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Kokoro
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message 1: by Betty (last edited Mar 04, 2012 08:09AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916)


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments "Major themes in Natsume's works include ordinary people fighting against economic hardship, the conflict between duty and desire (a traditional Japanese theme; see giri), loyalty and group mentality versus freedom and individuality, personal isolation and estrangement, the rapid industrialization of Japan and its social consequences, contempt of Japan's aping of Western culture, and a pessimistic view of human nature."

For this particular novel, "Kokoro (1914), can be said to represent the legacy of a generation of Meiji intellectuals."

Near the beginning of Kokoro, the college-student narrator meets not easily the older Sensei swimming at a beach in Kamakura (Yuigahama); at Sensei's home in Tokyo he is welcomed and is introduced to Shizu, Sensei's wife--beautiful, nontraditional yet not so modern as to be intellectually boastful. Early in their friendship, the narrator notices Sensei visiting the Zōshigaya cemetery. As to which former friend Sensei is visiting is not immediately told. But, the cemetery is a real place like the beach resort and is also the final resting place of Natsume Sōseki. It reminds me of Paris' Père Lachaise where many authors, artists, scientists are buried. Chapter one "Sensei and I" is driven by the narrator finding out more--family, courtship, friends--about reticent, distrusting, wise, comfortable, reclusive, university-educated Sensei as the two walk during flower-viewing season and dine with Shizu. A clue to Sensei's behavior is his cautionary words to the narrator that now is the right time to speak plainly about an inheritance when parents are living.
"Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men. One must always be on one's guard."
How does Sensei feel about the circumstances that reduced his inheritance?
"What they did to me I shall remember so long as I live. But I have never taken any revenge on them. When I think about it, I have done something much worse than that. I have come not only to hate them, but the human race in general. That is quite enough, I think"
An easing of that tension in Sensei's comment is when shortly before writing his graduation thesis, the narrator prepares to visit his ill father in the Japanese countryside where his mother gathers mushrooms in a (featherlight paper?) "cake-box" and his father and he play game after game of chess in which the joy of playing overcomes winning or losing. After he graduates, preparing for a sojourn back home, he realizes he's left for a very hot day the requested "family errands"--buying several books, a lady's "chemisette", and a brand-new "suitcase for presents". He completes the responsibility, disgruntled and bewildered he may be.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments The second chapter is "My Parents and I". The setting switches to the Japanese countryside, its pace of life, its mores and ethics, and its older generation different from Tokyo's and from the narrator's youth. For example, the narrator takes for granted his university education, does not feel obligations to neighbors, and takes his time before seeking a post and an independent life. The provincial family differs also from the reclusive Sensei, who seems too idle for them yet who seems able to influence their son's employment prospects. In a sense, the narrator has two families.

This chapter is rich what might be typical of the way families gather around a dying member, in this instance the narrator's father but also the Emperor Meiji. With the father, there's reminiscing about times past while different physical senses fade in the process of dying. When the Emperor falls severely ill, black-crepe decorated flags are set out and merrymaking (graduation party) is cancelled; the famous General Nogi's subsequent suicide also stirs up the family's feelings. And, the whole book speaks of how male and female characters behave to escape loneliness, a universal feeling.

In the end chapter "Sensei and His Testament", the testament is the last of several letters and telegrams in the correspondence between Sensei in Tokyo and the narrator in the country at his father's bedside. In it, Sensei divulges the long-awaited retelling of his personal past to the narrator, whom Sensei respects for his desire "to learn from life itself". Sensei's history begins with the mismanagement of inherited assets by others and by himself, which teaches him to be suspicious in money matters, and continues with his boarding with a widow Okusan and her daughter Ojosan, an experience that broadens his distrust to love matters. More plot to come.

In this McClellan translation (1957), some surprising words and comparisons occur: 'Japanese harp, koto', room sizes as '8-mat' and '6-mat'. Ojosan's playing the harp and arranging flowers, Sensei says, would have been considered "charming" and too fussy by his parents, who preferred simplicities like Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. One of the times Sensei questions his conventional behavior is when he (a student) accompanies Okusan and Ojosan in the street to shop for material. Another time Sensei says, "I had my way. I was able to do what I thought was right".


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Into the third and last chapter "Sensei and His Testament" to the end of the book takes on a new dimension when Sensei introduces in his final epistle to the young narrator how he brought a childhood/university friend into the Tokyo boarding house and what the result of that pressuring was. That part is one of the most interesting in the whole book, divulging Sensei's long-in-coming promise to the narrator to reveal his secret past. To say anything else about K(arl) and Sensei now would spoil the intriguing events that lead to the conclusion.

