Peering into the great human divide between the isolated self and the need for emotional validation, Natsume Soseki's "Kokoro" is a psychological glimpse into the "heart of things" that defies easy categorization: It is not a love story, although it retells a love story; it's not a coming-of-age tale, although a younger man seeks counsel from an older teacher; nor is it merely a philosophical musing on familial obligation during Japan's period of modernization. Rather it is in the blend of all three that Soseki offers a glimpse into the complex workings of the human heart.

Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki Translated by Meredith McKinney.
penguin classics, Fiction.

In style, too, "Kokoro" is hard to categorize. The first two sections are narrated by a young university student who befriends an older man he spies on a beach in Kamakura talking to a foreigner. While the last section of the novel is a letter from this older man, whom the narrator calls Sensei, explaining an event that occurred when he was young. There is no response from our original narrator, no typical resolution; the reader is left, like the narrator himself, to take Sensei's epistle without any further explanation.

First published in 1914, "Kokoro" remains engagingly fresh. A deceptively simple read, the interlaced layers of the novel unfold only with thoughtful consideration. The idealism of youth is juxtaposed against the cynical sadness of modern existentialism: "You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves."

Each week "Essentials" introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.