Monday, March 07, 2011

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

I have just finished reading Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (translated by Edwin McClellan) and understand now why it is held with such high regard by the Japanese. It is incredibly intense. Not a huge amount happens, and the narrative consists mainly of descriptions of thoughts and reasonings, and yet it holds the reader (well, this reader, anyway) transfixed.

I suppose the themes are universal: what drives us to go on, and what causes us to stop, and the associated themes of love, guilt, friendship and the gulf between generations. It is this latter theme that struck me as I read the most just now, mainly because my sons are growing up and leaving home, but also because of conversations I've had recently with other parents with grown up children. The book was published in 1914 in Japan. It concerns a young graduate and his relationship with and older man he has befriended and calls his mentor. There are parts of his mentor's life which troubles him; mainly how the mentor seems to be melancholy and distant and will never divulge why. Often he seems to be on the point of doing so, but then something happens and he stops. He gives snippets of wisdom such as the following (but without providing further detail or explanation):

'A gentleman, when tempted, can easily become a rogue.'
' causes a good man to become bad.'

This behaviour of the mentor reminded me of a snail appearing to come out of its shell, but withdrawing again and again. It is a little tantalising but never irritating.

Eventually the student goes home to where his father is ill and here the father gives his views on the the attitude of his son. Some of which seems incredibly relevant to today.

'There are advantages and disadvantages to having one's children educated. You take the trouble to give them an education, and when they are through with their studies they go away and never come home. Why, you can almost say that an education is a means of separating children from their parents.'
'In my day, parents were supported by their children. Today the children are forever supported by their parents.'

The mentor's letter forms the final part of the book, and describes the mentor's life and, eventually the melancholy, and my final quotes are from this:

'I do believe for love to grow there must first be the impact of novelty. Between two people who have always known each other, that necessary stimulus can never be felt.'

(why siblings or childhood friends do not commonly fall in love).

'Words are not meant to stir the air only; they are capable of moving much greater things.'

I found the ending both open and yet, strangely, satisfying. This is because I feel I know what did, in fact, happen - and I don't need to have it spelt out.

A lot has been written about this book in Japan, and I can see why. It is an extraordinary book.


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