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Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Kokoro (1914)

by Natsume Soseki

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,782375,678 (3.96)1 / 175
  1. 10
    Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (Limelite)
    Limelite: Another dark psychological novel sharing the theme of isolation or loneliness told mostly through the two main character's thoughts, but more beautifully written.
  2. 00
    A Dark Night's Passing by Naoya Shiga (coolsnak3)

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Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
Atmospheric. Haunting. Twists. ( )
  kakadoo202 | Jul 23, 2018 |
Excerpts from my original GR review (Aug 2009):
- The best translation of the word "kokoro" to English is "the heart of things". And so, at its heart, says translator Edwin McClellan in his foreword, this century-old novel is about a man's condition in life, his "loneliness in the modern world".
- The story is formed of three parts. Part I, Sensei and I, involves an unnamed, restless college student's determined befriending of Sensei, a mysterious, brooding, much older married man. The student (as narrator) frustratingly tries to engage Sensei in conversation. All the same, they form a tentative, often silent bond. Sensei obviously harbors a darkness, emphasized by his lonely strolls to a cemetery, of which he'll not speak. The student's grasp for companionship competes with a pull toward his parents' rural home, where his father lies in failing health.
- Part II, My Parents and I, relates the student's return home to care for his father and support his mother. Other relatives pitch in, and his father occasionally rebounds, so that he is tempted to return to college (near Tokyo), and Sensei.
- Part III, Sensei and His Testament, is indeed a very long recollection and rumination on his life, in the form of a letter to the student (which is perhaps too drawn out). He unburdens his soul in a sense, confessing his misguided and self-protecting sins. Through a clear lens to the past, Sensei recounts how he won the object of his desire through deceit, and how that tragic deceit in itself assured a lifelong reminder of that sorrowful episode.
- McClellan says, "In the original, there is beauty beneath the surface simplicity. I can only hope that at least a little of a the beauty has remained in the translation." I believe it does remain, but the beautiful words weave a .. sad story of demise. ( )
  ThoughtPolice | May 17, 2018 |
I have a feeling that Kokoro is a book that will make more and more sense the more I know about modern Japanese culture. On one level it's a simple story about friendship and betrayal, but on another level it's a working-out of the cultural tensions set up in the minds of Japanese intellectuals who lived through the opening-up of Japan to western ideas during the Meiji period (Sōseki was born in the year of Meiji's accession to the imperial throne). The foreground story of Kokoro takes place in the months around the emperor's death, and its main character, Sensei (teacher), is an older man - a contemporary of the author - whose life has been messed up by his inability to resolve the existential conflict between the demands of the two threads of his upbringing, the requirement to subsume himself into the traditional, collective family values of middle-class Japanese society setting itself against the western need for intellectual self-determination. The narrator of the first part of the book is a man of a younger generation who gets into a similar ethical tangle, but with different dimensions and results.

It's all very carefully, delicately built up, with a lot of everyday detail about the rapidly-changing face of Japan in the decades before 1914 used to reflect and explain the development of the conflicts the characters are dealing with. Very much a book about male friendships (what used to be called "homosocial" relationships in the good old days of literary theory), where the women rarely speak and don't have all that much to do apart from arranging flowers and cooking (is that why Penguin coincidentally put a brush-stroke across the woman's eyes in the cover design?). But that's an accusation that would be equally true of a lot of western novels of the same period.

Very interesting, and McKinnon's translation reads very naturally and transparently. ( )
  thorold | Apr 15, 2018 |
An enigmatic soliloquy on the nature of guilt. How do we live with the guilt of years? Where lies its heavy burden in relationships? The stark words in this book kept me captivated. There is no doubt that Soseki is a master in comprehending the depths of human loneliness. There were passages that I thought could have simply been written for me and only me. Isn't the best writing often a reflection of our own thoughts? That we read because it resonates with us? In that sense, nothing else this year has resonated so much as this sparse, bitter, unsparing novel. ( )
1 vote Soulmuser | May 30, 2017 |
"Kokoro" is Japanese for "heart," or "the essential of things."

