Kusamakura (草枕, Grass Pillow) is a Japanese novel by Natsume Sōseki published in 1906. It appeared first in English in 1965 as The Three-cornered World, and in another translation in 2008 as Grass Pillow, a phrase which has connotations of travel in Japanese.
The novel tells of an artist who retreats to the mountains, where he stays at a remote, almost deserted hotel. There he becomes intrigued by the mysterious hostess, O-Nami, who reminds him of the John Millais painting Ophelia.
Ostensibly looking for subjects to paint, the artist makes only a few sketches, but instead writes poetry. This poetry is inserted into a text that consists of scenes from the artist's reclusive life and essay-like meditations on art and the artist's position in society. In these musings, the artist quotes and mentions a variety of Japanese, Chinese and European painters, poets and novelists. For example, he discusses the difference between painting and poetry as argued in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Other writers and poets referred to include Wang Wei, Tao Yuanming, Bashō, Lawrence Sterne (Tristram Shandy), Oscar Wilde (The Critic as Artist), and Henrik Ibsen.
Chapter 12 contains an apology for the death of Sōseki's student Misao Fujimura, who committed suicide by drowning. Calling his death heroic, the narrator asserts: "That youth gave his life – a life which should not be surrendered – for all that is implicit in the one word 'poetry'."
English translations and titles
Kusa Makura literally means The Grass Pillow, and is the standard phrase used in Japanese poetry to signify a journey. Since a literal translation of this title would give none of the connotations of the original to English readers, I thought it better to take a phrase from the body of the text which I believe expresses the point of the book.
The phrase from the book to which Turney refers is (in his own translation):
...I suppose you could say that an artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world.
A new English translation of the book by Meredith McKinney was published in 2008 under a translation of the original title Kusamakura. Explaining her choice of the title in an introduction, McKinney notes the connotation of The Grass Pillow in Japanese as a term for travel that is "redolent of the kind of poetic journey epitomized by Bashō's Narrow Road to the Deep North."
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