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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, January 30, 2017

A strangely diffident Japanese novel from the early 20th century

Visiting in Florida found a pb copy of a classic Japanese novel by a writer I'd never heard of, Matsume Soseki, which was enough to pique my curiosity, so am now about 1/3 of the way through the 1914 novel Kokoru (which roughly translates, they say, as "at the heart"). There are so many ways in which this novel differs from what we now expect of literary fiction - and I'm not sure at this point whether the differences are because of cultural differences between Japan and the West or because of a something unique to the style of Soseki. In short, the first 60 pp. tell this story: a college student on vacation at a beach resort in Japan notices a "sensei" (we are familiar w this term as a teacher of the martial arts; in this novel, it's used in a broader sense as a something between a mentor and a "guru"); he gradually approaches the sensei (never named) and asks if he can visit him when home in Tokyo. Over the course of the next 5 years the student steadily visits the sensei, yet their relationship remains distant and mysterious. We learn this: the sensei has over the course of his life become misanthropic; his beautiful wife is completely devoted to his care and needs, but he has some scorn for her as she is part of the human race, which he scorns in general; he lost a great deal of money in some kind of family struggle about inheritance; a friend of youth died mysteriously, and he visits the grave, alone, once a month. What we don't know at all at least at this point: what information or advice he provides to the narrator, whether they narrator pays him in any way for said advice, how the sensei makes or earns his living, in short, what makes him so special too his devotees in general (whom we do not meet) and to the narrator in particular. Most other novels would take these matters on directly - think of The Magic Mountain, for one; the narrator would ask direct questions and receive answers. This narrative diffidence and the demure nature of the narrator may typify the slow pace of Japanese fiction - like a tea ceremony compared w/ a dinner - or may characterize Soseki or may be unique traits of these self-effacing characters. I'm still interested and will read farther - but I expect answers to at least some of these questions.

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