His “novels are among the most affecting and original of our time” wrote The New York Times Book Review of Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first literary Nobel laureate (read his 1968 Nobel lecture “Japan, the Beautiful and Myself” here). Born near Osaka in 1899 to a well-established medical family, Kawabata was orphaned at the age of two and raised by his maternal grandmother. His first stories were published while he was still in high school. He graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1924 and a year later, made his literary debut with a short story called The Izu Dancer or The Dancing Girl of Izu. In addition to writing fiction, Kawabata worked as a reporter and was president of the Japanese P.E.N. for many years after the war. He received the Goethe-medal in Frankfurt in 1959, was appointed an officer of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1960 and awarded the Japanese Order of Culture in 1961.
Kawabata gassed himself to death in 1972. It could have been an accident or suicide. He did not leave behind a note. It has been remarked that he may have been upset over his poor health (he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease), an illicit love affair or the passing of his friend and fellow man of letters Yukio Mishima – who had committed harakiri in 1970.
Kawabata is said to have secured himself a place in Japanese literature with the publication of his novel Snow Country (began in 1934 as a serial and took its final form in 1948, translated into English in 1957 by noted American Japanologist Edward G. Seidensticker) – the tale of an odd affair between a wealthy Tokyo dilettante and a provincial geisha told in the writer’s spare, lyrical prose. It remains, for many, his masterpiece.
Shimamura, an expert in occidental ballet, repeatedly travels from the busy city to a snow-covered hot-spring town (known as “onsen” in Japanese) in northwestern Japan to meet Komako. The man, described as an idler who has inherited his money, has a wife and children back home but nothing of them is ever revealed and discussed. Shimamura’s encounters with the rural woman are complicated and much between them is simply left unsaid. He is helpless and hopeless due to prior commitments and she is bound to the demands of her occupation (entertaining men by playing music and parlor games in the inn and then allowing herself to get drunk till her head aches).
The landscape is a character in its own right. One finds throughout the novel references to misty mirrors, cedar groves, butterflies and dragonflies, silver grass, samisen melodies, thick white powder and brilliant red cheeks – images seductive and magical that the reader must interpret by themselves. A final all-consuming mountain fire erupts as if to confirm the doomed nature of the liaison. Yet Snow Country, despite being a sombre tale of thwarted passion and wasted emotions, from the beginning till the end, remains bathed in an aura of sadness that is almost transcendent in its beauty.
A few memorable lines:
- The man was clearly ill, however, and illness shortens the distance between a man and a woman. The more earnest the ministrations, the more the two come to seem like husband and wife.
- “Shimamura, Shimamura,” she called in a high voice. “I can’t see. Shimamura!” It was, with no attempt at covering itself, the naked heart of a woman calling out to her man.
- She talked on happily too of movies and plays she had never seen. She had no doubt been starved all these months for someone who would listen to her. Had she forgotten that a hundred and ninety-nine days earlier exactly this sort of conversation had set off the impulse to throw herself at Shimamura?
- Shimamura knew well enough that the thick eyelashes made her eyes seem half open, and yet he found himself looking again to be sure.
- If man had a tough, hairy hide like a bear, his world would be different indeed, Shimamura thought. It was throught a thin, smooth skin that man loved.
- “That sort of thing would be easier to talk about if I had less respect for you.”
- He was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love; and yet the woman’s existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin. He pitied her, and he pitied himself.
The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture (2002) by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno
Japanese Culture (2000) by H. Paul Varley
A History of Japan (1997) by R. H. P. Mason and J. G. Caiger
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