Kawabata Yasunari Critical Essays

Kawabata Yasunari (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kawabata Yasunari 1899–1972

Kawabata was a Japanese novelist and short story writer, the winner of most of Japan's literary awards and, in 1968, the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is widely read in the West, where his novels Snow Country and The Master of Go are particularly popular and his elegant and simple prose style is much admired. (See also obituary, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

Thousand Cranes would certainly be a hot contender for the No-tell Prize, since the most attentive reader, and the most prurient, will be hard put to know what exactly is going on at times. The 'story' concerns the relations of a young man with two of his late father's mistresses—but these crude European terms are probably quite inapt here, 'relations' and 'mistresses' in especial!—and with the legitimate daughter of one of those old mistresses. Where the book comes alive is when the characters are talking about tea-ceremony bowls and other ritual accessories. Symbols are they? But why bring in symbols to express what elsewhere you are carefully suppressing?

Does one's recognition of the sensitiveness of the writing prohibit one from complaining that the characters are so faintly drawn as to seem hardly two-dimensional even? I suspect that the occasional awkwardness of the translation here, as compared with the overt skill of the same translator in Snow Country, is less an indication that the translator has taken on more than he can manage than that there is simply less to manage. (p. 191)

[When] the characters don't know why they do what they do or feel how they feel, it is hardly up to us to pronounce on what they do or how they do it. The ending is quietly cryptic, and that is all. A Chinese reader whose opinion I solicited declared that the story left us with grave suspicions—a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs! And if I might venture a racial generalisation—bad taste though it be to do so—I would suggest that on the whole the Chinese prefer to know what is being done and who is doing it to whom, whereas by comparison the Japanese are willing to be unsure. Such ignorance, or rather non-knowing, is not exactly to be described as bliss, but seems to be regarded as a spiritual or aesthetic condition distinctly superior to ordinary wisdom.

Snow Country is distinctly superior to Thousand Cranes, I should think. If Kawabata is to be prized as a psychologist and more particularly for his female psychology, then there is more interesting psychology and more particularly female psychology to be found here. If he is to be prized as a stylist, as a prose writer in the tradition of haiku (those open-ended poemlets), then there are more haiku and more interesting ones to be found here. The plot is thin, even emaciated, and concerns a love affair (though 'love' is not quite the word, nor is 'affair') between a dilettante from Tokyo and a hot-spring geisha. (p. 192)

[Perhaps] the most vivid presence in this novel is that of the snow country itself. Sensitively and adroitly as Kawabata conveys sensuality in inter-human relationships, the relationship between humans and nature is more strongly and more interestingly sensual here—as in Thousand Cranes, it may seem, is the relationship between humans and art objects. Human effort goes to waste, men and women are like the dew which soon dries up and vanishes, but the snow country endures. This novel ends—or open-ends—as cryptically as Thousand Cranes, but on a firmer note. Though Shimamura is nothing, Komako, usefully or not, is something, is alive. She is probably one of the best, most engaging, most touching, female portraits in Japanese fiction—outside that written by Japanese women. (pp. 193-94)

D. J. Enright, "The Japanese Novel: Yasunari Kawabata" (1969), in his Man is an Onion: Reviews and Essays (reprinted by permission of The Open Court Publishing Company, LaSalle, Illinois; © 1972 by D. J. Enright), Open Court, 1972, pp. 190-94.

The Sound of the Mountain is particularly successful in evoking the atmosphere of the home in Kamakura and the moods which affect Shingo. In line with Japanese tradition, Kawabata uses natural phenomena to suggest not only the changing seasons but also the feelings and fears of the characters. Rain, wind, flowers and trees, even the food various members of the family buy and eat are made to play their parts in reflecting what is going on in the minds of the participants. Similar use is made also of minor incidents, as when a mongrel bitch who has attached herself to the household has a litter of puppies beneath the house.

This is very much a Japanese novel, and some of the nuances may well be lost on people who do not know the Japanese scene and do not fully understand the nature of Japanese social and family relationships. Kamakura, for instance, means so much more to those who know its geography and history. Some help can be, and, indeed, is given by footnotes dealing with items of life peculiar to Japan—e.g. the kotatsu is explained as "a quilt covered frame over a sunken brazier for warming the extremities"—yet the difficulty with explanations like this is that they may sound strange or even meaningless.

"Head of the Family," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced by permission), August 20, 1971, p. 987.

Japanese tea gardens are seldom large, but many elements in them conspire to give you a sense of spaciousness and to keep you from racing through them. The stepping stones, for instance, are often of irregular sizes and shapes, and they are placed so as to impede your progress. You are forced to pause for an instant, look up and enjoy a particular view.

The narration of "The Lake," a short novel which the Nobel Prize-winning Kawabata wrote in 1955, is full of similarly artful hesitations. Moments that any other writer would have dropped or speedily summarized are dilated and returned to again and again. This curious method of composition is not just a trick but rather the book's way of getting back to the specific moment, the exact play of light, the precise details of a dream or the inexplicable flash of violence that shivers through a lover's romantic daydreams—the original sensation, not the falsifying, simplifying recollection of that sensation….

Language … and our traditional modes of writing, force us to lie about what we have felt at any given moment. A tale, any tale, gathers random atoms of experience into coherent, structured molecules of narration. Kawabata doesn't lie, and that is why his books are hypnotic and shocking.

He is is especially shocking in his treatment of those contradictory impulses which are usually abstracted and harmonized into an unreal sentiment called love. In "The Lake" Kawabata plunges "love" into an acid bath in which it disintegrates into its constitutents of vanity, lust, an itch for adventure and an old, inconsolable ache to be whole, to be fulfilled by someone else….

Circles upon circles of memory, coincidence after coincidence, innocent themes followed by their sinister, scarcely audible overtones and echoes—all the effects Kawabata has achieved function like filters slipped over a light until it acquires the precise psychological hue and density of the present, which, after all, is inevitably colored by the past, by repetition, by accidentals. So present is this book in its hallucinatory descriptions and relaxed but terrifying dialogue that the reader is surprised, in looking back through its pages, to realize it is not literally written in the present tense.

[With its] juxtaposed qualities of beauty and terror … "The Lake" is as compact and immense, as natural and contrived, as the ideal tea garden. (p. 7)

Edmund White, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1974.

Beneath the shining surface of The Lake there is an underlay of erotic intimations and dimly perceived happenings, which are designed themselves to coax the reader into voyeuristic participation. Delicately, Kawabata explores the feelings of an old misogynist who is seeking the eternal woman, the compassionate mother; he lays bare the greed and deceit of a woman servant conspiring to win for her daughter their mistress's lover; he describes the revenge plotted by a spiteful young woman determined to get back at the man who stole her youth. This dredging of the sexual depths is at once so intriguing and sordid, poetic and allusive, that one senses here the presence of an intensely Japanese, yet universal, master of the erotic. (p. 25)

Susan Heath, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 27, 1974.

[Kawabata's] fiction seems to be most valued in Japanese for those qualities that are most difficult to render in translation: precision and delicacy of image, the shimmer of haiku, an allusive sadness and minute sense of the impermanence of things….

Kawabata possessed a delicate sense of the tie between victim and criminal, the kinship of guilt. And of the kinship of sex and death, which the artist, in whatever deformed guises, labors to transcend through art itself.

Lance Morrow, "Kinship of Guilt," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 29, 1974, (p. 66).

Yasunari Kawabata's last novel [Beauty and Sadness] is a consummately skillful arrangement of space and stillness, a brush drawing of love and vengeance not ultimately convincing, but perhaps ultimately not meant to convince. Yet the novel's measure is that its most fascinating feature may be the face of the writer bleakly regarding the reader from the dust jacket….

Kawabata's face is that of a man who has indeed reached an ending, and speculation, though idle, is unavoidable. In what seems to be the only unguarded paragraph in the book, Kawabata's hero, a middle-aged writer, wryly asks his wife the proper retirement age for a novelist. The novel itself is an answer: it is time to stop writing when there is nothing left but professionalism….

