With _Kokoro_ Natsume Soseki did what English-speaking authors apparently can't do: tell a story of (non-sexual) passion, betrayal, sadness, and above all a pervading, unbearable loneliness, all without being the least bit melodramatic. It's understated and almost dispassionate on the one hand, but profound and moving on the other. The author's understanding of the ordinariness (but vast importance) of the tragedy that is life is brilliant. One of the most underrated and underread of twentieth-century novels, and this is a great translation, to top it off.
I read the book in Japanese before and I wanted to try its English version. This book keeps the original beauty without giving too many notes. Introduction pages appear rather subjective and I cannot agree with many parts. I would recommend readers to read it only after finishing the book. Highly recommended.
The first thing to strike the reader is that the book is all told in the first person, although there are two different viewpoints. The second thing is that no one is actually given a proper name throughout the entire book. The first narrator, through whose eyes we see the first half of the novel, is a young man, studying at college. He spies an older gentleman and instantly decides to follow him. This older gentleman is referred to as Sensei, though that is not his real name. The two then form something of a friendship.
Throughout the first part of the book, I couldn't escape the feeling that the translation had left the book a little staccato. The sentences were often short, simple and did not feel to have much flow to them. However, in hindsight, I think this may have been excellent writing from Soseki as the second half (which is narrated by Sensei) is much more fluent. Therefore, I think the punctuated writing pattern of the first half reflects the relative immaturity of the first narrator.
In all of the first narrator's discussions with Sensei, there is a nagging sense of something in Sensei's past which not even his wife knows about. This is brought out early in the novel when it is revealed that Sensei regularly visits a certain grave, though the identity of the grave's occupant is not revealed until much later on, though I shan't spoil it.
The change in narration comes about when the first narrator constantly questions Sensei as to why he is the way he is: aloof and withdrawn from the world, with a distrust for everyone in it, including his own wife. Throughout the first part of the novel, Sensei avoids these questions, but decides to write a letter to his disciple laying out much of his personal history in an effort to ensure that at least somebody knows what his reasons are. It is this letter that forms nearly half the book.
There is much more that I could write about this, but I shall refrain for fear of spoiling it for you. Needless to say, I would really recommend this to you. In fact, I wish I had read this when I was in my early 20s, around the same age as the first narrator. If I could describe it as a piece of scenery, it would be of a handful of people on an open moor, separated by wide open spaces, calling out to one another, but always just on the boundary of being out of earshot. It has a kind of bleakness to it, but not in a fatalistic sense. The bleakness is in the outlook on life that Sensei possesses, based on his own past and the things he blames himself for, though it is slightly open-ended as to how much of what he has piled on his own shoulders is his own fault.
This book must rate as one of the great works in world literature. It is a story so simple in the telling and yet so complex in meaning. A simple hook will draw you into the world of the narrator and compel you to read on until you reach the stunning conclusion. The confessional tone of the novel will make you feel like a witness to the events as they unfold.The unordained writing style serves to add authenticity to the tale and acts as a counterpoint to the 'haiku style' poetic descriptions littered throughout the book. There can be no summary of the plot for this would spoil the impact on the reader. It is a work that poses so many questions but whose answers you can only 'swim around' and come tantalizingly close to resolving but ultimately realize that they will remain elusive. However, in seeking to answer the unanswerable you will discover many things and be drawn back to read the book again. I consider myself well read and I felt considerable embarrassment at my ignorance of Soseki's work before I purchased this book on a friend's advise. Incomparable.
A young student befriends an older man in Tokyo. The older one's intellectual abilities, and his sophistication gains him the title of 'Sensei' - roughly approximating 'teacher' or 'master' - from the younger one.
Though he likes him well enough, Sensei does nothing to encourage the young man's growing attachment to him. This only increases the student's interest in Sensei's life, who responds finally to his overtures of friendship and respect thus: 'I do not want your admiration now, because I do not want your insults in the future. I bear with my loneliness now in order to avoid greater loneliness in the years ahead. You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves'.
