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Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
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Kokoro (original 1914; edition 1957)

by Natsume Soseki

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1,369275,600 (3.94)1 / 127
Member:SqueakyChu
Title:Kokoro
Authors:Natsume Soseki
Info:Gateway Editions (1957), Paperback
Collections:Your library, To read
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Tags:Japanese fiction

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Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (1914)

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Soseki's Kokoro explores the theme of the demise of the traditional Japanese way of life, a theme that seems all but omnipresent in Japanese literature of this period. Kokoro, however, seems to adopt a less damning stance with regards to the demise of the old ways than some other works of Japanese fiction. Soseki doesn't use this book to condone the death of traditional Japanese life by any means, but he does not identify it as something to struggle against either, identifying both virtues and flaws in the old ways.

Dealing with this book out of order, the second half of this book consists of the life story of a character identified only as Sensei, who inherited from his parents the role of a country nobleman, but who was cheated out of this inheritance and gave up the countryside for a life in Tokyo. There he lives with a mother and daughter, slowly falling in love with the latter, and eventually convincing his friend K to move in with him. K also falls in love with the daughter, in direct contradiction to the values that K had previously espoused, and Sensei uses this hypocrisy and K's inability to abandon his old perspective to intentionally inflict pain, while simultaneously swooping in and becoming engaged to the daughter without his friend's knowledge. K commits suicide, and Sensei lives the rest of his life tormented by his role in the matter.

The first half of the book deals with how an unnamed narrator befriends Sensei, who has lived an idle life with his wife, slowly withdrawing more and more from society and other people as he finds his guilt growing harder and harder to deal with. The narrator, largely oblivious to all of this, sees Sensei as a great man despite his lack of accomplishments and spends a significant period of time trying to get to know him and emulating his lifestyle. Eventually the narrator must return home after graduating from university to take care of his dying father. His father, a provincial who lives in the country, seems to have inflated expectations compared to what the narrator actually believes he can achieve, and as his condition slowly deteriorates the narrator indulges him in several fictions to ease his passing. Just before his father is apparently going to finally die the narrator receives a letter from Sensei detailing his life (as set out above) and claiming that he will have committed suicide by the time the letter arrives. Distraught, the narrator leaves his father on his deathbed to return to Tokyo and find Sensei.


It seems very difficult to interpret Sensei as anything other than largely symbolic of the transition of Japanese life from the traditional (country nobleman whose hobbies include things like flower arrangement) to the modern (urban living, attendance at a Western style university, associating with a Westerner at the beach). With this in mind, I took the narrator's interaction with Sensei to be a reflection of Soseki's beliefs about his era's attachment to the old ways of life, which were still viewable but fading every day in early 1900s Japan. The narrator feels an innate affinity for Sensei and his more traditional way of life, but Sensei is largely unable to reciprocate. The narrator would even like to emulate Sensei, but with the economic realities of the day it seems unlikely that the narrator would actually be able to carry those ambitions out. Finally, the fate of Sensei raises the question of whether such emulation is desirable at all. Sensei's ties to the past have seemed to give him nothing but trouble, and his inability to let go of it has tormented him. The traditional aspects of his life have not seemed to give him any special strength with which to deal with the modern world.

This was my interpretation at least, and it makes Kokoro a much more neutral stance towards modernization than I'm used to seeing in Japanese literature. It's of course possible to interpret the book differently, but the narrator's final actions taken for Sensei's sake seem to be strong evidence that an infatuation with the past leads to more harm than good. Ultimately, however, Kokoro provides little concrete information about the ultimate fates of its characters. We never actually find out happens to the narrator's father, or what the fallout is for the narrator's decision to return to Tokyo. We don't even really know what befalls Sensei, we are merely informed by Sensei of what he claims he's going to do if he has the strength for it. Ultimately, the only thing we are left knowing for sure is that the old era is over. An appropriately open ended message for a Japanese book of that time.

With all that being said, I didn't love this book. Symbolism aside, you had a story about a couple characters that weren't particularly sympathetic dealing with problems of their own design, and dealing with them poorly. As already stated, we don't even find out how it all plays out, the novel ending before any definitive action is reached. The minimalist prose worked for this book, but it rarely had that beauty in sparseness sometimes captured by minimalist writing (though that might be due to the translation). The characters likewise didn't feel particularly distinct, as the narrator and Sensei were the only ones given depth and they read as very, very similar (though that may well have been intentional on Soseki's part given their symbolic roles). This was one of those books that was more fun to analyze than it was to read by a noticeable margin, while great works pull off both. Give this a try if you're interested in pre-WWII Japanese literature.

