Yasunari Kawabata Essay - Kawabata, Yasunari (Vol. 9)

Kawabata, Yasunari (Vol. 9)

Kawabata, Yasunari 1899–1972

Kawabata, a novelist, short story writer, and critic, was the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Numerous deaths in his family left Kawabata virtually alone at a young age and impressed upon him the loneliness and impermanence of life, a view often reflected in his work. He was respected not only as an author but as a patron of younger Japanese writers such as Yukio Mishima. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

In [House of the Sleeping Beauties], Kawabata poignantly explores the intimate thoughts of an old man searching for the meaning of his existence. In his sensual yearnings, erotic fancies, and subtle attempts at self-deception Eguchi probes back to the source of life. But the quest is a failure; he ends a lonely old man, chilled with the knowledge of his aloneness.

The novel is at once traditional, from one called the "most Japanese" of writers, and modern—as modern as geriatrics, senior citizens, and "Sunset Villages."… The something "Japanese" about Kawabata is a meditative, sympathetic, sometimes wistful, and highly evocative understanding of nature, or rather, of the subtle interplay between nature and human existence. It has deep roots in the heritage of Japan's past, both religious and literary, from Buddhist reflection and Shinto mystique as well as their artistic calling card, the haiku poem. Thus, in House of the Sleeping Beauties, the wrist of one of the sleeping girls brushes over old Eguchi's eye and the scent brings "rich new fantasies." The old man's thoughts are like a poem; "just at this time of year, two or three winter peonies blooming in the warm sun, under the high stone fence of an old temple in Yamato."… The flowers in turn suggest old Eguchi's daughters. This passage, and others like it, illustrate what one critic has described as the "painfully delicate nuances and almost immeasurable subtlety peculiar to Japanese art and literature."

But even for Japanese readers the Nobel prize winner's works sometimes appear strange and even uninviting. Is it because Kawabata's sad, fragmented world is also a world of resignation, of quiescent Buddhism? Is the voice of this most Japanese of Japanese authors the voice of the past?… The answers are not easy to obtain…. In any case, however "traditionally Japanese," however much "of the past," and however puzzling, Kawabata's artistry has much which declares its timeliness and relevance for the present.

What indeed could be more relevant—to any age—than loneliness, the hopelessness of love, alienation? From the frustrated lovers of Snow Country to the dreamily desiring man in "One Arm," Kawabata brilliantly evokes the poignancy of thwarted love. His other major themes too are universally appealing. The "darkness and wasted beauty" which "run like a ground bass through his major work," represent an integral part of the heritage of both East and West. Again, old age and death too preoccupy Kawabata. He said after World War II that he could write only elegies, and in keeping with this resolve wrote such works as The Sound of the Mountain and Thousand Cranes. House of the Sleeping Beauties can be added. Puzzling then, he may be, in great part no doubt due to his poetic, elliptical style, but Kawabata is very much relevant, "contemporary" in the sense that universal themes are always contemporary. And his major themes are all presented in House of the Sleeping Beauties.

Like Tanizaki's Diary of a Mad Old Man, Kawabata's works reveal the inner workings of an old man's mind, recording his efforts to make the erotic most of his last days. But Kawabata's novel has a sinister note, and the crimson velvet curtains of the sleeping beauties' room create a setting which might have come from one of the macabre works of Edgar Allan Poe. The sinister note is sustained, for death suffuses the narrative; from the opening pages where one reads that "the wind carried the sound of approaching winter" to the final lines where the dark girl's body is dragged downstairs, the reader suspects death. And death comes, as inevitably as it must soon come to old Eguchi. Kawabata's artistry manifests itself in the way he combines the suggestions of death with bits of setting, builds up suspense, and uses indirection to achieve a unified tone. The result would satisfy Poe's criterion for the ideal short story, one which has a "unique or single effect." The effect in this case is a feeling of inevitability, a gloomy sense that something is coming to an end, and that at the end death waits. (pp. 19-21)

The opening words of his story are a warning which at once suggests danger and a strange eroticism. Old Eguchi is "not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort."… Kawabata quickly adds the sinister note. The house has a "secret," and a locked gate, and when Eguchi arrives, all is silent. The woman who admits him has a strange and "disquieting" bird design on her obi (kimono waist band). Images of death soon accumulate. The secret house is near the sea, and the sound of the waves is violent…. The winter season and the nearby sea, both archetypal symbols of death, suggest the mood. Eguchi, before entering the room of the sleeping girl, recalls lines from a poetess who died young: "the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned." He wonders if the sleeping girl will resemble a drowned corpse….

Small wonder that old Eguchi begins this first visit to the secret house with "apprehension" and an "unpleasant emptiness." As the reader first suspects, then gradually realizes with deepening awareness, that "emptiness" is Eguchi's own. For the old man's series of visits to the House of the Sleeping Beauties is a series of confrontations with himself, a set of experiments in self-analysis in which his identity is very much at issue. What could force one to be more intensely introspective than a meeting where the other person is only a presence, a body, and where one's musings, questions, charges are met only with silence or the slight movement of a hand? (pp. 21-2)

Nearing seventy years of age, Eguchi is like the secret house seems to be when the waves roar, perched on the edge of the cliff above the sea. Yet still clear of mind, and still virile to some extent, he grows irritable at any suggestion that he might be senile or helpless like other old men who visit the house. "I'm all right," he growls at the woman of the house when she cautions him to be careful of the wet stones and tries to help him, "I'm not so old yet that I need to be led by the hand."… But his vision is that of one in his last extremity. "An old man lives next door to death," he says in the final chapter…. And what is it to be an old man, in one's last extremity? (pp. 22-3)