The novel is structured in three parts. The first two are narrated by the student, and the third is a 'testament' in letter form by Sensei, outlining the story of his life, and explaining why he has for so long withdrawn from the outside world.
Sensei's testament is a profound self-examination and self-criticism, mostly revolving around his selfish and manipulative actions, in his own student days, when he and his friend (a fellow student) were both in love with the same girl (now Sensei's wife). This behaviour leads, in the end, to catastrophic results for his friend. From that period on, though Sensei has appeared outwardly normal and happy, his life has been completely blighted.
What makes the novel such a significant work for Western readers (other than its literary excellence) is the distinctly Japanese point of view it brings to an old story. This new perspective brings up a large number of worrying (because unanswerable) questions. How much, for instance, does Sensei's failure to forgive himself for his earlier mistakes arise from his culture's sense of 'honour', and how much from human nature?
Kokoro translates as 'the heart of things', a perfect title for a book that delicately, subtly and finally disturbingly, probes the mystery that is the core of human life.
By using his experiences living in the late Meiji period of Japan, Natsume Soseki wrote an insightful novel entitled "Kokoro," which was translated in English language by Edwin McClellan. The book is broken into three sections, "Sensei and I," "My Parents and I," and "Sensei and His Testament." The first section reveals the first interaction between the Student and Sensei at the beach, their conversations, and the college graduation of the Student. The second section deals with the life of the Student's home in the countryside of Japan, his father's illness, and the receiving of Sensei's last letter. And the last part of the novel is a letter from Sensei to the Student in which he discusses his dark past and why he decided to meet his end. From reading "Kokoro," one can get an understanding of how modern social transformation influenced Japanese life.
To show as an example: when a person lives through two different eras, it can alter his feelings and his sense of living in the Japanese society. In a sense, the transformation can alter one's sense of identification with his country. In Kokoro, the character Sensei has a lack of identification with Japan in terms of where he fits in the society, which partly leads to his deep loneliness. Since the fall of Tokugawa Japan and the Samurai class, there may have been number of people who refused to change their ways or move on toward the new Japanese society, which was the Meiji era.
But, toward the end of the Meiji period, the new change called the "modern era" was approaching, which created an effect on people who were already born in the Meiji era. As a man filled with guilt, fear, and loneliness, Sensei felt that he should leave the world physically due to the fact that he had no place in the new modern Japan. One example in the novel which best explains loneliness as a result of the modern transformation is when Sensei expressed his insight to the Student: "loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves," which was a comment that made the Student stood speechless and kept silence (p. 30).
The novelist Natsume Soseki wrote an insightful work, with a clear read as translated by Mr. McClellan. With a humble opinion, this book is given as five stars and to be recommended.
Kokoro is a book that can only be described as gentle, soft and heartbreaking. Written in a typical Japanese style the plot is more about the feelings of the main characters and how that affects their relationships and their actions. The ending is also typically Japanese, heartbreaking. The readers often find themselves comparing their own relationships with the ones so gracefully described in this book. Reading it will give anyone a new way of looking at love, hate, relationships but most importantly it is a beautiful poetic piece of literature that will be treasured for life.
this book is so delicate and comprehensive. in true japanese style the plot is by no means fast paced, which could put some off, but what you loose in pace i felt you gained so much in depth. as a result the characters really came to life and i felt myself empathising with so many of them.
the basic plot is that a young student meets one who he calls 'sensei' although not being an official teacher to him, this student wants to learn from this mysterious and closed person.
written in the first person, the reader is brought face to face with many themes although there seems to be a hint of nihilistic undertone--particularly when one regards the history at the time of it's writing. i particularly loved the abrupt ending which in some sense doesn't finish the story and therefore allows you to conclude it yourself, but i won't ruin it for you!
i only bought this book because dancingphilip recommended it, so it was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off. probably one of my top 5 books.