Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Kokoro: first impressions

1/ After a short break (Jane Austen’s letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye), I’m now reading another Japanese novel: Kokoro, the most acclaimed novel by Natsume Soseki, generally recognised as Japan’s greatest novelist of the 20th century. The translator is Meredith McKinney (also translator of my copy of The Pillow Book). 
The first impression is that Kokoro is not particularly visual. We’re introduced to a few characters, and let’s say we don’t get to know the narrator’s physical appearance (which is common), but what does Sensei look like? What about the Westerner who is with Sensei the first time the narrator sees him, apart from the “marvellously white skin”? 
There are barely any descriptions of the sea resort in the first chapters, except a brief account of what people do in the background, until this passage: 
“We two were the only beings afloat on that blue expanse of water for a considerable distance. As far as the eye could see, strong sunlight blazed down upon sea and mountains. 
As I danced wildly in place there in the water, I felt my muscles flood with a sensation of freedom and delight. Sensei, meanwhile, ceased to move and lay floating tranquilly on his back. I followed his example and felt the sky’s azure strike me full in the face, as if plunging its glittering shafts of color deep behind my eyes”. (Ch.3) 
That caught my attention because descriptions were very rare. Later, the narrator neither describes Sensei’s villa at Kamakura, nor Sensei’s house in Tokyo. He doesn’t describe the maid, and doesn’t describe the woman that he takes to be Sensei’s wife beyond “I was struck by her beauty”. 
The writing mostly focuses on who does what (to whom) and what follows.

2/ My instinct is to resist it, as it’s very different from the kind of writing I usually like, which is visual, sensuous (Tolstoy, Flaubert, Edith Wharton, Nabokov, Murasaki Shikibu, etc.). But I resist my own instinct to resist the book. A different style demands a different approach. 
To introduce the plot, Kokoro is written from the first person’s point of view, and the narrator, a young student, reminisces about his obsessive friendship with an older man that he calls Sensei, and about his struggle to understand Sensei’s guilt and moral anguish. According to the blurb (and various reviews I’ve seen), the book is about “the profound cultural shift from one generation to the next that characterised Japan in the early 20th century”. 
Kokoro therefore focuses on Sensei, or rather, the narrator’s friendship with Sensei. So I’m going to focus on that. 
This is when the book started to become compelling—the scene at the cemetery: 
“I found humor and irony in this great variety of humanity displayed in the names on the tombstones, but I gathered that he did not. As I chattered on about the graves, pointing out this round tombstone or that tall thin marble pillar, he listened in silence. Finally he said, “You haven’t seriously thought about the reality of death yet, have you?” 
I fell silent. Sensei did not speak again.” (Ch.5) 
Now I’m interested. 

3/ Later on: 
“He was, as I have said, always quiet and composed, even serene. Yet from time to time an odd shadow would cross his face, like the sudden dark passage of a bird across a window, although it was no sooner there than gone again. The first time I noticed it was when I called out to him in the graveyard at Zoshigaya. For a strange instant the warm pulse of my blood faltered a little. It was only a momentary miss of a beat, however, and in no time my heart recovered its usual resilient pulse, and I proceeded to forget what I had seen.” (Ch.6) 
That’s an interesting image. 
Now look at this moment, when they are having a few drinks together and Sensei brings up the sudden quarrel with his wife (which the narrator previously overheard): 
“It produced a sharp pain in me, like a fishbone stuck in my throat.” (Ch.9) 
Another interesting image.  
Let’s see what I’m going to think later on. 

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