Kawabata divides his narrative rather formally, into five chapters. Unlike the familiar dramatic form, however, the final section is not a denouement; rather, the story builds to a climax which comes only in the last pages. In each of the first four chapters, Eguchi visits the secret house and spends the night, each time sleeping by the side of a different girl. (p. 23)

One can see in the structure of the narrative both progression and thematic unity. Eguchi's visits to the secret house follow the deepening season; autumn turns to winter and the fall rains become sleet and snow. The final visit is made in "dead winter." The suspense too deepens, as Eguchi's thoughts become increasingly serious and macabre. Part of the subtle build-up is the old man's gradually increasing desire for stronger medicine and the growing urge to join the sleeping beauties in their death-like sleep. Unity is achieved by the concentration on character—primarily old Eguchi—and on place, by the continual piling up of sensuous imagery. Eguchi is in turn aroused, soothed, stimulated, troubled, and calmed by the touch, smell, and sight of the soft flesh beside him in the red room. Again, unity is heightened by the recurrence of like or similar images; virginity, sexual experience, pregnancy, and babies vie or blend with the thoughts of flowers, parts of a woman's body, blood, and the sleep of death. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Kawabata is especially deft in his use of color. The house of sleeping beauties is a house of whites, reds, and blacks: the whiteness of skin and milk, the redness of velvet curtains and blood, the blackness of night, death, and the dark sea.

Like Hawthorne too, Kawabata symbolically probes the human heart. Indeed the crimson-curtained room is both heart and womb. It is heart, where an old man living a death-in-life confronts his paradoxical opposite, a young woman who is life-in-death; here he relives his past loves and puzzles over his existence. Eguchi probes deeper and deeper into his consciousness or "heart" as he returns repeatedly to the secret house. And it is womb; in its warm comfort, Eguchi's thoughts turn to baby's milk, pregnancy, sex, blood, and death. It is a feminine world, where the women of Eguchi's life parade through his dreams and reveries. Maternal in its appeal, the crimson room lures him ever deeper in thought and farther back in time, inevitably, to the first woman of his life, his mother, in whom the notions of babies and breasts, his hopes, fears, and anxieties, the sensations of blood and death have their source.

On a cold night in the dead of winter Eguchi makes his fifth visit to the secret house. An old man has died while sleeping beside one of the beauties, and references to that death dominate Eguchi's conversation with the woman of the house. Eguchi is startled to learn that this time there are two girls. In another Hawthorne-like touch, Kawabata makes one dark, the other fair…. As drowsiness overcomes him, his thoughts turn to the first woman of his life; "Now at sixty-seven, as he lay between two naked girls a new truth came from deep inside him. Was it blasphemy, was it yearning? He opened his eyes and blinked, as if to drive away a nightmare. But the drug was working. He had a dull headache. Drowsily, he pursued the image of his mother; and then he sighed, and took two breasts, one of each of the girls, in the palms of his hands. A smooth one and an oily one. He closed his eyes."… His mother had died when Eguchi was only seventeen. He recalls the grief and terror of that scene. "'Yoshio. Yoshio.' His mother called out in little gasps. Eguchi understood, and stroked her tormented bosom. As he did so she vomited a large quantity of blood. It came bubbling from her nose. She stopped breathing…. 'Ah!' The curtains that walled the secret room seemed the color of blood. He closed his eyes tight, but that red would not disappear."…

Thus Eguchi, an old man standing on the brink of senility/death, yearns to return to the source from which he first gained reason and life. In his "last extremity" he lies symbolically cradled with the protective covering of the two girls, and, clinging to their breasts, journeys in thought to a time of security and warmth. In the blood-red room the dark and light girls, their feet intertwined … encircle the old man like the yin and yang of totality, and he longs with incestuous longing to penetrate again that comforting oneness, that matrix which is a mixture of life, hope, escape, and death. But his memory of mother is primarily a memory of suffering and death; the breasts that haunt his memory are withered, and no fresh milk will come from them. And so Eguchi dreams a succession of nightmares, erotic dreams of his honeymoon, of coming home to mother, and of blood-red flowers. He awakens to find the magic circle broken: the dark girl, of whom he had first murmured, "Life itself,"… is dead. Eguchi emerges from the warm, dreamy, illusory sleep to feel the cold press upon him for the first time. It is as if part of himself has died. (pp. 25-8)

The reader who has come to identify with Eguchi will share something of the chilled numbness which characterizes the old man in the final scene. One has a sense of near paralysis, of having been reduced by events to a state of catatonic immobility…. The suffocating or numbing effect again illustrates Kawabata's narrative skill. He achieves it by filling his short work with countless examples of paradoxical or contradictory thoughts and appearance/reality opposites. They emerge, sometimes several to a page, throughout the novel. The result is tension, and for the reader, the feeling that he is pulled in different directions, none of them clear, or … the feeling that he is trapped, immobilized by the certainty that death is inevitably approaching but that he can only remain fixed and gasp for air.