Written descriptions of "Kokoro" talk about the theme of "loneliness" there. That psychological condition is not only experienced by characters but is motivational. A haunting mystery of the story is who the characters are were their introspective minds revealed. Are they flawed in strength and weakness like Sensei is? The testament is from Sensei's point of view, which knows other characters by (in)accurately interpreting what might be behind their clipped sentences, their laughter or aloofness, or their subtle suggestions. In the end, the reader clearly knows the narrator and Sensei, while doubt lingers about the other characters' mixture of noble and base motives.


Mikki | 89 comments Finished part 1: Sensei and I. I'm really enjoying the writing -- quiet and calm yet there seems to be a heavy current of foreshadowing especially with the relationship between Sensei and the wife and also the growing communication between she and the narrator.

Why do you feel that the young boy was so pulled toward Sensei from the beginning? And also I wonder the reason for the old man to slowly allow the growing friendship. What is his gain or motive?

Points that I felt interesting were the conversations concerning death and inheritance, both with the boy and his father and with Sensei and his wife. I feel as if Sensei is fixated on death and that it has something to do with the friend's suicide.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Mikki wrote: "Finished part 1: Sensei and I. I'm really enjoying the writing -- quiet and calm yet there seems to be a heavy current of foreshadowing especially with the relationship between Sensei and the wife..."

Re: Sensei's taking time to know the boy narrator and to reveal eventually his past and his connection to the one (K) in the cemetery is unusual given the older man's reclusive nature with his wife and his few friends. But Sensei opens up his past life, realizing that the boy will appreciate the true story of his life more than anyone else. The boy says that he values truth most when experienced from living rather than when filtered through books and through secondhand.

The last part of the book clears away the mystery wrapped around Sensei while casting suspicion on some characters connected to Sensei. Sensei depicts himself less-than-noble by his succumbing to inconsistent logic and of impure "motive" that cause others to suffer. He comes to regret his weakness because of that, being continually reminded of it. If so, what of other characters? Sensei is imagining their apparent good will as honestly felt, but is he seeing them more good or more self-willed than they are? There are hints, as you say about "foreshadowing", that they act from jealousy, revenge, etc but later suffer regret . The philosophical K is especially puzzling.


Mikki | 89 comments As I finished this book and allowed some time for it to settle, my opinion of the relationship has changed greatly. As you remember, I first questioned Sensei's motives for encouraging the friendship, but then eventually came to feel that his actions were sincere. However, once the narrarator went home to care for his ailing father, my views changed considerably. As a friend or "mentor" he took little interest in his young friend's life and never once took the initiative to check on his welfare. Odd.

Then came the letter and all of the pieces fell into place. Sensei basically used that friendship to his advantage and seemed to manipulate every one of his relationships--none were honest in intent. Down to his last request of the boy in asking him to never reveal any of what he shared in the letter with his wife. A lot to ask of someone to carry your guilt.

Though his actions were clearly wrong, this is a sad story in that he could never be truly happy as he was living a life of secrecy and lies.


message 8: by Betty (last edited Mar 22, 2012 06:01PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Mikki wrote: "As I finished this book and allowed some time for it to settle, my opinion of the relationship has changed greatly. As you remember, I first questioned Sensei's motives for encouraging the friends..."

One of the saddest aspects about Sensei is that everyday his wife is a reminder of his former duplicity. I couldn't figure out why Sensei called her by a different name than earlier in the story when she was unmarried and was perhaps torn between Sensei and K as suitors. My feeling is that her mother was urging her toward marriage to Sensei rather than to K while pretending to Sensei that she as a mother would always support her daughter's feelings about marrying. Yet, what if the daughter favored K but acquiesced to her mother's preference for Sensei? Did someone else think Sensei's wife had preferred to marry K because of the latter's sympathetic, honest nature?


Mikki | 89 comments Asmah wrote: "Yet, what if the daughter favored K but acquiesced to her mother's preference for Sensei?...

Yes, I actually did get the impression that Ojosan and K shared a special bond -- the afternoons spent talking in his room and the time Sensei met up with them on an outing. I don't recall her ever spending the same type of time with Sensei even when he was the only boarder.

I, too, couldn't figure out why he called her different names and had to skim back to the beginning to make sure that I wasn't mistaken.

Also, I continued to question whether he truly loved her or whether there was an element of claiming her as he was there first. I think back to his lack of trust in mankind and his memory of being swindled out of the inheritance that was rightfully his. These feelings could easily be transferred to people and in his thinking that "she's mine."