What is unsatisfactory about [this novel] is not that it rings false, but that it does not ring at all. The final appalling scene is meant to strike a gong, but there is no resonance, no reverberation. The characters and their pain disappear from the mind with the turn of the last page.

John Skow, "Sound of No Bell Ringing," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 24, 1975, p. 65.

Why [Kawabata] committed suicide … is unknown, but it is in character that [his] admiration of French Impressionism as it took root in Japan, his delight in young love, and his brooding death are the distinguishing elements in his posthumous novel [Beauty and Sadness].

The story embraces five characters, and it begins when Oki, a successful middle-aged novelist of Tokyo, is on his way to Kyoto with the sentimental hope of hearing the New Year's bells with Otoko, the girl he seduced twenty-four years ago and never forgot. She was fifteen at the time of their passionate affair, and when their baby died at birth she attempted to kill herself. After a slow recovery she began to paint, and is now an established artist in the Japanese Impressionist tradition.

Otoko shares her guesthouse on the grounds of an old temple with Keiko, a girl of astonishing beauty with a talent for swift, abstract canvases. Keiko is fiercely devoted to the older woman; she knows of the early tragic love affair and out of jealousy will exact revenge by seducing either the novelist or his immature son.

The beauty of the novel comes from its lovely descriptions of the flower paintings and of Otoko's portraits, which are in contrast with Keiko's impulsive abstracts such as the undulating green impression of the tea plantation. The suspense arises from the relighting of the old love and from young Keiko's relentless tantalizing: she is daring, and her murderous impulse flares up repeatedly.

Much of the story is told in dialogue, translated by Howard Hibbett in a manner that is quite true to life. But these people talk around and about; they repeat themselves to the point where the reader yearns for them to decide. It is a mark of Kawabata's genius that what one remembers is Keiko's painting of the plum blossom, the soothing summer evening on the balcony of Ofusa's tea house, the famous old stone gardens of Kyoto, the classical beauty of Japan as it is embodied in the dignity of the heroine, Otoko. (p. 144)

Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1975.

["Beauty and Sadness," Kawabata's last novel,] is the most consciously plotted of Kawabata's works and explores the relationship of art to life; it is a tale of fearful asymmetries and a terrifying nemesis, an inexorable linking of beauty and sadness. (p. 3)

Kawabata was nearly always a painter, most memorable perhaps for the interplay of red and white, rich and shimmering, that marked "Snow Country" and the "House of the Sleeping Beauties" and for the opposing black and red that moved through "Thousand Cranes" like a dialectic. "Beauty and Sadness" is explicitly concerned with painting, yet its colors are muted, and its predominant image is that of a stone garden.

This last novel is distinguished by purity, supreme clarity of line and sustained elegiac tone. It is cold, in many ways, colder than "The Master of Go," and all the more disquieting for that, since it is a tale of passionate love. This is not Kawabata's sensuous best, certainly not his richest work, but it is endlessly provocative to the mind and, as is everything else he wrote, original, indisputably his own. In such a case, why quibble? Kawabata was a writer of rare intensity. Reckoned by word count, his output was small. His self-imposed silence is final, which means that the little we have is all that we shall have, and very precious. (p. 4)

A. G. Mojtabai, in the New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1975.

["Beauty and Sadness" is a] dark flower from the delicate hand of the 1968 Nobel Prize winner—his last work before he committed suicide, in 1972. Gloomy, stiff, and suffused with an occasionally intolerably lush eroticism, this somewhat inaccessible (to Western readers, at least) novel perches like a butterfly on the undulations of emotion emanating from a famous middle-aged writer; his former mistress; a beautiful, amoral girl who is now the ex-mistress's protégée and lover; and, to a lesser extent, the writer's wife and daughter. There are many exquisitely visual passages, showing the continuing strong influence that Kawabata's early interest in painting had on his writing; sometimes it seems that a splendid pageant is taking place when all that is happening is that someone is lifting a teacup. More often, however, the endless spate of rich kimonos, serene mountains, elegant sunsets, and sombre stone gardens and temples tends to overwhelm the few tortured, lost souls that inhabit this strange, frozen book. (pp. 125-26)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 17, 1975.