Kawabata, Yasunari 1899-1972
Japanese novelist, short story and novella writer, critic, and essayist.
Kawabata was an internationally acclaimed fiction writer who was the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in literature. His works are noted for their blending of a modern sensibility with an allusive, highly nuanced style derived from traditional literature. Kawabata strove, in both his short and long fiction, to create exquisitely detailed images that resonate with meanings that remain unexpressed. Describing the effect of reading Kawabata's work, Thom Palmer observed that his stories "comprise a variety of levels and potentials. There are gradations of meaning, innumerable approaches at interpretation, a sophisticated array of doors and windows through which one can access the text. With Kawabata, one may locate, or perhaps even experience, a subtle epiphany, feel a little throb of excitement from the tale or its telling, but it's a highly subjective, intuitive occurrence."
Born in Osaka in 1899, Kawabata was orphaned at an early age; his father died when he was two, and his mother died the following year. Biographers point out that the young Kawabata suffered several other losses and earned the sobriquet "Master of Funerals" for the number of ceremonies he attended in his youth, including those of his grandparents, with whom he lived after his parents died, and that of his only sister. Kawabata began his literary activities while still in his teens. In 1914 he wrote his earliest known story, "Jūrokusai no Nikki" ("Diary of a Sixteen-Year Old"), recording his impressions at the time of his grandfather's death. He attended Tokyo Imperial University and obtained a degree in Japanese literature in 1924. As a young man Kawabata was interested in Western literature and artistic movements. Proficient in English, he read James Joyce's Ulysses in its original language and was strongly influenced for a time by stream-of-consciousness techniques. In 1924 Kawabata joined with Riichi Yokomitsu and other young writers to found the literary journal Bungei Jidai (The Age of Literary Arts), the mouthpiece of the Shinkankaku-ha (The Neo-Sensualist or New Perceptionist) movement. Kawabata and other members of this short-lived but influential movement experimented with cubism, dadaism, futurism, and surrealism in an effort to capture the pure feelings and sensations of life. Although Kawabata's active participation in such movements is generally regarded as exploratory and temporary, he maintained an interest in modern literary currents throughout his life. During his career Kawabata won a number of Japanese literary awards and honors, as well as the German Goethe Medal (1959), the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (1961), and the Nobel Prize (1968). He also served as author-in-residence at the University of Hawaii in 1969. Kawabata took his own life in 1972; he left no note, and the reasons for his suicide are unknown.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Best known as a novelist, Kawabata nevertheless wrote short stories throughout his career, and he himself suggested that the essence of his art lay in his short pieces. In English, his short fiction is principally represented by two collections: House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories (translated by Edward Seidensticker in 1969) and Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman in 1988). The former contains, in addition to the title work "Nemureru Bijo," the stories "Kata Ude" ("One Arm") and "Kinjū" ("Of Birds and Beasts"). The latter features just over half of the estimated 146 very brief pieces that Kawabata called tanagokoro no shōsetsu ("stories that fit into the palm of the hand"). Sometimes little more than a page in length, these highly condensed, allusive stories range in tone from the humorous to the poignant. In form, they may consist of the evocation of a single image or mood, or may possess more complex structures. His last, "Gleanings from Snow Mountain," written just prior to his death, distills his full-length novel Yukiguni (Snow Country) into a story of some nine pages. "Izu no Odoriko" ("The Izu Dancer"), one of Kawabata's first literary successes, was also published in an English translation by Seidensticker in the anthology of Japanese fiction The Izu Dancer and Other Stories (1964).
Although novels make up the largest part of Kawabata's output, critics generally consider the economy and precision of his short fiction more reflective of his artistry. Many have pointed out that Kawabata's longer works are often structured as a series of brief suggestive scenes of the sort that typically constitute his stories. As Holman observed in his introduction to Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, the very short story "appears to have been Kawabata's basic unit of composition from which his longer works were built, after the manner of linked-verse poetry, in which discrete verses are joined to form a longer poem." Masao Miyoshi also detected a similarity between Kawabata's method and the writing of poetry when he compared the author's technique in "The Izu Dancer" to that of haiku poems: Kawabata, he noted, "instead of explaining the characters' thoughts and feelings, merely suggests them by mentioning objects which . . . are certain to reverberate with tangible, if not identifiable emotions." Critics commonly praise Kawabata's images for their vivid clarity and their power to evoke universal human fears of loneliness, loss of love, and death. Yukio Mishima, for example, likened the intensity Kawabata creates in "House of the Sleeping Beauties" to being trapped on an airless submarine: "While in the grip of this story," he stated, "the reader sweats and grows dizzy, and knows with the greatest immediacy the terror of lust urged on by the approach of death." Gwenn Boardman Petersen found sadness and longing recurring concerns for the author, and Arthur G. Kimball judged Kawabata's treatment of such themes the source of the timeless quality of his works.