(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In The Three-Cornered World, an artist, the novel’s first-person narrator, tells about his journey into the Japanese countryside, where he hopes to find the natural environment necessary for his artistic powers to unfold. Sseki Natsume’s novel is unconventional in its minimalist approach to its characters, but its silence here is counterbalanced by presentation of philosophical ideas, haiku, and graphic description of natural scenery, all of which are integrated into the overall structure of the narrator’s excursion.

The novel begins a few miles from the hot springs of Nakoi, where the springtime countryside invites the narrator “to rise above emotions, to view things dispassionately.” Ironically, however, a heavy spring rain modifies his abstract ideas and brings home to him the “vulgar” in human existence: Completely drenched, the young artist finds refuge in a roadside teahouse.

There, an old woman waits on him until Gembei, a packhorse driver from Nakoi, stops over. In conversation with him, the old woman casually brings up the story of Shioda’s unfortunate daughter. After her studies at Kyoto, where she fell in love, O-Nami Shioda was married to another man to suit her father’s finances; what arouses the narrator’s interest is that O-Nami divorced her husband upon his sudden bankruptcy and returned to Shioda’s hotel.

Arriving late at night and resting in his room, the artist observes a female figure singing under an aronia tree in the moonlit garden. The young woman vanishes at his approach, only to reappear shortly afterward, searching the room’s cupboard while the narrator feigns sleep. In the morning, the artist meets his night visitor—Shioda’s daughter, in whose room he is lodging—and finds “absolutely no consistency in her expression”: Beneath a snooty surface is real need. Discovering that the haiku poems about the sad singer he composed that night have been jokingly amended by their subject, the narrator begins to feel “a thin thread” being spun between them by fate. Nevertheless, O-Nami rejects his sketch of...

(The entire section is 859 words.)