Sōsuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence, and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. They went to the draper to buy cloth for their kimonos and to the rice dealer for their rice, but they had very few expectations of the wider world beyond that. Indeed, apart from provisioning their household with everyday necessities, they did little that acknowledged the existence of society at large. The only absolute need to be fulfilled for each of them was the need for each other; this was not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for life. They dwelled in the city and though living deep in the mountains.
Natsume Sōseki’s 1910 novel The Gate, translated by William F. Sibley, is a story of an ordinary couple living an ordinary life. Their trials are ordinary trials, involving money, health, and family, and the crisis that drives the novel is a rather ordinary search for meaning. Certain specific aspects of their life, and their reaction to it, might be characteristically Japanese, but as I read, I was struck by how easily the events of the novel could be transferred to just about any place and time because the struggles the couple faced seemed so very universal. At times, I forgot I was reading a book about set more than 100 years ago on the other side of the world.
The couple married under inauspicious circumstances, the details of which are never fully explained, and they’ve muddled through life ever since. Sōsuke’s brother has recently shaken up their circumstances by coming to live with them, but it’s a quiet upset, not played for melodrama. Their most significant ongoing pain comes with their lack of children, which perhaps contributes to their feeling of restlessness and disconnection from life and the world. They react to the ennui in quiet ways, often putting a great deal of deliberate thought into any action they take.
If you haven’t guessed by now from my description, this is not the sort of book in which a lot happens. The lack of happenings is part of the point. In cutting themselves off from the wider world, Sōsuke and Oyone have cut themselves off from the kinds of events that would ordinarily become the plot of a novel. So instead, we get a chapter devoted to their angst over selling an inherited decorative screen. The one rather big step that Sōsuke takes toward the end of the novel is a step toward greater quietness, not less. And it’s a step he takes to avoid what could be a dramatic confrontation.
Some might find this book dull, but I thought it was lovely and painful, just as life is so often lovely and painful.