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Monday, May 05, 2014

Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Soseki

Natsume Soseki: Japanese novelist, author.

Book Review
Kokoro (1914)
by Natsume Soseki
Translated from the Japanese by Edwin McClellan

  I am 25 entries deep into the "Japanese Literature" tag on this blog but Kokoro is the first Japanese novel I've read...ever.  I'm no expert, but I've seen enough to not be shocked that the first Japanese novel on the 1001 Books To Read list involves three different suicides.  One of the suicides is a historical fact, that of General Nogi who waited until the death of the Meiji Emperor- 35 years after he "disgraced" himself by losing his banner during combat- to kill himself.  The delay between the disgrace and the resulting death is central to the Sensei character of Kokoro.

    Sensei mentors the main character, a fallow Tokyo university student laboring to find direction in his studies and his life. The distinct portions of the novel move from the relationship between the student and the sense; to the relationship between the student and his parents after graduation, and ends with a long letter from Sensei to the student, culminating in the Sensei committing suicide because of the role he played in the death of a friend of his during his university studies.

   One of the central differences between the literature of the west vs. the literature is the move away from poetry/verse within Western literature in the 18th century, i.e. the "Rise of the Novel" in England, France, Russia and America, with a supporting role in Spain, Italy, Germany and Scandanavia in the 19th entury.  Non-western cultures certainly had their own literary cultures- but across the board, "high literature" meant poetry until the 20th century.  In some non-Western civilizations, the Novel has been introduced via Colonialism- the Indian example but also the Arab/Islamic example as well. Japan is different in that they actively went out, understood Western literature on its own terms, and then created their own Novels without reference to a Western audience.

  I believe that one of the growth industries of non-Western 20th century Novels is an abiding concern with the poetics of the language.  It makes sense that people writing Novels in cultures that were more directly committed to poetry and verse would write Novels that were more concerned with the flow of the language.  The spread of the popularity of the novel in non-Western cultures during the 20th century is, along with the techniques of Modernism, the signature events in 20th century literature.   So a big part of reading 20th century literature is reading non-Western Novels.   Or non-Western verse, I suppose. If you wanted a full grasp of the subject of 'World Literature' you would be including Arabic verse, Indian verse, Chinese verse, Japanese verse.  These traditions span thousand of years.  On the other hand, Novels from these same places are essentially limited to the 20th century.  It's a very finite amount of time both compared to the native verse literary traditions AND the larger history of the Novel in the west.


(1)  It is worth noting that I am coming to the end of the portion of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die that can be read for free.  There are perhaps 50 additional titles that can be acquired for free via, and for everything else it's at least ninety-nine cents as a generic Amazon ebook.  Even a one cent book costs four dollars purchased used on Amazon. Working from a scenario where I end up getting to 300 or so books between free books and books I've already read, that still leaves approximately 700 books that need to be bought for at least one dollar a piece, minimum.  Kokoro cost me 4 dollars, for example.  I've also paid seven dollars for a Bantam paperweight edition of Rosshalde by Herman Hesse. So let's say I can get half of the remaining 700 books for either 99 cents of four dollars.  That is an average price two fifty per title.  Then for the remaining half, it's a cost of somewhere between five and ten dollars.  So we're talking like four thousand bucks.

  Which is all to say, I think I need to step up my game.  And probably trade the books I own to bookstores in exchange for new titles in that higher price category.  I certainly have several thousand dollars worth of trade...

 Meanwhile, I've already  been reduced to working through the Criterion Collection Hulu Plus titles in alphabetical order, which is a sure sign that I'm on the road to exhausting that source for "free" titles.  I have no belief that there will be any opening of the floodgates so that EVERY Hulu Plus title is placed on Hulu Plus.  There is also the additional concern of the 2-3 titles that Criterion Collection adds every month, plus box sets.  I think I will likely be reduced to reviewing films I've "previously seen" without making an additional viewing.   Then Amazon Instant Video for work around



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