Natsume Sōseki

Book cover

I brought this along as reading material on a trip to Japan. Natsume is not that well known in the US (as far as I can tell), but Wikipedia says that “in Japan, he is often considered the greatest writer in Japanese history” and that “he has had a profound effect on almost all important Japanese writers since.” “Kokoro” (or, as the translator of this version has it, “the heart of things”), is one of his most famous novels, from 1914.

I enjoyed “Kokoro” a lot, certainly more than “Genji,” my other self-assigned Japan reading. Natsume’s writing is definitely modern and, to my mind, not sharply different from what one might see from great European writers of the time like Mann. (Perhaps this should not be surprising as he studied English literature in London.)

Over the first several dozen pages of “Kokoro,” I was gripped by the feeling that I could easily have been reading a Murakami novel. This, I’m sure, should be read as a testament to the influence of Natsume on Murakami. Think of the realist parts of any of Murakami’s novels, or the fully realist works like “Norwegian Wood.” The story opens with a young college man deciding to go on a summer swimming holiday with a friend, then suddenly learning that the friend can’t stay, and deciding that he’ll stay on in the sleepy resort on his own. The protagonist’s days are elemental, basically consisting of walking to the beach and swimming. He starts observing an old man who catches his interest for some reason, and the story goes from there. Just the spare nature of these scenes, and the sense of isolation, is very Murakami.

Much of the book is recognizably something different, though. To me, Kokoro was primarily a study of male relationships in a society that didn’t talk about them–the narrator and Sensei, the narrator and his father, Sensei and K. Mainly, I think Natsume illustrates the combination of societal expectations and cowardice that cause men not to talk about their feelings, and the amount of suffering it leads to.

In general I feel I like most things that can be described as “understated,” and “Kokoro” is a great example of that!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars