Kawabata, Yasunari (Vol. 2)
Kawabata Yasunari 1899–1972
A Nobel Prize-winning Japanese novelist and critic, Kawabata is best known for his novel Snow Country. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 33-36.)
[Allusiveness] is one of the outstanding characteristics of Kawabata's work, part of his avowed intention to preserve the traditional taste (i.e., poetic sense) of Japan. One is, in fact, more likely to discover the meaning of Kawabata's symbols and significant gestures in his country's classics than in Freud or in the shinkankaku-ha group with which he has been associated.
The Shinkankaku-ha (variously translated as "neo-sensualists," "neo-impressionists," and "neo-perceptionists") were closely related to Kawabata's literary magazine, Bungei Jidai, but they divided and splintered into numerous groups. At times it seems that all they had in common was a reaction against the naturalism (and later the "proletarian literature") that had come to Japan by way of Europe and America in the wake of the Meiji Era….
Rather than seeking the sources of Kawabata's work in European innovations, or in the Scandinavian literature he is said to have read when he was a high-school student, we should turn first to the Tale of Genji, written almost a thousand years ago, to seventeenth-century haiku, and even to legends whose origins are lost in prehistory.
Snow Country, for example, is enriched by the emotional values of "season" words. In classical Japanese literature (not only in the much later haiku, that are more familiar in the west) the Japanese awareness of the season is already apparent. A single reference to "plus blossom," or to "deer" (autumn), or to a particular variety of grass is sufficient to set the mood, rich in implied emotions and in associations. Kawabata refines this tradition to delineate character, to render the passage of time, and even to substitute for narrative at moments of intense feeling….
Kawabata's characterization is such a subtle web of allusion and suggestion, that [any] summary cannot do justice to Snow Country. Nor can the English language adequately convey the lyrical sadness of much of Kawabata's work. After World War II he had said he would write "elegies" only, but the themes of incompleteness—unfulfilled love, sadness, and death—run through all of his work. Even his first published story was entitled "A Scene of the Memorial Service for the War Dead" (Shokonsai Ikkei: 1921). Recently, he has written of "Beauty and Sorrow" (Utsukushisa to Kanashimi) and a "dead" love symbolically centered around a comatose woman and the men who come to lie with this flesh from which the spirit seems to have fled.
In part this sadness is a characteristic of much Japanese literature, the mono-no-aware or aware that is a delicate perception of transience, of sadness, of the implication of gesture, or of the intersection of silence and time (as in the many-layered symbols of tea kettle and bell in a perceptive moment of Snow Country). This mood and these intensely Japanese symbols tend to vanish under the pressure of annotation, while many symbols take on entirely false meanings….
Other contemporary Japanese writers use various elements of their literary and cultural heritage, it is true. But only Kawabata is so poetic, so richly allusive, and so steeped in the language of tradition. Kawabata is difficult for the foreign reader, even in translation. Careful reading of his work, however, offers an aesthetic experience not to be found in the west—as the delicate imagery of the concluding paragraphs of Snow Country may suggest.
Gwenn R. Boardman, "Kawabata Yasunari: Snow in the Mirror," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, 1969, pp. 5-15.
Of all modern Japanese fiction Kawabata's is the closest to poetry (many of the finest passages, in fact, can be read as a series of linked haiku) and it is therefore the most resistant to translation. The language is delicate, allusive, intensely Japanese; and, since plot and character development count for little, the style is all important…. For all their deliberate limitations, [Kawabata's novels] are among the most affecting and original works of our time.
Ivan Morris, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 14, 1970, pp. 5, 27.
[Kawabata Yasunari] observes human beings as he observed plants, flowers, birds, insects and trees: he finds the precise, telling detail and then sets it down simply and unforgettably. People, for him, are part of a vast natural design—they go to work on trains and rot in hospital beds yet, finally, they are one with the trout dropping its eggs and making for the sea to die. Few Western writers—few in the twentieth century, at any rate—give one this sense of Man living, for all the paraphernalia of civilisation, in a richly sensual world. Even fewer have recorded it with Kawabata's scientific detachment. He is the least 'there' of writers yet, paradoxically, every carefully placed sentence tells the reader that he is in the presence of a rare mind….
Not many elegies contain so much abundant life as The Sound of the Mountain, even if it is a life that is flowering in the midst of decay—cancer, suicide, abortion. I hope this great novel finds more readers than did its equally great predecessors, Snow Country and Thousand Cranes.
Paul Bailey, in London Magazine, December, 1971–January, 1972, pp. 157-58.
Kawabata's novels … recall to us the movement of art since the fin de siècle, in the sign of the "fragmentation of reality" celebrated by Duchamps ("Nude Descending a Staircase"). The central male figure of Snow Country is a dangling middle-aged aesthete; the central women characters are two country girls making the transition into geishas…. Here the piercing sadness of beauty and the crassness of reality are interchangeable. And the atmosphere is colder, we are in a colder world. Snow Country has been called "a haiku novel," and in a way—via Paris, perhaps—it is: like lovely pen drawings of Fujiyama, lacquered with modern angoisse, ambiguity, demoralization.
Thousand Cranes offers the same atmosphere of impotence, crassness, determination to fail. Again it is the male who is frigid and has no real virility. It's as if the fragile and lovely haiku has suddenly gone ugly while retaining its fragility.
Dan Levin, in Nation, May 22, 1972, p. 665.