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Yasunari Kawabata

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thomas

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I just finished reading Kawabata's "Sound of the Mountain" and thought of briefly introducing one of Japan's most celebrated authors.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 - 1972)

In 1968 Kawabata was the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is described to be a "neo-sensualist", combining social realism with lyrical and impressionist techniques. Having read three of his books it is obvious that Kawabata was preoccupied with topics such as loneliness, death and unreturned love.

Kawabata was born into a highly cultured family from Osaka. Orphaned at the age of three he was raised by his paternal grandfather. His only sister died when he was seven. These early losses must have caused traumata that later contributed to his melancholic tendencies. In the early 1920s he studied literature at the Tokyo Imperial University and co-founded Bungei Jidai ("Contemporary Literature"), a publication that served Japan's modernist authors as literary forum.

Kawabata married in 1931 and settled near Kamakura, scene to many of his novels. In 1948 he published his most famous work: it took him 12 years to complete "Snow Country". Snow Country tells the story of Shimamura, a wealthy middle-aged ballet aficionado in love with Komako, an onsen geisha, and Yoko, a maid at his inn. Kawabata describes their inability to express the love for one another and employs the change of seasons to depict the change in their relationships. As in all of Kawabata's books the the story line is thin, but his narrative is overwhelmingly poetic and beautiful.

In 1954 Kawabata published Yama no oto ("The Sound of the Mountain"). As much as I liked Snow Country I was disappointed with the Sound of the Mountain. Described as his "perhaps best work", the story focuses on Shingo, another elderly man. Shingo is fond of his daughter-in-law who lives up to his expectations. He is concerned about his own two children suffering from marital problems. Again the story line is thin, with no dramatic event or climax. Natural observations are large part of the novel; though highly symbolic, they lack the beauty and melancholy of those Kawabata employed in Snow Country. I admit I was bored after having skimmed through the first 50 pages. It needed zen-like patience to finish the book.

In the 1960s Kawabata became politically active, campaigning for conservative candidates and signing a petition against the Cultural Revolution in China. He was also appointed chairman of Japan's P.E.N. Club. It is interesting to note that he condemned suicide in his acceptance speech in front of the Nobel Prize Committee, but - after having suffered from poor health for many years - gassed himself in 1972, just two years after his friend Yukio Mishima, another famous novelist, committed suicide.

Selected books:

- Izu no odoriko (The Izu Dancer), 1925

- Kin ju (Of Birds and Beasts), 1933

- Yukiguni (Snow Country), 1948

- Sembarazu (Thousand Cranes), 1952

- Yama no oto (The Sound of the Mountain), 1954

- Mizumi (The Lake), 1954

- Utsukushisa nihon no watakushi (Japan the beautiful and myself), 1969

Most of Kawabata's work has been translated into English by Edward Seidensticker. It is said that Seidensticker is known for the quantity, not the quality of his translations. I wished I was able to indulge into Kawabata's work in Japanese, however, a lot of critics suggest to read his books in other translations.

 

Elizabeth

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Originally posted by thomas
Kawabata married in 1931 and settled near Kamakura, scene to many of his novels. In 1948 he published his most famous work: it took him 12 years to complete "Snow Country". Snow Country tells the story of Shimamura, a wealthy middle-aged ballet aficionado in love with Komako, an onsen geisha, and Yoko, a maid at his inn. Kawabata describes their inability to express the love for one another and employs the change of seasons to depict the change in their relationships. As in all of Kawabata's books the the story line is thin, but his narrative is overwhelmingly poetic and beautiful.

In 1954 Kawabata published Yama no oto ("The Sound of the Mountain"). As much as I liked Snow Country I was disappointed with the Sound of the Mountain. Described as his "perhaps best work", the story focuses on Shingo, another elderly man. Shingo is fond of his daughter-in-law who lives up to his expectations. He is concerned about his own two children suffering from marital problems. Again the story line is thin, with no dramatic event or climax. Natural observations are large part of the novel; though highly symbolic, they lack the beauty and melancholy of those Kawabata employed in Snow Country. I admit I was bored after having skimmed through the first 50 pages. It needed zen-like patience to finish the book.

Wow, it has been ages (nearly five years, anyway) since I've thought at all seriously about these things. I do agree on the point of Seidensticker's translations being exceptionally blunt and workmanlike but have to side with those critics who put Sound of the Mountain ahead of Snow Country as his best novel. For two reasons: the structure is more intricate, tighter and more coherant and the symbolism ties in better with the actions and feelings of the characters.

As for the structure itself, it is clear in Sound of the Mountain that every chapter, although varied in length and intimately intertwined within the textured backdrop of dreamlike imagery and natural symbols, contains at least one crucial revelation or event that incrementally advances the plot. The first two set up Kikuko and Shingo's sensitivity towards each other and for nature in contrast with the other family members. This tension between Shingo and his children, Shuichi and daughter Fusako, is brought into the open through a discussion with his wife, Yasuko, as autumn and a typhoon both approach. The fourth chapter sees Shuichi's lover, Kinu, introduced through Eiko, an office employee in conjunction with a friend's funeral and the 'scattering' of the characters on various excursions. The next four chapters encompass New Years through the following spring and bring into sharp relief the motivations behind the old man's unconscious attraction to his son's wife as his dreams and vague sensory flashbacks reveal parallels with an unfulfilled attraction to his late, more beautiful (than the homely Yasuko), sister-in-law. The second half of the novel then effectively falls into place as Kikuko has an abortion which effectively kills any chance of Yasuko's sister being "reborn" in the family line. Despite this tragedy from Shingo's perspective (compounded by the pregnancy of Shuichi's mistress), he provides the only real support for her during this difficult period. I won't give away too much of the ending, but it basically concludes with a series of gestures that autumn which enable Shingo to begin to tie up some of the loose memories that have been floating around haunting him and to begin to put some emotional distance between himself and Kikuko.

As I said it has been a while since I read it thoroughly, though, so this is obviously just a sketchy overview. Especially with my poor powers of recall I'm sure some points have probably been distorted or overlooked altogether.

That said, Sound of the Mountain does present a stark contrast with the more free-floating style of Snow Country, which places the two main characters, along with their dependents and lovers, in something of a vacuum where their feelings for each other seemed more unpredictable and I was never entirely sure of the basis for their behavior or emotional reactions.

Opinions are obviously going to differ in accord with individual tastes, background, personality, etc. and Snow Country is the one the Nobel committee cited after all.

Anyway, I actually am able to read the Japanese originals, just haven't gotten around to it yet which is probably worse. Will definately make the effort this summer, though, and get back to everyone then.

:thumbsup:
 
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