The contraries are apparent first in the nature of the story itself. Ugly old men sleep beside beautiful young girls; the young girls are alive, yet death-like in sleep. They are real persons, but the situation is artificial. The opposites of life/death, old-age/youth, ugliness/beauty, and reality/illusion continue throughout. Eguchi's thoughts expand these themes…. [He] wonders if there is anything "uglier" than an old man lying beside a drugged girl. The woman's repeated admonitions about "rules" add further tension. (pp. 28-9)

The tension of opposites increases on subsequent visits. Eguchi thinks he will not return to the secret house, but does. He feels guilty about his first visit, but acknowledges that "he had not in all his sixty-seven years spent another night so clean."… Eguchi expects the same girl, but gets another, one whom the woman describes ironically as "more experienced." To his protestations about "promiscuity," the woman mockingly refers to gentlemen she can "trust"—but then adds laughingly, "And what's wrong with being promiscuous."… Eguchi has thought that sleeping girls represent "ageless freedom" for old men; he now wonders if the secret house conceals the "longing of sad old men for the unfinished dream, the regret for days lost without ever being had."… (p. 29)

On his third visit Eguchi hears that the girl, though sleeping, is somehow supposed to be "in training." The sight of the young girl's body saddens him and evokes a death wish; he longs for "a sleep like death," but hovers between this desire and the desire to stay awake for enjoyment. Aroused by the presence of the girl, he contemplates an "evil" deed, then stops to consider what evil might really be, and what evil he might have done in his life. The girl, he imagines, might even be a kind of Buddha. His thoughts thus lead ironically to another contradiction: she is temptation to evil, yet her "young skin and scent might be forgiveness" for sad old men. The contradictions continue through Eguchi's last visit which begins with steaming tea to counteract the freezing cold. But now death dominates the atmosphere and the crimson curtains seem like blood. What has begun as a curious search for new pleasure and vitality has ended in death; the girl Eguchi calls "life" is dragged lifeless down the stairs of the secret house.

Thus Eguchi learns—for even an old man must learn—the brittleness of his existence, the subtlety of self-deceit. The young flesh beside him is real enough: real to the hand, the nose, the eye, the ear, the mouth; it is the illusion of youth that deceives. The thin-lipped woman of the house, like some ancient hag-guardian of the hell of self-delusion, mocks those who enter her domain. Her callous remarks and actions, like the artificial light which must remain on throughout Eguchi's nights in the crimson room, reveal the cold secrets of the house of the sleeping beauties. For Eguchi, the safe warmth of the womb is no escape; the only "escape" is death itself. The comfortable oneness of things has been broken. In his last extremity he stands, a chilly old man asking questions of himself. (pp. 29-30)

Arthur G. Kimball, "Last Extremity: Kawabata's 'House of the Sleeping Beauties'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1970), Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 19-30.

Early in his career Kawabata Yasunari … was a member of the Neo-Perceptionist school…. The existence of this group, as a part of Japanese literary history, is not so interesting or important in itself: its creed, like those of the Naturalists, the Anti-Naturalists, and other groups, derives from imported avant-garde European manifestoes, and, like most, suffers from poor digestion of same…. Kawabata's position in the group was not a dominant one. Nonetheless, when looked at as a serious attempt at enlarging the novelistic possibilities of the Japanese language, the modernist practices of the group must be recognized as vital in the formation of Kawabata's style.

Kawabata's main contribution to the group's platform, "The New Tendency of the Avant-Garde Writers" (Shin-shin Sakka no Shinkeikō Kaisetsu), published in 1925, makes a plea for the new—new perception, new expression, and new style—and strongly emphasizes the importance of sense perception for the novelist. While not being very precise in his "epistemology of expressionism," and dodging most of the hard problems of his theme, Kawabata does spell out the need for a new language to replace the existing "lifeless, objective narrative language." "Dadaist," "Freudian," "free associative," "subjective, intuitive, and sensuous" expression—all such terms are left undefined, but in the context of his discussion they do suggest a coherent feeling for a certain style. He would have a language for the novel that would reflect immediately the inchoate state of a man's thoughts, feelings, and sensory experience. Instead of syntactically complete sentences, the characters (or the narrator) ought to be allowed to speak sometimes in fragments, which will not only suggest more accurately the author's view of the particular situation but will give the reader a fuller picture of the characters and their surroundings. (pp. 96-7)

The imprint of Neo-Perceptionism on Kawabata continues strong in those works written over the ten years following this "modernist" manifesto…. The deformation of idioms, such as in the sentence "an illness entered the core of the body" in "Needle and Glass and Fog"; a long interior monologue, very much after Molly Bloom's, in "The Crystal Fantasy"; the predominantly nominal and asyntactic construction of The Red Gang of Asakusa; the hundred miniature "novels" later collected into one volume as The Palm-Sized Stores …—these are the most conspicuous examples. Determinedly "modern" too are their themes and settings. The characters are typically urban "new types," whose life style is self-consciously "Western." (p. 99)

I do not mean, of course, that in these experiments Kawabata succeeds in creating anything like the cosmopolitan as a type of person recognizable across all linguistic and cultural borders. The notion of a cosmopolitan is itself quite specific to modern Western culture. The fact is, in the complexion of their feelings and emotions his characters are unmistakably Japanese. "The Crystal Fantasy," for instance, puts the cosmopolitan wife in the context of a tension between her medical and scientific interests and her sexual fantasies—in itself an unlikely situation for a Japanese woman of the time—and yet her relationship to her husband at once defines her as Japanese. There is a very uncomfortable gap in the work between its intellectual intention and its actualization by a sensibility formed out of the traditional expectation and response. Whatever stylistic feat Neo-Perceptionism may have achieved here, one realizes, it is not so much surrealistic in effect as haiku-like, still imbued as it is with the age-old associations and conventions despite its being set in a modern frame of reference…. For all its youthful wrongheaded theorizing, Neo-Perceptionism taught Kawabata a great deal about the possibilities of Japanese for prose fiction…. (pp. 99-100)

One of Kawabata's earliest and least experimental stories, "The Izu Dancer" …, stands up better than his modernist attempts…. "The Izu Dancer" is a first-person story of a trip to the country…. [The] voice here is lyrical throughout, and not mediated either by irony or by manipulation of time between the events and the telling. The student-narrator's experience is set in the fresh provincial scene by means of an evocative, slightly nostalgic language which is neither elaborate nor learned…. "The Izu Dancer" has the forthright appearance of a single unadorned episode. (p. 100)

The atmosphere of freshness and innocence enveloping "The Izu Dancer" comes, I think, from Kawabata's utterly simple language which sets the experience down among the trees and clean air and wet grass of a country resort. In contrast to the urban environments of his Neo-Perceptionist works, the setting of this story recalls the province of the traditional haiku. There is also the circumstance that Kawabata, instead of explaining the characters' thoughts and feelings, merely suggests them by mentioning objects which, in a country setting, are certain to reverberate with tangible, if not identifiable, emotions….

Snow Country (Yukiguni) combines elements of Kawabata's Neo-Perceptionism with his haiku style of juxtaposition and understatement. The first thing that must be mentioned in this connection is the curious evolution of the work. (p. 102)

What is extraordinary [about the work] is of course Kawabata's free attitude about the wholeness and unity of a piece of literature. First, it took fourteen years for the story as a whole to be completed; second, the sections were published in different periodicals with little expectation that readers would have access to any section previously published; third, the final addition and revision, coming years after the earlier tentative completion, brought considerable changes in the text. All this seems to indicate that Kawabata had a sense of the novel as a temporally changeable entity built on the autonomy of each part…. With a work of this sort, the search for "structural unity" is likely to end in one's grappling with the author's mere schematization, a ghost of the story, rather than with the energy and movement of the artist's spirit-quickening words. (p. 103)

Another way of getting at the situation is to stress the essentially temporal nature of Kawabata's art. Instead of spatially schematizing the continuity, planning a unique shape like a sculpture, Kawabata just lets his language flow in time, lets it weave its own strands, almost come what may. The "shape" of the novel is thus not architectural or sculptural, with a totality subsuming the parts, but musical in the sense of a continual movement generated by surprise and juxtaposition, intensification and relaxation, and the use of various rhythms and tempos. The renga form is often mentioned in connection with Kawabata and for good reason: it too is characterized by frequent surprises along the way and only the retrospective arrangement of the parts into a totality as they approach a possible end.

Snow Country recounts the love affair of a writer, Shimamura, with a resort geisha as it develops over a period of some twenty months during which he is intermittently a guest at a mountain spa. The story opens in the winter with Shimamura about to begin his second stay, but the sequence is interrupted shortly after his reunion with the geisha by a long flashback describing their first encounter the previous spring. After that, the story progresses in chronological order to the end, telling of the rest of his current stay and of a third visit the following fall. The seasonal order is thus from winter to spring, back to winter, then to fall which is passing slowly into winter. Not a complicated sequence, certainly, and yet the long flashback, together with numerous brief references to earlier events throughout the rest of the book, effectively disrupts the single sequentiality and thus creates a subtle sense of passing time. In fact, the persistent back-and-forth time motion is just confusing enough to lead the author himself into a miscalculation of the total time (three visits in "three years") but the "error," not at all seriously misleading the reader, has the salutary effect of reinforcing the novel's diffuse sense of time's passage.

The flow of time which defines the shape of Snow Country is also an important thematic element, established at the very beginning by the celebrated mirror image. Shimamura struggles to remember the appearance of the girl he will soon see again. Only his tactile recall is strangely vivid: the forefinger of his left hand suddenly feels "damp from her touch." In this frustrating state of sexual immediacy yet final remoteness of the loved one, he sees a woman's eye "float up before him." It is the reflection in the coach window of a girl sitting opposite him.

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl's face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it….

The montage of the girl's face transparent over the continually moving landscape provides a good visualization of the book's main motif—the passage of time and man's continual struggle to slow it or pin it down to something substantial, or at least an image of something substantial. Shimamura, like anyone else, is continually compelled from the past to the present, and from here into the future, but he lives the present as though it were a somehow lasting extended stasis, the experience of beauty occasionally shocking the moving darkness into a radiant stillness.

Kawabata's handling of the mirror image is characteristically delicate. The reader is not let in on the full "symbolic" import of the superimposed image on the train window, and only after spending a considerable time with Shimamura is he allowed to discover—retrospectively as it were—that Yokō, the girl in the train window, is enmeshed in various relationships with Komako, Shimamura's geisha. The two girls complement each other to create the fullness of womanhood—one static, more timeless, less individualized (the name Yōko meaning "girl of leaves"); the other, dynamic and more fully alive in time (Komako, "girl like a colt"). (pp. 104-06)

Komako is one of very few life-sized and full-bodied female characters in Kawabata's novels. Uninhibitedly passionate, but she knows the futility of it all. She really loves Shimamura, but does not expect their relationship to proceed beyond a casual once-a-year arrangement. Time and again, she is described as "clean" or "pure" (seiketsu), as though she somehow embodied the crystal purity of the mountain snow. But at the same time, red is the color most often associated with her. Her character resonates on the poles of this oxymoron of purity and fire, carefully underlined by the mirror image at the beginning and the fire scene at the end. I find it remarkable that Kawabata is able to flesh out the logic of such a character into a real person, yet he does so, keeping her fire and ice somehow in balance. The other characters, principally Yōko and Shimamura, tend to be fainter embodiments. Against the bodily tactile realization of Komako, the intense and ethereal Yōko is hardly tangible. We are frequently told about her beautiful eyes, and her voice which seems to "come echoing back across the snowy nights."… Yōko, thus disembodied, is the other half of a woman, the spirit or soul of a woman, always eluding men's reaching hands, always fragile and more than a little mysterious. Just as her voice seems an echo, her whole person appears not to belong to this world either. She is a fairy-tale figure, a symbolic marker, living not by her own will and desire but at the beck and call of the heroine—that is, to fulfill the logic of the drama.

