanders into the home of a teacher named Mr. Sneaze and eventually takes up residence there. In the book, the cat shares his observations about Sneaze and his family, friends, and neighbors. They are a quirky group, prone to long, comical debates about life, love, and the differences between East and West. The friends regale one another with stories about their work and their relationships, and the cat is always present, making his own observations.
I absolutely loved the device of having a cat as narrator. For one thing, I’m a cat person, so the idea of a book from a cat’s point of view is definitely intriguing. But more important, a cat seems like the perfect insider/outsider. A cat can quietly insinuate itself into a room and hear all sorts of things without drawing attention to itself. And there’s a particularly feline sense of superiority that would of course make a cat feel capable and worthy of commenting on human activities.
The introduction to my edition comments on the fact that the cat gets less feline over the course of the series, and the cat does remark in Chapter 3 that he feels more comfortable with humans than with other cats. However, I found that the feline sense of detachment and superiority never went away. In that sense, our narrator is feline from start to finish, even if humans become his primary area of interest. My own cat strongly prefers humans to other cats, so I could easily imagine a cat adopting this position.
The cat is only rarely directly involved in the action, and after the first few chapters, he doesn’t talk much about his own activities. Instead, the cat reports on what his human master, Mr. Sneaze, and his compatriots are up to. The various characters seem to take great pleasure in pointing out each other’s foibles. Here, for example, is Mrs. Sneaze’s complaint about her husband (a complaint that will sound familiar to many book bloggers):
He has no secret vices, but he is totally abandoned in the way he buys book after book, never to read a single one. I wouldn’t mind if he used his head and bought in moderation, but no. Whenever the mood takes him, he ambles off to the biggest bookshop in the city and brings home as many books as chance to catch his fancy. Then, at the end of the month, he adopts an attitude of complete detachment.
Too true, no?
Other bits of ridiculousness include Coldmoon’s never-ending quest to write his thesis, which requires him to create a perfectly round glass ball that he will use for his research into “The Effects of Ultraviolet Rays upon Galvanic Action in the Eyeball of the Frog.” It turns out that making a perfectly round glass ball is extraordinarily difficult, and Coldmoon must spend hours upon hours grinding glass, much to the amusement of his friends. Coldmoon’s previous research focused on execution by hanging and involved the use of mathematical formulas to discern how the mass hanging in The Odyssey was conducted.
Because all the humans seemed to do was ridicule one another, I couldn’t understand at first why they spent any time together. After a while, though, I came to suspect that the banter was an affectionate banter. I started to think of the book as something like a Japanese Three Men in a Boat, if Montmorency (the dog) were to tell the story. When read from that frame of reference, the relationships make a lot more sense.
Besides the goofy tales, there are also some moments of philosophizing on the differences between East and West and on the Japanese way of pursuing happiness and peace. At one point, Mr. Sneaze has a sort of existential crisis, brought on by his friend Waverhouse’s ridicule of a Zen master that Sneaze admired and wished to emulate. Sneaze decides that perhaps everyone he knows is a lunatic, including himself. But even this crisis is treated humorously, with the cat making this remark:
Though [Sneaze] sports a fine moustache like Kaiser Bill, he is so preternaturally stupid that he can’t even distinguish between a madman and a normal person. Not only that, but after he has given himself the heartache and excruciating mental torment of considering lunacy as an intellectual problem, he finishes up by dropping the matter without reaching any conclusion whatsoever. He lacks the brain power to think through a problem. Any problem. In any field. The only thing worth noting about the whole of this evening’s performance is that, characteristically, his conclusions are as vague and as elusive as cigarette smoke leaking from his nostrils.
I’ve read that I Am a Cat is a satire on Meiji-era Japan. I’m not at all familiar with that era, so I can’t really speak to what it is critiquing and how effective it is. It does seem to me that Sōseki is trying to show how shallow and generally useless the intellectual elites of his day were, but without any knowledge of the era, I think the subtler points (if there were any) went over my head.
But even without that background knowledge, I found the book to be pretty entertaining. However, I do think it was a mistake to try to read all three volumes at once. The book is extremely episodic, with few narrative elements that spread across chapters. It’s hard to maintain interest in a 638-page book when there’s no suspense. I love many long books—some longer than this—but I found myself getting restless by the halfway point of I Am a Cat. If I had quit at the end of the first volume, restlessness would not have had a chance to set in, and I probably would have returned to the next volume a month or two later with enthusiasm.
This review is part of the Classics Circuit tour of Meiji era Japanese literature, which is running through November 5. Sign-ups for the December tour, which is devoted to Anthony Trollope, are open until November 3.