Yasunari Kawabata Long Fiction Analysis
When announcing the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Yasunari Kawabata, Dr. Anders Osterling praised the author as a “worshipper of the beautiful and melancholy pictorial language of existence” who had “contributed to spiritual bridge-spanning between East and West.” He also praised Kawabata’s highly refined prose for “an eminent ability to illuminate erotic episodes, an exquisite sharpness in each observation and a whole net of small secretive values that often overshadow the European techniques of the narrative.” In this statement, Osterling summed up the predominant characteristics of Kawabata’s fiction, as viewed by Westerners. Kawabata’s novels and short stories, despite their reference to subtleties of Japanese culture and other essential Japanese elements, seem to reach across the cultural gap between East and West. As Kawabata himself remarked, Japanese literature, which constitutes an unbroken tradition between the eleventh century and the nineteenth, opened to a torrent of Western influences in the twentieth. The influence of Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and other Decadent writers has often been noted in the works of Jun’ichir Tanizaki, for example, and the influence of the artistic movements of the early 1920’s on Kawabata is crucial. Therefore, in the works of these and other authors so influenced, a Western reader recognizes familiar structures and motifs that also help make the foreign works seem less alien.
Nevertheless, things that are taken for granted in Japan acquire a gloss of mysteriousness in translation. A “whole net of small secretive values” manifests itself, so that what is at first glance very simple prose becomes complex because of the unfamiliar, implicit Japanese cultural assumptions. Kawabata, it must be noted, is mysterious even to Japanese critics—he deliberately maintains an enigmatic aurA&Mdash;but this effect is intensified when the works are transported to the West.
For example, Western criticism of Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima often focuses on their “eroticism” (as in the Nobel Prize citation above), yet much of what is perceived as eroticism derives from the more sexually open traditions of Japan. Kawabata is, therefore, more relaxed than many Western writers in dealing with the erotic, achieving a naturalness in this regard that they have found elusive. Another example is Kawabata’s characteristic air of melancholy. One may point to his lonely childhood, when virtually every member of his family died before Kawabata was sixteen. One might also point to his suicide as a sign of his basic unhappiness, although no convincing reason was ever presented for it. One must also consider the cultural context, however. As Gwenn Boardman Petersen has noted, “Sadness is characteristic of much Japanese literature, the mono-no-aware or aware that is a delicate perception of transience, of sadness, of the implication of the gesture, or of the intersection of silence and time.” Others have asserted that melancholy is a pleasurable mood to the Japanese. Such subtle cultural differences obviously deeply affect one’s reading of Kawabata. In translation, his eroticism, his haiku-like effects, the implications of a simple gesture may be easily misinterpreted. At the same time, this very strangeness is a source of considerable pleasure to the Western reader of Kawabata’s fiction.
Snow Country, which Kawabata struggled with for some fourteen years, tells of the love of Shimamura, a jaded Tokyo writer, for Komako, a geisha at a mountain resort. Structurally, it is relatively simple. The novel begins as Shimamura is about to begin his second visit, then flashes back to their meeting the previous spring, then returns to the ground situation and progresses to his third visit, in which he takes the geisha’s advice and leaves her. It is in Kawabata’s suggestive imagery that Snow Country transcends the materials of the common love story. In particular, the theme of transience is highlighted in the novel’s imagery. Despite Shimamura’s desire to make the moment permanent, time passes. There is nothing he can do to slow it down. An image of a coach window early in the novel symbolizes this idea as he sees a girl reflected back to him, but the trees, mountains, and sky continue moving under her transparent face. Though the passage of time, aging, and death are inevitable, Shimamura feels his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty, especially when a light shines through the girl’s face. Transience thus enhances the preciousness of beauty. Another striking image of impermanence is the scene in which Shimamura observes the death of a bee: “It was a quiet death that came with the change of the seasons.” When he watches the bee struggle against the inevitable, he has an insight similar to the one he had at the coach window: “For such a tiny death, the emptyroom seemed enormous.” The imagery invites an existential interpretation: Even with the certain knowledge of death and impermanence, it is humankind’s fate to struggle against time.
The distinctly Japanese style of Snow Country has caused it to be compared to renga, or linked verse. Like all Japanese...
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