Yōko's characterization deficits are thus fairly well justified by the central time-stasis paradox in the novel, but Shimamura's insubstantiality as a character is not so easily explained. Although the story is in the third person, it is told almost entirely from Shimamura's point of view. So much so, for instance, that the narrator does not even identify Komako by name until their reunion is fully told and a quarter of the story is well over…. Thus, despite its third-person form, Snow Country is essentially a first-person novel. Similarly, if there is little distinction between character and narrator, neither is there much room between character and author. With "The Izu Dancer," a lyric inviting no ironic examination of the narrator's experience, this problem never arises. Snow Country, not being a lyric, calls for some critical investigation of Shimamura's point of view. Had this been provided, as in a dramatic monologue, we would have had clues to the author's stance toward the hero. As it is, the story remains disturbingly inconclusive in its judgment on its principal character. (pp. 106-07)

Shimamura's behavior toward Komako, too, is left suspended finally in the novel's attitudinal limbo…. Shimamura is fully sensitive to the moral implications of his relationship. He knows he will never marry her and he feels some guilt about this, even if he never acts on it. There is overall a kind of neutrality in the book regarding Shimamura's character which a "moral" interpretation is bound to misrepresent.

Despite the fact that Snow Country gives great prominence to the Tanabata legend, the scene of the starry heavens that concludes the novel is not clear enough in its significance to serve as a gloss on the work. According to the legend, Kengyū and Shokujo loved each other so much that God turned them into stars placed on either side of the Milky Way (conceived of in the myth as a river, Ama no Kawa)…. In the last scene of Snow Country, Shimamura, hurrying with Komako to watch a burning building, feels the "naked" Milky Way "wrap[ping] the night earth in its naked embrace" …; the next moment it seems to flow "through his body to stand at the edges of the earth" …; and finally "the Milky Way flow[s] down inside him with a roar."… The overwhelming galactic image here is very much like the rainbow in D. H. Lawrence's novel which operates as a symbol of promise of sexual fulfillment. The double message comes with the Kengyū-Shokujo reference which appears to emphasize the anguished separation of the lovers.

What I have come to believe is that Kawabata is ultimately indifferent to moral considerations in art. He will always, for instance, shift the narrative line so that the human action or situation is implicitly compared with a natural object or event which has in itself no single definite meaning at all, though it may be powerfully evocative of certain emotions. Take the passage describing the dying moth … or the one concerning the kaya grass …: they are there not so much to interpret and comment on the hero's action as to break the line of the story, or drop a hint that no matter what the characters may be up to, the world around them is always present but uninvolved, insensible, and not really attended to often enough. He reminds us to stop and look. The kind of resigned sadness or loneliness one always feels in Kawabata's novels comes, it seems to me, from his acceptance of man's helplessness before such a comprehensive flow of things in time. It is not all sadness, of course, because Kawabata finds quiet pleasure in this acceptance. (pp. 108-10)

Yet [Kawabata] does interpret [the world]. Time flows through the process of his work, and he, having abandoned the effort to make particular judgments all the time, sees men and women on a larger canvas than human actions and their consequences can provide. Kawabata sings the tune he picks up from the changing world just as he hears it. In this way the accepance of things as they are becomes, in Kawabata's hands, a vital act of interpretation.

As we have seen from the discussion of the window-mirror and the fire, Snow Country employs Neo-Perceptionist techniques consciously distilled in the spirit of haiku. But there are numerous other image-markers in the novel which act to animate and intensify the narrative movement. Such images at times approach the gratuitous…. Yet we can't help but see that the use of the near irrelevancy is the strong new feature in Kawabata's art….

[A] kaleidoscopic succession of images … [may effectively suspend] the narrative progress and [force] us to pay attention to those large margins in the canvas of life. [In several] passages in Snow Country, Kawabata's use of one-sentence paragraphs strongly suggests the haiku, or the renga, a technique which will become a dominant feature of The Sound of the Mountain.

Overall, as compared with his earlier works, the verbal surface is more sedate in Snow Country, yet there are several residual experimentalist expressions….

The innkeeper had lent him an old Kyoto teakettle, skillfully inlaid in silver with flowers and birds, and from it came the sound of wind in the pines. He could make out two pine breezes, as a matter of fact, a near one and a far one. Just beyond the far breeze he heard faintly the tinkling of a bell. He put his ear to the kettle and listened. Far away, where the bell tinkled on, he suddenly saw Komako's feet, tripping in time with bell. He drew back. The time had come to leave….

