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

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Soseki's Kokoro - a rare novel that develops slowly and gets better as it moves toward its powerful conclusion

Quibbles and concerns that I raised in two previous posts aside, by the end I came to appreciate Natsume Soseki's 1914 novel, Kokoro. The third and final section (which makes up about half of this 200-page novel) is the Sensei's explanation of why and how he became a misanthrope; he reveals in this testament, in the form of a long letter to the narrator, his acolyte, and he also unveils the mystery of why he goes alone once a month to visit the grave-site of a friend who died young. In part, any contemporary reader will ask: Why did it take you so long to tell us the central events in this narrative, the events that, in a sense, lie "at the heart of things" (which is a rough translation of the title, Kokoro)? Of course the answer is that this diffidence, the avoidance of conflict and confrontation, is "at the heart of" the character of the sensei and in fact it would appear of all of educated Japanese society in the era of this novel. The long lead-in to the central narrative is therefore essential for understanding the characters in this novel; if they could have told the story in a straightforward and direct manner, the story itself would not exist. What this mean: the tragedy that we learn of in part 3 all occurred because of reticence, an almost pathological inability of the sensei, in his youth (and still, until he writes the testimony) to express his feelings to another. He's like a Japanese Hamlet, or Profrock (note that Soseki was a professor of English literature), and the novel is a perfect illustration of the tragedy of human relationships that Forster posited: Only connect. The characters don't connect, with tragic results (I will not give away the details). I have found that a large # of novels that I've read start off well, with promise, but by the end fizzle out, disappoint, or wander into the sensational and the improbable; readers of these posts will find many instances of my disenchantment. I have to say that Soseki's Kokoro is the exception, the inverse - it got better and more powerful is it slowly built toward its conclusion; I might have given up on it, except that it's relatively short and even at the halfway point the end was in sight. It was worth the journey.

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