What is a ‘chapter’ anyway? Reading Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro – now with answers

I was inspired by a tweet from Niven Govinden (who’s reading his The Gate) to put down The Magic Mountain (it will wait for me) and pick up Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro, as recommended to me by David Hayden, when I mentioned how much I loved Kusamakura, probably the best known of this Meiji-era Japanese novelist’s books.

I am enjoying Kokoro, which is the story of the friendship between a young and an old man, but one thing is confusing, or annoying, me. The novel (234pp in its elegant Penguin Classics edition, not counting introduction etc) is divided up into 110 chapters, the vast majority of which – do the maths – are two pages long.

Despite their brevity, the chapters are often not self-contained, but some four or five of them may cover the same scene, and run directly on from one to the next. As an extreme example, here is the end of Chapter 26 and the beginning of Chapter 27, during which the narrator and ‘Sensei’, as he calls his friend, are sitting in a garden, talking.

A passing breeze lifted Sensei’s hat from where he had hung it, on the tip of a slender little cedar sapling, and tossed it to the ground.

CHAPTER 27

I immediately retrieved the hat. “It fell off, Sensei,” I said, flicking off the red grains of earth that clung here and there.

“Thank you.”

Now, obviously, quoting such a short amount doesn’t give a real sense of things, but I’m finding these divisions rather off-putting, not least for being labelled ‘chapters’. They aren’t doing what ‘chapters’, in the usual sense of the term – in a Western novel – do. They don’t narrate a finite and definite scene. They don’t really seem to give any shape to the narrative as a whole.

So, my question is: what would they be called in Japanese, these divisions, and how do they operate? And what else could they be called, in translation, that would unsettle me less?

(This might sound a little like being oversensitive, but Sōseki clearly divided up his novels with a purpose in mind: Kusamakura has 13 chapters; Sanshirō has 13 numbered sections (not labelled ‘chapter’), which are subdivided by asterisks; I Am A Cat has 11 chapters spread across three ‘Volumes’; while Kokoro itself spreads its 110 chapters across three ‘Parts’. I think if the sections had just been numbered, rather than called chapters, I would have been happier.)

Someone, help me out. Thank you.

***

Well, as you can see from the comments below, people wiser than I have kindly helped me out: Kokoro was originally published in serial form in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and it is those – likely daily – sections that are reproduced as the book’s chapters.

But, before that, the book’s three ‘parts’ (‘Sensei and I’, ‘My Parents and I’, and ‘Sensei’s Will’) were thought of by the author as separate stories, each whole unto itself, and were chopped up for serialisation. As David Hayden says, in his comment below,

An odd translation decision to publish it using the restrictions that newspaper serialisation forced on Soseki rather than the organisational plan that the author chose himself for the book. Although I can see the value in creating more space around each installment. A period of following silence for reflection. Calling this a chapter is unhelpful though.

Which sums up my thoughts entirely.

Now, serialisation is something that pops up now and again as an idea that people try to push. I think it’s probably had its day, as have newspapers, more or less. The last successful serialisation I can think of was Bridget Jones’ Diary, in The Independent, which wasn’t really a serialisation at all, it was a column that turned into a book, but certainly I remember people turning to it on the day it came out with something like the same eagerness that may have applied to the last slice of a Dickens novel, or whatever.

People don’t want to wait any more. Think of the box set syndrome, when you save up the whole thing to binge on in one go, or at least at your own pace. The latest iteration of this was the US version of House of Cards, which was released on Netflix in one go, taking a format – the TV series – which until then had until then been essentially a serialised one, and removing the timebound aspect altogether.

Now, fiction serialisation on the internet is another thing entirely. I’ve written here about #twitterfiction experiments, and here about my now finished year-long story ‘J’. And I note that Five Dials is doing something similar with ‘365‘, a story by James Robertson that is being published online, a chunk a day for the whole of 2014 – his chunks being 365 words each, whereas mine were 140 characters each.

Well, having seen ‘J’ come and go, with 100 followers – and seeing two other writers from Mapped carry on the experiment on @365daystory – I’m still hopeful that Twitter can play a part in online fiction dissemination goes beyond the 140-character microstory (ugh!).

You only need to look at Teju Cole’s recent intervention (Storified by Slate here) to see that getting in, doing your thing, and getting out again is the way forward. I point you, also, towards Paraic O’Donnell, who occasionally knocks out a narrative, unannounced, on his Twitter feed, almost as a form of relaxation, it sometimes seems, and with also a nod to Sam Byers, who has described his current Twitter modus operandi (not in so many words) as the five-tweet-rant-then-out.

In any case, these are the things that sprung to mind as inspirations when I had an idea earlier today for a new piece of Twitter fiction, details to be announced, which will probably start next week. Onward – and thanks to my Sōseki correspondents.

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5 comments

  1. Tony

    I suspect that these are the original installments from the newspaper publication – many of Soseki’s novels ran in the Asahi Shimbun, daily, for a long time. I’m currently reading ‘Light and Dark’, which has 188 of these ‘sections’, due to the serialisation aspect.

    • Jonathan Gibbs

      thanks, Tony! that makes sense, and also helps with my understanding of the novel – forced to read it a section a day, you’d be more likely to ‘meditate’ on their relationship. so different from the serialisation of, say, Dickens, or sensation novels, where action is either rounded off each time, or kicked forward with a cliffhanger.

      • Tony

        Supposedly there are some cliffhangers (although, to our Western eyes, the hat dropping scene doesn’t quite have the same force…).

  2. Tony

    P.S. Loved this, but not as much as ‘Kusamakura’, which is just the best thing since sliced bread – well, since bread full stop ;)

  3. --- (@seventydys)

    An odd translation decision to publish it using the restrictions that newspaper serialisation forced on Soseki rather than the organisational plan that the author chose himself for the book. Although I can see the value in creating more space around each installment. A period of following silence for reflection. Calling this a chapter is unhelpful though.

    Here’s Soseki’s take on it:

    . . I gave the readers notice in an advance announcement at the time, that I intended to put some short stories together into one piece, and give the title Kokoro to it. But when I was writing Sensei’s Will, the initial one of the short stories, I realized that it was not settled as I have expected, so I finally decided to change my plan to publish only Sensei’s Will in a separate book form.
    However, this Sensei’s Will was also constructed from three companion volumes which were independent by themselves but deeply related with each other at the same time. Therefore, I distinguished them as Sensei and I, My Parents and I and Sensei and His Testament, then as I considered it had no trouble in calling them under the title of Kokoro, I changed the title from Sensei’s Will to Kokoro. The only difference between this book version and the original published in newspaper is the fact I divide the contents into the first, second and third volumes in this book version.
    I always relied on specialists for the binding of books, but this time, I had this casual motivation for doing it by myself. I designed and drew all of the followings: the case, the cover, the inside cover, the pattern as well as the lettering for the title page and the colophon, and the seal of approval. . . . (The preface written by the author for Kokoro. Originally Japanese, translated by Tohoku University Library.)

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