The metaphor of the wind in the pines is so intricately developed, changing to the sound of a bell, and then to Komako's steps, that we can almost see Komako herself dancing among the pines. The real and the fantasied are so closely woven that we realize with a start that Komako's appearance is only in Shimamura's consciousness. "The time had come to leave" is remarkably convincing as the reader is awakened from the reverie he has been allowed to share. (pp. 110-12)

Once again, the flow of time that propels The Sound of the Mountain is inseparable from the substance of the novel. Written almost entirely from the point of view of Shingo, a man past sixty, it establishes at once that his memory of recent events is fast declining, while the people and events he recalls from the remoter past are becoming more and more vivid. As he shuttles back and forth between Tokyo and the suburbs, he remembers his home village, the girl he secretly loved there in his youth (his wife's older sister, long dead), and particularly the flaming maple tree she used to take care of. Against the general background of present dissolution, the remembered past offers him rest, solace, and solidity. But his life does have its present, too. More and more he sees the beautiful girl of the past in his daughter-in-law, Kikuko. If there is anything like a plot in the novel, then, it can be found commuting between these well-matched poles of the past and the present, death and life, with no perceptible advantage on either side.

Dissolution and death are everywhere around Shingo. (p. 113)

If the balance of life and death has something to do with what The Sound of the Mountain is all about, the movement of the novel, its ever passing present, is also, paradoxically, a stasis, since it is all largely within Shingo's consciousness. The three locales—Kamakura (where the family resides), Tokyo (where Shingo and Shinichi [his son] work), and Shinshū (their country home)—function less as distinct settings than as spatial correlatives of Shingo's present and his past. More, even Shingo's workaday motions around Tokyo and Kamakura serve as occasions for reminiscence which set off at a moment's notice his reveries on long-lost things….

Always at the center of Shingo's time-crossed consciousness is his daughter-in-law, Kikuko. She is his "window looking out of a gloomy house," and he connects with the past and the present only through his love for her. (p. 114)

Kikuko is Kawabata's eternal untouchable woman, his Izu Dancer, his Yóko, exquisite and elusive. Once again we see that an approach to Kawabata's work in the expectation of meeting a fully realized female character is bound to be disappointed. Nor is Shingo, for that matter, a fully developed character. As is true of Snow Country and most other Kawabata novels, The Sound of the Mountain does not operate on ordinary novelistic logic. Rather, the play and performance of the images of things and their settings—whether related or unrelated to the characters—animate and move the novel. In the usual novel … imagery serves mainly to reinforce the logic of the plot as it comments on the human drama. In Light and Darkness the night that envelops the hero toward the end—his dark night of the soul, as it were—suggests a crisis that might lead him to the "light" of self-knowledge. The image is there to amplify, intensify, and elaborate on the character's experience, not as it would be in The Sound of the Mountain, to dilute or deemphasize action. Of course, elsewhere in Kawabata's work, too, one can find imagery that functions in this fashion. But The Sound of the Mountain, which is written for the most part in very brief paragraphs, moves at crucial points from image to image by a series of leaps. And these leaps are the novel's movement, the batteries that energize it.

The moon was bright.

One of his daughter-in-law's dresses was hanging outside, unpleasantly gray. Perhaps she had forgotten to take in her laundry, or perhaps she had left a sweat-soaked garment to take the dew of night.

A screeching of insects came from the garden. There were locusts on the trunk of the cherry tree to the left. He had not known that locusts could make such a rasping sound; but locusts indeed they were.

He wondered if locusts might sometimes be troubled with nightmares.

A locust flew in and lit on the skirt of the mosquito net. It made no sound as he picked it up.

"A mute." It would not be one of the locusts he had heard at the tree.

Lest it fly back in, attracted by the light, he threw it with all his strength toward the top of the tree. He felt nothing against his hand as he released it.

Gripping the shutter, he looked toward the tree. He could not tell whether the locust had lodged there or flown on. There was a vast depth to the moonlit night, stretching far on either side.

Though August had only begun, autumn insects were already singing.

He thought he could detect a dripping of dew from leaf to leaf.

Then he heard the sound of the mountain.

It was a windless night. The moon was near full, but in the moist, sultry air the fringe of trees that outlined the mountain was blurred. They were motionless, however.

Not a leaf on the fern by the veranda was stirring.

In these mountain recesses of Kamakura the sea could sometimes be heard at night. Shingo wondered if he might have heard the sound of the sea. But no—it was the mountain.

It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth. Thinking that it might be in himself, a ringing in his ears, Shingo shook his head.

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain.

It was as if a demon had passed, making the mountain sound out.

The steep slope, wrapped in the damp shades of night, was like a dark wall. So small a mound of a mountain, that it was all in Shingo's garden; it was like an egg cut in half.

There were other mountains behind it and around it, but the sound did seem to have come from that particular mountain to the rear of Shingo's house.

Stars were shining through the trees at its crest….

Obviously, Shingo's experience is being described by the narrator from Shingo's point of view. But it is not at all clear what this litany of objects—the moon, Kikuko's dress, the locusts, the sound of the mountain—and the precision with which they are observed really amount to. Only free association of an aging man's night thoughts? For that, the bright moon, the dress hanging on the line, the screeching locusts and, of course, the sound of the mountain have something too ominous about them. A direction is being felt out, but where? The transitions between the very autonomous paragraphs are disjointed (hardly any conjunctions are used) and it seems that the sequences could stop at any time. In fact, with each new paragraph, we feel a surprise, however delicate, at still a new turn in the train of thought. It is not the suddenness of a new percept that surprises, although the sound of the mountain is indeed unexpected. "The moon was bright," "Though August had only begun," "Not a leaf on the fern," "Stars were shining"—the paragraphs, highlighting the objects of his consciousness, nonetheless gradually move away from the interior of his existence toward the container of all the drama—the world around, the wide margins of the novel.