Asmah wrote: "One of the saddest aspects about Sensei is that everyday his wife is a reminder of his former duplicity..."

I know that this is a stretch for comparison, but I saw that constant reminder as being similar to Poe's "Tell Tale Heart" in that his conscience eventually destroyed him.


message 10: by Betty (last edited Mar 24, 2012 02:24PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Mikki wrote: "...Yes, I actually did get the impression that Ojosan and K shared a special bond -- the aft..."

Kokoro is a book to reread someday. I'm trying to see Sensei's biography as true from his infallible point of view. Where the story reveals Sensei's introspection, it is true. Sensei traces his motivations, thoughts, feelings, and actions but goes too far in doing the same for the other important characters. He doesn't doubt that he is omniscient about the meaning of their pauses, words, laughs, etc. If Sensei were an extrovert, I might better trust his knowledge about other characters. Nonetheless, his interpretation guides his whole life.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Mikki wrote: "I know that this is a stretch for comparison, but I saw that constant reminder as being similar to Poe's "Tell Tale Heart" in that his conscience eventually destroyed him.
..."


In both stories there's a lot of introspection, and a guilty conscience is a key factor in each.

Sensei regrets his envy of his good friend and studious fellow boarder K, who could make a decision after rationally deliberating his stand on marriage and who could follow through by requesting the hand of Ojosan; whereas Sensei procrastinated at those times when the opportunity to speak about marriage arose. He didn't have the nerve until roused by K's passion. Sensei assumes that his unethical part in the competition over Ojosan motivated K's suicide and ended a good friendship.

Poe's character actually commits evil in thought and deed, savoring the awareness of the old man's torment in knowing he's somewhere there in the darkness with the thin beam of lantern light for a very long time. He's not envious of anything, disliking the film-covered blue vulture eye.


Declan This is a very quiet book, one that whispers its way through the details of a friendship between two men but which brings us to an understanding of how the understated detail can be more intense and painful than one which is expressed loudly and with force. The level of restraint and discipline displayed are admirable in many ways, but they coexist with an a great deal of hypocrisy and an expectation of self-imposed subservience .

However the book was marred ,for me, from the beginning by the fact that I could not understand what it was that had first attracted the narrator to Sensei, the main subject of the book. At first I thought it might be a sexual attraction ("I saw him...swim out all alone, I was suddenly overcome with the desire to follow him"). But as the story unfolded there seemed to be no basis for that theory, but neither is their any basis for the friendship which develops. Sensi comes across as ovrwhelmed by the sadness of his own life and his self-indulgence leaves little mental or physical space for either a friend or for his wife who, within the narrative of the book, exist only as an adjunct to Sensei. All the narrator's conversations with her are about Sensei.

If you overlook that puzzling aspect of the book and allow that the details of the friendship are simply as they are presented in the book, it is a compelling and reflective novel.


message 13: by Motheaten (last edited Apr 15, 2012 06:36AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Motheaten | 79 comments Declan wrote: "This is a very quiet book, one that whispers its way through the details of a friendship between two men but which brings us to an understanding of how the understated detail can be more intense an..."

At first I also did not know the reason for their interaction but came to realise the build-up of trust between them is an important point in the book, as well as Sensei being like a second father to the narrator. Perhaps in Sensei the narrator seeks a different perspective of life.


Betty (olderthan18) | 3639 comments Motheaten wrote: "...the build-up of trust between them is an important point in the book, as well as Sensei being like a second father to the narrator. ..."

Declan wrote: "...I could not understand what it was that had first attracted the narrator to Sensei, the main subject of the book...."

Their initial interaction was also unclear to me. The personalities of Sensei and his wife seemed so different from that of the young narrator's traditional parents. Maybe it was that difference that intrigued the narrator. Later on that difference also disappointed the narrator because by comparison with the parents' personable regard for their son Sensei delayed his response to the boy's letter for example.

One might take into account that Sensei was a reserved character in the presence of non-family. He and his wife were perhaps childless. It was ironic when the narrator's parents regarded Sensei as a sort of benefactor for their son. At that point they didn't know Sensei except in their imaginations. Sensei's delaying the return letter to the narrator made them see Sensei more realistically. Sensei's later revelation of his life story affirmed the narrator's trust in the man.

Kokoro was like two stories in one novel. The relationship between the narrator and Sensei was hesitant. There was initially nothing much about the enigmatic Sensei. It turned out that the narrator's reading the revelatory letter showed considerable emotion in Sensei's disposition.


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