A note on the edition Edwin McClellan translated: the minimalist prose he adopts seems appropriate, but I'm not sure how much faith I have in the translation given the note on page 49 describing go as "a kind of checkers." The use of the word "excited" on page 64 and 65 also seems a bit strange to me, and I suspect the connotation of the original word would be different, but I can't read Japanese well enough to take a stab at an independent interpretation. I'm not saying there's a better translation out there, but if you're thinking of picking up a copy you might want to compare a couple editions online before making your choice. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
This novel, one of Natsume Soseki’s last and written on the cusp of Japan’s epochal rise to becoming a world power, reflects the author’s preoccupation with conflicting cultural attitudes in the transition from the feudalist Late Tokugawa Shogunate to the capitalist, more modernized Japan it would become during the Meiji Restoration. Of course, this period wasn’t just marked with bureaucratic, political, and military reforms; it also trickled down into the personal lives, families, and friendships, and this intensely personal impact is what Soseki looks at here.

“Kokoro” tells the story of a narrator who sees a man walking down a beach one day; he eventually befriends this man who we only come to know as “Sensei.” The development of their relationship and growing friendship forms the first part of the book’s tripartite structure. The narrator repeatedly emphasizes his own naiveté in contrast with the worldliness and cynicism of Sensei. Sensei is a guarded man who is old enough to work but chooses not to (we never get the impression that this is out of laziness), has few close friends, and doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. While the innocent young narrator initially sees Sensei as the stereotypical older wise man, he slowly begins to realize that he has something unique to teach him.

When the Emperor dies, his beloved General Nogi commits junshi, ritual suicide after the death of one’s feudal lord or master. Being a man of the old Tokugawa era, this act evokes more of a reaction in the Sensei than it does in the younger narrator – another sign that Soseki is telling the story of a generational and cultural divide. When Sensei sees General Nogi kill himself out of loyalty for the Emperor, he realizes that he doesn’t feel comfortable in this new Meiji dispensation, with the “modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.”

The second part, “My Parents and I,” sees the narrator’s father’s health start to decline, which leaves his future as a very recent college graduate very uncertain. He and his brother are both curious about what the will has in store for them, but the recent manner in which General Nogi died brutally underscores the new era’s selfish interest in material things. The last part consists of a very long letter that Sensei wrote to the narrator before he too decides to commit suicide. We learn of his youth, his family, and an episode during his time as a student (that I won’t reveal here) that ties together all the facets of Sensei’s personality and finally completely reveals who he is.

Throughout the novel, the prose is spare, sharp, lean, and clear. Even Sensei’s voice, in his extended letter, varies very little stylistically from that of the narrator. This spare quality adds a sense of quiet distance between the reader and the story, which perhaps for more harmonious reflection. The language may just be the product of a particularly good translation, but I found the writing well suited to describing the characters and the Soseki’s themes: human frailty, the inevitability of the culture clash, the unrelenting quality of modernity, and confrontation with one’s troubled youth. ( )
  kant1066 | Sep 26, 2014 |
"Kokoro" was confusing, unsatisfying, interesting...to say the least. Why did the student seek out Sensei to begin with? I figured the student was gay and felt a physical attraction; quite possibly, that was the case. But for melancholic Sensei (who married the woman of his dreams), how did he benefit by building and maintaining a relationship with the acolyte whom, ultimately, he deemed to be more intimate and trusting than his wife Ojosan? I didn't get it.

The student was no hero. He was naive, deeply flawed, and unbalanced. How else to explain his sudden, rash "Remains of the Day decision" to leave his father's deathbed in order to pursue his obsession with Sensei? Possibly we all can relate to the student's feeling, in some form, of profound personal conflict...but, still, he totally flunked out at a critical moment for himself and his family.

Sensei's letter was indeed the most engaging part of "Kokoro", as it provided an interesting and compelling back story for how, and under what circumstances, he arrived at his station in life and adopted his overall piss poor, untrusting attitude about himself and others. As described in the letter, the relationship dynamics between Sensei and "K", his erstwhile student peer and friend, were plenty weird. Yet they also were understandable and, to a certain extent, transcended the specific zeitgeist of early 20C Japanese culture.

Ultimately, I won't pretend to understand Sensei and the decisions that he made. I also can't comprehend the relationship between Sensei and the student. If these connections were in some way emblematic of early 20C Japanese mores or culture, I simply didn't get them. ( )
  EpicTale | Jun 11, 2014 |
"How can I escape,except through faith,madness or death?"