As for Shingo's hearing the sound of the mountain, there is a mimetic aspect to it, certainly. First, the fact of his hearing the sound is stated unqualifiedly. Next, his causal inventory is given—windless night, nearly full moon, motionless trees, and the rustling leaves of the fern. Then, his more generalized question "If it is not the sound of the waves?" is answered, followed by a description of the sound as like "wind, far away." The next paragraph brings the question back to himself: isn't the sound coming from his own body? With his denial of every such possibility, the sound suddenly stops. Shingo is frightened. In this longest paragraph in the passage, he is said to "want to" ask the same questions again; that is to say, he can no longer ask since he already knows the answers. The fearfulness of the experience is underlined by the reference to the "demon." Thus, Shingo's psychological reality is available to us here: an aging man's fear of death by some inexplicable and possibly diabolical natural event. And yet the attractiveness of the passage does not depend entirely on the mere representation of the old man's state of mind. The man and his presence approach transparency as we begin almost to hear through Shingo the ominous sound of the mountain. Shingo himself is not really very substantial in this moonlit reality; rather it is his instrumental role in making accessible the wide world that spreads around him. For Shingo, as for Kawabata, the awareness of the large margins of the world around human beings and their actions, the large area of silence that stays intact despite human speech and the words of the novel—that is what powerfully informs his mind.

Shingo is no Leopold Bloom, whose stature and massive weight can carry the burden of everyman everywhere, in the whole city of Dublin and beyond. Mrs. Dalloway—or Mrs. Moore, for that matter—might be a closer analogy, with her delicacy and apparent fragility. But as a character Mrs. Dalloway has a rich and substantial interior life; she has angst and terror and tenderness, frivolity and sensuality, and an overall self-awareness embracing both her past and her present. Shingo as a character shies away from such definition, and it is only his remarkable sensitivity that identifies the context of his personality within the novel.

Kawabata's achievement, it seems to me, lies in just this, his keen awareness of the objects around men that exist in themselves as solidly as people do. Objects, in the world and in the world of the novel, are somehow or other related to people, but Kawabata seldom makes the connection between them explicit for us. With each of his brief paragraphs self-contained in this way (and, I should perhaps add, with each of the brief installments also self-enclosed), these objects tend to stand autonomous. Although he continually invites us to make our own efforts to connect, he stops short of giving us the keys to the house…. What I would call Kawabata's nominal imagination is apparent even in his earliest work. The objects here are not organized syntactically. He does not relate them, with verbs and conjunctions, into a sentence, a proposition, but just leaves them as he finds them. Exactly in the same way, The Sound of the Mountain reaches out and gathers objects into a narrative, but refuses to hook them into a chain of cause and effect, a plot. They are assembled but unconnected. What emerges, then, is not an argument—which any construction of plot (the whole cause-effect complex) implies—but a perception of the world and an acceptance of it as perceived, one thing at a time. It is a world parceled and scattered in a way more ruthlessly than even the broken family and society in The Sound of the Mountain can justly reflect. Yet even while referring to the myriad objects in the margins of human existence, Kawabata manages to be happy in the radiant beauty he finds there.

Kawabata's art is always immediately recognizable…. [It] is finally traceable to the traditional sensibility of sadness (aware) over the transience of men and things, as exemplified by Lady Murasaki, Sei Shōnagon, and countless other writers and poets. As such, it is not easy to talk about in modern critical terms…. What is so convincing to me about Kawabata's art is the vibrant silence about it; the delicate strength in the leap of images, and finally, in his refusal to connect things into an easy meaning, his embrace of the shambled world. The lack of "structure," often mentioned as though it were a blight on his work, is Kawabata's way of adjusting the novel to the flow of time so that art can survive and teach men and women to survive. (pp. 115-20)

For Kawabata, the margins of life blend imperceptibly into that yawning voiceless world and are finally commensurate with it. (p. 121)

Masao Miyoshi, "The Margins of Life," in his Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel (copyright © 1974 by the Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), University of California Press, 1974, pp. 95-121.

[The] distinctive mark of Kawabata's sensibility is there from his first work, "The Izu Dancer" … to his latest and final novel, Beauty and Sadness. Like his famous works, Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, his new fictions create an extraordinary tension between inanition and eroticism; and an uncanny discrepancy between theme and tone. As in Kafka, in Kawabata the narrative voice remains dispassionate while it relates events of terrible and aberrant passion. "The Izu Dancer" tells of first awakening; set in the mountains, where a lone student falls in love with a young dancing girl, it seems romantic—except that the girl is younger than we thought, a child, and the student curiously drifting into an ambiguous relationship whose consequences we might wish not to foresee. For the consequences of passion in Kawabata are never finite nor innocuous; they create an insidious web that draws in another generation, entangles it, and perhaps even, as in Beauty and Sadness, destroys it. Kawabata's geometric design is a quadrangle that emboxes the father and his mistress and his son, and another woman, usually nubile, an innocent or an avenger…. Kawabata recounts … lurid events with the utmost limpidity, with purity of style and cleanness of line. He strips his art to the simplicity of a Japanese landscape painting. Such simplicity, however, has the power to shock and menace. For the art of [Beauty and Sadness] is inextricable from the sexual obsessions that become perpetuated through art…. [Obsessions] become inescapable, and art seems not a transcendence but a permanent enslavement to the past. (pp. 317-18)

Blanche H. Gelfant, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1975.

