Standalone, Perigree, 1957, 175 pgs.
Translated from the Japanese Yukiguni by Edward Seidensticker
Along the western coast of Japan, in the mountains, the snow falls oppressively every winter. It’s a bleak and remote area, a somewhat barren countryside, not at all the place for an often-bored urbanite from Tokyo. Something there keeps drawing Shimamura back to it though, something revitalizing about the mountains and the forest, something charming about the tiny hot springs where he stays. Something intriguing about Komako, the geisha who he visits every year and who he’s been having an affair with. She’s a nice girl, sweet and bright, and strangely loyal to a man who she sees for maybe one week out of fifty-two. Shimamura can never quite bring himself to actually love her.
So, uh, funny story. I initially picked this up at a secondhand store, knowing absolutely nothing about it. I read the back, thought “Oh, a cheesy geisha story! I love cheesy geisha stories,” and bought it.
And then I started reading. This book began with an introduction from the translator, talking about the novel’s “haiku-like” prose and the author’s place in the new lyrical movement that was happening in Japan around the beginning of World War Two. Which is emphatically not the sort of introduction they put in front of cheesy geisha stories.
Confused, I looked it up. Yeah, this author won a Nobel Prize for literature. This novel was one of the three named specifically as reasons for that win.
I am officially out of my depth here: I know next to nothing about Japanese literature. I’ve watched a decent amount of anime and know what a haiku is, but that’s the equivalent of trying to really dig into Shakespeare on the basis of Doctor Who and the vague idea of iambic pentameter. I’m not sure I’m qualified to review this; I’m possibly qualified to review a modern light novel, but that’s about it.
So this is going to be more exploration than review, I guess. I don’t want to make a lot of hardline statements, because I know that I’m missing a lot of context, both culturally and in a literary sense.
I also don’t want to go too academic, partially because that could get really dry, really quickly and partially because several days of frantic googling do not an expert make. This did require some research on my part, though, and a short introduction to what the movement Kawabata was a part of was about, where it came from, and what it was reacting to isn’t a bad way to begin to work into this novel.
So, very shortly, Kawabata was part of a literary movement called the Shinkankaku-ha, or New Sensationalist School, which came up in Japan around the 1920’s and 1930’s as capitalism and urbanization became more prevalent forces in the country. Like a lot of literary movements, it was concentrated around a core group of authors who all had a roughly similar artistic ideology.
This specific group seems like they were trying to do something similar to the western Romantics, in that they were looking to inspire a more honest and spontaneous emotional reaction in their audience, and to get closer to the heart of a matter through that. The ideal here was to create “new sensations” or “new impressions” for the people reading their stories, in opposition to the, to their minds, stagnant and entrenched Japanese Naturalist movement, and to work under an ethos of “art for art’s sake,” unlike the political, proletariat literature that was also common at the time.
Their main influences, though, were the Modernists, specifically Paul Morand. Which makes sense, I suppose; they were reacting to a lot of the same societal forces that the Modernists were.
And, from a fairly ignorant perspective, Modernist is my overall impression of this piece. In everything from the style of the prose, to the way the characters are written, to the overall feeling of melancholy and loss that permeates the book, I kept coming back to the idea that this feels like a book written in the 1920’s while reading.
Let me pick out some of the major points here, though this is a pretty non-exhaustive list. I guess I’ll start with the prose, which is not quite disjointed, but definitely has elements of that. The mood or focus will switch quickly, characters speak in half-thoughts or things they want to say but can’t, and dialogue tags are almost non-existent. It’s the sort of book where you’ll have to reread a page because it’s sometimes a challenge to figure out who’s saying what, let alone what they’re actually trying to say to each other.
The emotions that a woman’s eye reflected in a train window inspire in Shimamura, our lead, are described in detail, but what each of these people are actually thinking about each other is never clearly spelled out.
The characters don’t feel like people I might have known, but they also don’t feel flat to me. They have that thing where they seem almost like walking reminders of what a culture has lost: disaffected from society, dissociated from their own feelings, but with sporadic bursts of intense emotion or connection that belie their underlying humanity. They trend toward the outcast, the unwanted, those that society has left behind.
I don’t know that I can say they feel real, but there’s still depth there. Even if human connection is hard to come by; one of the points the author keeps coming back to with Shimamura is the idea that if he understands something too much, if he can’t keep it idealized, then he can’t love it and has to throw it away. And this applies to everything, including his lovers.
It seems less experimental in form, to me, but there’s every chance that’s a combination of my lack of knowledge in the Japanese literature that preceded it and my reading it in translation.
I can’t say I’ve ever read any of Morand’s work, but I do know that if Joyce of Woolf don’t do much for you, even at their less crazy, not stream-of-consciousness points, this is also probably not something you’ll like. It has a similar feeling to those things; everything is loss, and jilted hope, and the characters’ lives not being what they want, all told in strange, small moments.
Which is not to say this feels entirely like a western Modernist piece. The beauty in transience, a particularly Japanese ideal, weighs heavily here: the setting is a country bath house, a place people pass through but never stay at. As is, I have a sneaking suspicion, the lead’s being drawn to Komako because she’s rough, natural, and unpretentious.
That said, I’m fairly certain I’m missing a lot of what this book is trying to do. It’s the sort of novel that cries for essay-length analyses of single paragraphs, done with far more knowledge of where this author is coming from than I have. I can’t say it wasn’t an interesting read, though, and I may have to do some more research and come back to it.