The Japanese Nobel

Snow Country and Thousand Cranes

by Yasunari Kawabata, Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
Knopf, 334 pp., $5.95

In the course of a recent tutorial on Paradise Lost I was reminded by a Chinese nun that we were not talking about God but only about Milton’s God. I must make it quite clear that I am now talking not about Kawabata but only about Seidensticker’s Kawabata.

We gather that, while they were gratified by the award of the Nobel Prize to one of their authors, the Japanese intelligentsia were surprised that it should go to Yasunari Kawabata. It may be that the Japanese doubt whether Westerners are racially capable of appreciating a writer so famously delicate and “Japanese” as this one. Or, less hurtfully, they may feel that a writer so sensitive, so allusive, and so “Japanese” as Kawabata cannot translate very meaningfully into another language. Or they may simply be surprised that the award was made to Kawabata rather than to some other Japanese writer. (Quite possibly some of them would have felt happier had a writer less firmly traditional and more up-to-date, more modan, been chosen.)

Personally, as a rather removed and entirely lay observer of the Japanese scene, I am rather surprised that the prize was not awarded to Junichiro Tanizaki, who died a few years ago. (There is plenty of time yet for that youngster, Yukio Mishima.) Tanizaki has written some rather frightful stuff of a kind one cannot imagine ever oozing from the fastidious pen of Kawabata—I am thinking of Diary of a Mad Old Man and The Key, works which scarcely show that “idealistic tendency” desiderated by the Founder—but he has also produced work which is simultaneously “Japanese” and accessible to a reasonably wide foreign public. The novels, Some Prefer Nettles and The Makioka Sisters, and the stories collected under the title Seven Japanese Tales (translated by Howard Hibbett and published by Knopf in 1963): this is writing which I should say, judging by the translations, is much more varied in range and considerably more powerful in impact than the translated works of Kawabata. But this may be my Western bad taste flaunting itself.

Kawabata’s two translated novels have now been reprinted in one volume under the rubric, the Nobel Prize Edition. Thousand Cranes (understandably the second to be translated into English) is the later of the two, written in 1954/55, whereas Snow Country was written between 1934 and 1947. Thousand Cranes would certainly be a hot contender for the No-tell Prize, since the most attentive reader, and the most prurient, will be hard put to it to know what exactly is going on at times. The “story” concerns the relations of a young man with two of his late father’s mistresses—but these crude Anglo-American terms are probably quite inapt here, “relations” and “mistresses” especially!—and with the legitimate daughter of one of those old mistresses. Where the book (the translation, I mean) comes alive is when the characters are talking about teaceremony bowls and other ritual accessories. Symbols are they? But why bring …

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