The Lake is a short and ostensibly simple book, worked in the haiku tradition both in its economy of words and in its sudden bright fusions of ironic opposites. But the style articulates a surprisingly complex structure which allows for a multiplicity of effects. Like all Kawabata's work The Lake is haunted by a sense of perverse injustice and wasted beauty which sets up reverberations in the mind of the reader long after the book is finished. (p. 21)

Sebastian Faulks, in The Spectator (© 1977 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), February 26, 1977.

The Lake (1954), in this version at all events, is a pallid production, and admirers of the earlier Snow Country, presumably the book which (together with Kawabata's good works in the literary world) did most to attract the Nobel Prize, will do well to discount it. It has all or nearly all the weaknesses of modern Japanese fiction and, apart from the account of a firefly-catching party, none of the strengths. Gimpei and his ugly feet could have come from an ungifted beginner's effort at science fiction. Emotions (though the word is too emphatic) float in a vacuum, actions lack motivation, characters lack character, and we are asked to identify with a figure even more boring than unlikable—no, that is unfair, we are asked nothing. The novel gives off a musty generalized air of ugliness, misery and perverseness. No one can be blamed for anything, praised for anything, or pitied for anything. This is the famous Japanese "sadness" at its most autonomous, its most casually uncausal.

D. J. Enright, "Wrong Foot Forward," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 11, 1977, p. 261.

[In] The Sound of the Mountain plot is less important than theme, and the themes are developed and enriched by the use of image, parallel and symbol. The title itself embodies a cluster of events and associations that dominate the life of the protagonist, Ogata Shingo, and illustrates the way in which his sensitivity to the details of nature and domestic life illuminate his larger concerns….

[The imagined sound of the mountain is] a hint of Shingo's impending death, though he does not die during the novel and may not for some time.

[This theme] and others, such as Shingo's reflections on his failures as husband and father, the questions he raises to himself of heredity and rebirth, his meditations on the relation between art or illusion and reality, and others overshadow anything resembling plot in the novel….

The real sense of the book is built on a cumulation of image and episode; recurring deaths and pregnancies, reference to objects of art, the emotions that the changing seasons call up, and so forth. The novel unfolds through Shingo's perceptions of nature, his experiences of recurring ideas and dreams and his growing awareness of his imperfections and those of his family. That he is still sensitive to the subtlest of details heightens our apprehension of his approaching death, but at the same time the delight he takes in the sight of sunflowers, the sound of locusts and the taste of expensive tea signals renewal as well as decline in his life. (p. 207)

The images in his dreams and thoughts arouse him more than the living presence of a woman…. It is only memory or thought that awakens him. For example, as he thinks that if he "had married Yasuko's sister, then probably he would have had neither a daughter like Fusako nor a grand-daughter like Satoko." This provokes a reaction so strong as "to stir in him so intense a yearning for a person long dead that he wanted to rush into her arms."

At this point, it is helpful to remember some of Kawabata's literary interests. Linked verse (renga) depends partly for its effect on the repetition or carry-over of an image from one verse to the next. In The Sound of the Mountain events which have no apparent logical or temporal connection come together in Shingo's mind because of a common image or thought, such as [a] puppy. Therefore the cumulation of such objects, events and ideas works thematically without Kawabata's ever stating a theme explicitly, and repetition provides transition and unity without his having to tell dates or show specifically why he moves the action from one time to the next. An image such as two trees leaning toward each other, seen a second time, will recall the original context. If the weather or season changes, so might Shingo's mood or attitude toward that context, thought or idea.

Haiku would also come to a Japanese reader's mind in this connection. Haiku poems each contain references to seasons, and traditional haiku involve only natural phenomena and the implied emotional responses to them. Each chapter of the novel opens with some reference to a season: the songs of autumn insects, a storm that is traditionally associated with the 210th day of the year, and so on. Since many natural events are transitory (cherry blossoms, moonlight, locusts), they inevitably produce sadness and reminders of our mortality. Yet melancholy is pleasurable, perhaps one of the most appealing of moods to the Japanese. That is why fall is the favorite season: it suggests more than any other the passing away of life. Moreover, the novel begins and ends in the autumn; the year has run full cycle, and so, perhaps, have other elements of Shingo's life….

The links are too numerous to list, but one cannot help but draw together ideas of loss and recall of memory and premonitions of death in conjunction with the segment of his life which was the most poignant to him. At times those memories seem more alive for him than the immediate affairs of his family, except for the merging of birth and death…. (p. 209)

Thus, although The Sound of the Mountain is not distinguised by a clear plot line, suspense, climax or denouement, the cumulative effects of imagery, repetition and parallels work together to provide theme and build a total picture of a man aging in the midst of his memories and concerns. They reveal the gradual disintegration of Shingo's mind and his sense of personal failure in a life that is outwardly successful. In spite of his bitter disappointment with himself and his family, the same bright and touching stimuli to his senses that signify his decline also comfort and renew him. We hear the sound of the fishmonger's knife, feel the lonely chill of autumn and share his fear when one day he finds he has forgotten temporarily how to tie his tie. We see the gingko buds, the sunflowers and the gourds that Kikuko is arranging at the end of the novel on a level of acute appreciation and awakened awareness, just as we also see them as symbols surrounding the waning desires and nostalgia of a man growing old with the ends of his life untied. (pp. 209-10)

Mary Dejong Obuchowski, "Theme and Image in Kawabata's 'The Sound of the Mountain'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 207-10.