Short-Short Fiction Criticism: Major Short-Short Fiction Writers

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Thom Palmer (essay date summer 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Palmer, Thom. “The Asymmetrical Garden.” Southwest Review 74, no. 3 (summer 1989): 390-402.

[In the following essay, Palmer emphasizes the importance of Kawabata's “palm-of-the-hand” short stories to his fictional oeuvre.]

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Concerning this unprecedented citation, Professor Donald Keene, in his gargantuan work of scholarship, Dawn To The West (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984), writes: “The Japanese public was naturally delighted to learn of the award, though surprise was expressed that a writer who was difficult to understand even for Japanese should have been so appreciated abroad.”

While it seems an odd instance of refreshing insight that the Swedish Academy (emphatically Occidental in literary sensibility, at least until 1968), chose Kawabata, one of the most scrupulously traditional of modern Japanese writers, the greater likelihood is that the selection was influenced more by timing than by appreciation. One story maintains that, regardless of the nominees for that year—Lawrence Durrell, Albert Moravia, Gunter Grass, Robert Graves, and Mao Zedong, among others—the Academy's decision to recognize a writer from Japan was predetermined (another typically belated gesture at geographical equilibrium). Sweden dispatched an agent to reconnoiter the literary situation in The Land of the Rising Sun. By this point in the century, Japan's principal literary voices had entered, or were nearing, eclipse. Jun'ichiro Tanazaki had died just three years before. Kawabata's “disciple,” the volatile and prolific Yukio Mishima, was a mere forty-three years old, and still in the midst of his chef d'oeuvre, the tetralogy, Hojo no Umi (The Sea of Fertility). Even if Mishima's spectacular public sepukka in 1970, upon completion of his multi-volume novel, could have been anticipated, the militant nationalism of his last years was the kind of extremist persona that makes Stockholm quail. The somewhat esoteric Kawabata, then, was in the right place at the right time. This is not to begrudge him the honor. On the contrary, the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature was one of those rare, extremely rare occasions, when merit and circumstance coincided.

In awarding their prize, the Nobel Committee cited three of Kawabata's novel-length works: the enigmatic masterpieces, Snow Country (1937), Thousand Cranes (1952), and the rather less accomplished The Old Capital (1962). His novel The Sound of the Mountain (published in tandem with Thousand Cranes and awarded the literary prize of the Japanese Academy in 1952), was unmentioned. This is curious because there is some concensus that The Sound of the Mountain is Kawabata's most successful, fully realized work in the long form, a form that was not at all congenial to his style, his writing habits, or the traditional aesthetics that dominated the essence of his fiction.

The fundamentals of this aesthetic, and of Kawabata's fictive vision, evolved from some of Japan's earliest literary texts, the touchstones of Japanese literature, for which Kawabata had a deep, enduring reverence, particularly Lady Murasaki's eleventh-century work, The Tale of Genji, Buddhist canonical texts, and Basho's seventeenth-century haiku. Kawabata provides the edifying analogy for this vision, this aesthetic, in his Nobel acceptance speech, Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself (tr. by Edward Seidensticker, Kodansho International, 1969): “The Western garden tends to be symmetrical, the Japanese garden asymmetrical, and this is because the asymmetrical has the greater power to symbolize multiplicity and vastness. The asymmetry, of course, rests upon a balance imposed by delicate sensibilities.”

Just as the architectonic symmetry of Western literature can be traced as far back as Homer's meticulously symmetrical Iliad, so can the asymmetry of the “Japanese garden,” this delicately imposed balance symbolizing multiplicity and vastness, be evidenced in...

(The entire section is 15,779 words.)