Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki

Finishing Kokoro my thoughts move on to which of Natsume's novels to read next, Natsume's prose in Kokoro is near to faultless, it's difficult to think of a book to follow it. The new edition of Sanshiro seems like it would be a good choice. Previous to reading Kokoro, the only other of Natsume's books I had read was Grass on the Wayside/Michikusa, and that was quite a few years ago. I read Edwin McCellan's translation of Kokoro from the Regnery/Gateway Edition , a new translation is on the way from Penguin, translated by Meredith McKinney, Penguin have also recently published Sanshiro and Kusamakura , which has previously been translated as The Three-Cornered World, so maybe some of the other novels will appear in new translations. First serialised in the Asahi Shinbun in 1914, Kokoro is told in three parts, written two years before Natsume's death it was his last completed full novel, Light and Darkness/Meian, was left unfinished. In some ways the first part of the novel reminded me of Stefan Zweig's novel Confusion, another novel that stems from the student/teacher relationship. Three historic events mentioned in the novel being the suicide of Nogi Maresuke (General Nogi in the novel), his involvement in the Satsuma Rebellion and also the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912, which ended the Meiji Era, find reflection in the lives of the characters in the novel. The sensei of the novel is very much a man of this time, his letter to the young student, which almost reads as a novel within a novel, taking up the last third of the book reiterates not only the generation gap between himself and the student, but also illustrates the shifts of social behaviour that was taking place in Japan at that time. A period of great change, one that would reshape Japan. The student and sensei's story, set against the events of the end of Meiji, give the whole novel a valedictory tone.

Beginning with the young student recalling how he first met sensei at the beach at Kamakura, he learns that the enigmatic sensei visits a grave every month at Zoshigaya. 'I could not have known that there had been in sensei's life a frightening tragedy,inseparable from his love for his wife', he observes. The closer he seems to get to sensei the more his misanthropic and reclusive ways become apparent to him, the older man's wisdom seems to be a great source of vexation for the younger man, 'Don't put too much trust in me,you'll learn to regret it if you do. And if you ever allow yourself to feel betrayed you will find yourself being cruelly vindictive.' Talking with sensei's wife he tries to learn the source of why sensei is the way he is, she tells him that in his youth sensei had a friend who died suddenly, an unnatural death, but she can say no more, she feels that she maybe the source of his unhappiness, but the truth of what the secret is in sensei's past remains elusive to them both it seems. Natsume's prose captures all the subtleties of the young student's fascination with sensei, and sensei's growing openness toward the student. The student's father suffers from a kidney disease,which the family fear will prove fatal, and he's called back to the family home to help look after his father, his father at first doesn't appear too ill, and for a while concerns over the students future job prospects seem to be the main concern, and after telling his parents about sensei, his mother encourages him to write to sensei seeking his assistance in finding him a position. Whilst waiting for a reply his father's condition takes a change for the worse. As his father deteriorates, his anxiety over sensei heightens when he receives a thick letter from sensei, he reads the line, 'By the time this letter reaches you, I shall probably have left this world-I shall in all likelihood be dead', the second part of the novel ends with the student torn between leaving his dying father, and rushing back to Tokyo to see if he can stop sensei from his suicide.

The third part of the novel is the story of sensei's secret told in the letter, he recounts his student days and of the character that he refers only to as K, but that you'll have to discover yourself. Kokoro was adapted into a film by Kon Ichikawa in 1955, and again by Kaneto Shindo in 1973.


Literary Dreamer said...

I skipped past your review, as I want to read this book fresh, but I would highly recommend reading Mon next. The two main characters are two of the most realized, flesh-and-blood creations that have ever been put on paper.

me. said...

Thanks for stopping by,i've recently been contemplating Mon,i'd like to read more of Natsume's books,And Then is also another novel that i've got to read soon too,i'm sure you'll enjoy Kokoro.