Kokoro is an epic melodrama of isolation and self-inflicted guilt. A beautiful heartfelt experience from the exploring friendship between a young graduate student and his mentor(Sensei).Soseki brilliantly unveils an intricate web of egoism,guilt,temptations and loneliness through various anecdotes on Sensei's reclusive living. No wonder Soseki succeeded Lafacdio Hearn as a lecturer in English Literature in the Imperial University(1903). ( )
1 vote Praj05 | Apr 5, 2013 |
I love this book despite its flaws. What flaws? Well, a latent misogyny and the implication that poverty reflects a character failing, for starters, but the principle flaw for me was an aloof, distant, overly-formal narrator in the first 2/3 of the story. This nameless voice could have been very sympathetic if his delivery had been different. A lonely university student, insecure and uncertain about his future? I could have identified with him, if he had been more engaging. He could have been a Holden Caulfield or a Gene Forrester. Instead the Student (that's what I'm going to call him from now on) held me at arm's length, coldly reporting his father's death and his estranged relationship with an older brother, as if he were giving a deposition. No doubt some of this stiff stoicism reflects his upbringing in the Japan of 1914- a time and place that stood on a lot of formality, and which probably regarded grieving as so much emo handwringing, and friendly familiarity as disrespectful frivolity. A wisecracking Holden Caulfield would be out-of-place here. Still, I would have liked a more intimate bond with the narrator. Looking past that, this was a melancholy book that I could not put down. It grieves at human suffering without shaking its fists at the sky or cutting itself in the bathroom stall of some nightclub. The narration is infused with a tired resignation which strikes me as vaguely Buddhist, the same way Vonnegut’s phrase "So it goes" does.

Kokoro is divided into three parts: in part one, Student befriends a retired professor he refers to as "Sensei" (i.e. "Teacher"). Part two follows recently-graduated Student back to his parents' modest rural home to his father's deathbed, and to settle the details of his inheritance with his estranged brother. Part three takes the form of a letter Sensei left for Student, to be opened after his death. That letter is far and away the most gripping part of the book, because Sensei's voice is much more relatable and intimate than Student‘s.

Without spoiling too much, Sensei's story carries the book, and is a truly heartbreaking account of love and loss, friendship tested, regret and remorse. You know; the big stuff; the stuff that actually happens to everyday people, who then spend years dissecting and analyzing the events, playing them over in their minds, both as part of a healing process, and in an effort to learn whatever lessons their mistakes may hold. Who reading this review hasn't reflected back on some regrettable incident, years after the fact, imagining how it could have gone better? Who hasn't sat pondering, embarrassed with oneself over how indefensible some youthful outburst, indiscretion or impulsive act seems, looking back on it now with added experience and maturity? This is all part of living and growing, isn't it? The story here feels very real- that is to say it does not strike me as the least bit contrived, and it's all very sad, but I guess I really appreciate Kokoro for not feeling compelled to keep the tone upbeat, or to end the story with a happy resolution that has a neat bow on top. Life can feel like a mess sometimes.

I haven't read Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Bright-sided" but I think it is about the modern (and especially American) tendency to fetishize happiness to the exclusion of all other emotions. And that's really sick, because limiting oneself to a narrow band of feelings at the happy end of the spectrum is to deny a part of one's self and one's experiences, as if they don't have value; as if they don’t belong to the overall substance of who we are, or what our life has meant. I almost feel ridiculous writing this, as if maybe this is a straw man I'm putting out there just to knock down, but let me share some context here: the last couple months have seen a minor controversy in medicine, as proposed changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition (DSM-5) have been leaked prior to its expected release later this year. The DSM provides Psychiatrists with guidelines on diagnosing psychiatric disorders. Unless the current controversy changes things, it looks like the new DSM will regard depressive symptoms as pathologic, regardless of context or duration. In other words, there will be no recognition of grieving as a normal human experience; if you're depressed on the day of a loved one's death, you'll be considered pathologically depressed, and in need of medication. It's a bit off-topic here, but shyness will apparently also no longer qualify as a normal condition. There is little doubt in my mind that the influence of psychotropic drug manufacturers has something to do with these changes, but that isn‘t what I want to discuss here. What's concerning is that a portion of the normal range of human emotions is under attack. Part of who we are is about to be pathologized, marginalized, stigmatized and medicated away. And for what? If this "war on sadness" (my expression) successfully puts a pharmaceutical smile on everybody's faces, and exterminates any trace of negativity from the population, can anybody honestly imagine that humankind will be the better for it? Koroko has been a wonderful book to read in the midst of this debate, because everything of interest on these pages is terribly tragic yet deeply fulfilling to read. There is substance here; and I don't want to be misunderstood as equating mopey self-pity with depth, because that's not what this book implies. These characters are richer, more interesting, more human for their suffering. Sensei's remorse, his regret at words left unsaid, are deeply human. Could somebody perpetually happy ever be this human? True: at some point, Sensei's remorse becomes pathologic, and he probably could have benefited from whatever assistance modern psychiatrists are qualified to offer. Finding that fine line between normal and disease is a challenge; a skill that psychiatrists spend years honing. The anticipated revisions in the DSM-5 suggest that Psychiatry as a profession has given up looking for that line, which is unfortunate. It's a disservice to patients, which strikes me -ironically- as a very sad development. ( )
1 vote BirdBrian | Apr 4, 2013 |
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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.”
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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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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0895267152, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:15 -0400)

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"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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