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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 in symbols to express what elsewhere you are so carefully suppressing?

Does one’s recognition of the sensitiveness of the writing prohibit one from complaining that the characters are so faintly drawn as to seem hardly two-dimensional even? I suspect that the occasional awkwardness of the translation here, as compared with the overt skill of the same translator in Snow Country, is less an indication that the translator has taken on more than he can manage than that there is simply less to manage. The heart of the novel—and it beats feebly—seems to lie in a confusion of persons. Mrs. Ota (did she have to be referred to as Mrs. Ota all the time, even in the thoughts of her daughter and her lover?) confuses the young man with his dead father, and then the young man confuses Mrs. Ota’s daughter with the dead Mrs. Ota.

A jar that had been Mrs. Ota’s was now being used by Chikako. After Mrs. Ota’s death, it had passed to her daughter, and from Fumiko it had come to Kikuji.

It had had a strange career. But perhaps the strangeness was natural to tea vessels.

In the three or four hundred years before it became the property of Mrs. Ota, it had passed through the hands of people with what strange careers?

The tea bowls last longer (and, one feels, burn brighter) than any of the persons—except for one bowl which is broken, perhaps symbolically.

Had the breach in her cleanness rescued him? There had been no resistance from Fumiko, only from the cleanness itself.” Finally it might appear that the young man makes love with the daughter—or maybe not. Depending upon how you interpret the girl’s breaking of the bowl and the laconic reference to her possible shame. But when the characters don’t know why they do what they do or feel how they feel, it is hardly up to us to pronounce on what they do or how they do it. The ending is quietly cryptic, and that is all. A Chinese reader whose opinion I solicited declared that the story left us with grave suspicions—a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs! And if I might venture a racial generalization—bad taste though it be to do so—I would suggest that on the whole the Chinese prefer to know what is being done and who is doing it to whom, whereas by comparison the Japanese are willing to be unsure. Such ignorance, or rather non-knowing, is not exactly to be described as bliss, but seems to be regarded as a spiritual or aesthetic condition distinctly superior to ordinary wisdom.

Snow Country is distinctly superior to Thousand Cranes, I should think. If Kawabata is to be prized as a psychologist and more particularly for his female psychology, then there is more interesting psychology and more particularly female psychology to be found here. If he is to be prized as a stylist, as a prose writer in the tradition of haiku (those open-ended poemlets), then there are more haiku and more interesting ones to be found here. The plot is thin, even emaciated, and concerns a love affair (though “love” is not quite the word, nor is “affair”) between a dilettante from Tokyo and a hot-spring geisha. Shimamura is an “idler who had inherited his money,” and he writes about Western ballet without ever having seen any:

Nothing could be more comfortable than writing about the ballet from books. A ballet he had never seen was an art in another world. It was an unrivaled armchair reverie, a lyric from some paradise. He called his work research, but it was actually free, uncontrolled fantasy. He preferred not to savor the ballet in the flesh; rather he savored the phantasms of his own dancing imagination, called up by Western books and pictures. It was like being in love with someone he had never seen.

Komako, the geisha, chats happily about movies and plays she has never seen, either:

Her manner was as though she were talking of a distant foreign literature. There was something lonely, something sad in it, something that rather suggested a beggar who has lost all desire. It occurred to Shimamura that his own distant fantasy on the occidental ballet, built up from words and photographs in foreign books, was not in its way dissimilar.

And it was possible, we are told, that while “hardly knowing it,” Shimamura “was treating the woman exactly as he treated the occidental dance.”

Shimamura is cold, relentlessly conscious, and sterile, an aptly wan portrait of an uncreative aesthete, a quite unsatirical portrait, for Shimamura recognizes himself for what he is:

He stood gazing at his own coldness, so to speak…All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls.

Komako is a mixture of passion and resignation; she is able to give herself, but alas there is no one to receive her. Yet perhaps the most vivid presence in this novel is that of the snow country itself. Sensitively and adroitly as Kawabata conveys sensuality in inter-human relationships, the relationship between humans and nature is more strongly and more interestingly sensual here—as in Thousand Cranes, it may seem, is the relationship between humans and art objects. Human effort goes to waste, men and women are like the dew which soon dries up and vanishes, but the snow country endures. This novel ends—or open-ends—as cryptically as Thousand Cranes, but on a firmer note. Though Shimamura is nothing, Komako, usefully or not, is something, is alive. She is probably one of the best, most engaging, most touching, female portraits in Japanese fiction—outside that written by Japanese women.

An odd choice for the prime international award? Kawabata has been Chairman of the Japan P.E.N. Club for many years, and active as critic and editor and in fostering young talent. All this, I imagine, was weighed by the Nobel Prize Committee, along with advice from Japanese scholars and scholars of Japanese on the subject of his creative work. It is right that the Prize should go to Japan, that enormously literary country, and it is a blessing that it wasn’t bestowed on some bright young knocker-out of pretentious pornography.

  1. *

    Three of his stories are available in English too: “The Izu Dancer,” in Perspective of Japan, The Atlantic, 1954; “The Mole,” in Modern Japanese Literature, edited by Donald Keene, 1956; and “The Moon on the Water,” in Modern Japanese Stories, edited by Ivan Morris, 1961.

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