We have here a deeply sensuous and internal story concerned with a transitional period in Japan when it began to discard traditional Confucian societal guidelines and be increasingly influenced by Western values.

The plot circulates around a callow college student and his relationship with a seemingly misogynistic older man who lives an isolated life devoid of companionship except that of his wife and increasingly the young student.

Dominating plot is psychological character development based on the feeling of loneliness and self-ostracization due to guilt. Soseki, at the time he wrote this novel, was exploring the fractures in Japanese society at the end of the Meiji period and the influx of Western modes of thinking about social constructs and norms.

The overriding theme of loneliness is represented by the student's quest for knowledge from "Sensi" on how to fit into life, to discover a purpose when one is ill at ease, at sea, and a misfit. He is symbolic of the confusion and uncertainty of Japan's future as it leaves traditional Confucian guidelines behind, substituting Western ones that place greater emphasis on individuality rather than filial piety. These aspects are covered in Part I.

Part II demonstrates the disruption, chaos, and abandonment of earlier ideals as symbolized by the student's family life. His father is dying of a lingering illness (as is the old Empire: the Emperor dies and a national hero, Gen. Nogi, commits suicide to demonstrate his loyalty to the Old Way). The student vacillates between his own desire to strike out on his own and build a life in Tokyo, separating totally from his rural home and kin and remaining home to care for his soon-to-be widowed mother, demonstrating filial piety. The climax in the novel occurs when he receives a letter from Sensei, so disturbing, that he abandons his dying father to run to his teacher who is already dead by suicide. We understand Soseki's thematic intent.

Part III is Sensei's story, a melodramatic epistolary tale of betrayal and self-realization that leads to Sensei's psychological breakdown into a kind of paranoid and permanent depression. Only after meeting the student late in life, who is so much like him when young, yet uncompromisingly different, does Sensei confess in his letter to his only friend that he has found the courage to kill himself because: a) he is no better than those he despises, having exhibited the same behavior; b) he wants to end the agony of his guilt over his youthful betrayal of his friend, "K"; c) he wants to end the self-torture of being unable to believe himself a bad man or to believe himself a good man; d) he can never integrate himself into the New Japan and, so, like the general determines he will remain loyal to the past by not continuing into a future without hope for him.

Regarding thematic development and character analysis as an allegory for Japan on the threshold of seismic change, the novel is a masterpiece. But it is not without its faults. As a construction, the three parts are clunky and disunified. The writing is minimalistic but not individualistic so that it's hard to separate Soseki's style/signature as an author from other minimalist Japanese authors, say Kawabata, and the prose lacks an element of ethereal beauty that seems required.

However, Kokoro is undeniably a classic work that withstands time (written 100+ years ago) and remains modern because of its subject matter: the relationship and obligations of the individual during a period of cultural reorganization. The novel's timelessness is probably due to the treatment of psychological chaos and shattering, being utterly Japanese and without Freudian or Jungian examination. I am grateful for that. ( )
3 vote Limelite | Jan 17, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Soseki, Natsumeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
McClellan, EdwinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McKinney, MeredithIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McKinney, MeredithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I always called him “Sensei.”
Could that delicate and complex instrument that lies in the human breast ever really produce a reading that was absolutely clear and truthful, like a clock's hands pointing to numbers on its dial?
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0895267152, Paperback)

Nineteenth-century Japanese novel concerned with man's loneliness in the modern world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:28 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"No collection of Japanese literature is complete without Kokoro, the last novel Natsume Soseki complete before his death in 1916. Published here in the first new translation in more than fifty years, Kokoro--meaning "heart"-is the story of a subtle and poignant friendship between two unnamed characters, a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls "Sensei". Haunted by tragic secrets that have cast a long shadow over his life, Sensei slowly opens up to his young disciple, confessing indiscretions from his own student days that have left him reeling with guilt, and revealing, in the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between his moral anguish and his student's struggle to understand it, the profound cultural shift from one generation to the next that characterized Japan in the early twentieth century" --Cover, p. 4.… (more)

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Average: (3.96)
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2 13
2.5 4
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3.5 27
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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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