(I should begin this by saying I don’t know a damned thing about Japan. I know a few books, a few movies, and I’ve known a few people, but my knowledge of Japan relies solely on this. Therefore what I am writing about here involves a lot of what I imagine or induce from the literature and art I know about. It could be grossly erroneous. As always, if you think so, please do comment and tell me what else I should see, read, listen to, or look at.
I have just, a few minutes ago, finished reading Yasunari Kawabata’s The Snow Country. The friend who loaned it to me, a fellow named Hadden, did so after he and I and another friend of ours (John) had a discussion of Japanese literature. It was apparent that Hadden knew more about Japanese lit than us two put together, as the conversation was focused on Murakami, whom Hadden dismissed as far inferior to his favorite Japanese writers.
I can’t say how the original reads, as of course I am reading this book in translation (which was exquisitely performed by Edward G. Seidensticker in the Vintage International edition that I read). But I can say of the translation that it bears a great deal of that quality which, in the translator’s introduction, is mentioned; that is, it partakes of something of the haiku, in the way that sounds and images seemingly flow to some alien, internal rhythm that utterly makes sense, and yet cannot be predicted, their connections implicit and yet not logically explicable.
The characters are touching and yet also alien to some degree in that way that Japanese art tends to produce characters. I have no idea, once again, whether Japanese art simply stylizes characters, and stylizes human nature, or whether Japan is so much more alien than Korea. For the things I have witness in Korean interpersonal relationships are sometimes surprising, and yet generally nowhere near as foreign to me as what I see in Japanese novels.
The story: Shimamura is a married man from Tokyo, who travels to a hot spring. He gets involved with a local mountain geisha, and briefly meets another young woman in the same line of work. During repeated visits, a relationship of sorts develops, and with it all the complications that go in within eachn individual, between the couple, and also in the world that surrounds them in their somewhat illicit liason.
Now, if it were by a Western writer, I would say that this story is a love story. And yet, that somehow doesn’t describe what this novel is actually about. It is a story about entanglement, it is a story about the emotions that play in an entanglement. There is love, but it’s nothing like straightforward love; at one point the geisha Komako says to Shimamura that only women can love in the world as it is. Shimamura replies, “As it always has been.” Shimamura, however, is not devoid of emotions; he feels a stab of pain in his heart when he witnesses the pain that comes of a mistake he made once, speaking to Komako, and he feels undeniable empathy for Yoko, another geisha who is somehow mixed up in the whole affair.
This is not a love story. Perhaps, instead, it is a story of what there really is between human beings when the world obviates love, makes romance impossible. There is anger, and tenderness, sensous physicality, and confusion, all of those things that we so often bundle together into love stories. But in this story those forces do not direct the plot the way they would in a romance. They are not bound by the great myth of true love, and in a way this is why all of the emotions in the novel are so forceful, striking, and beautiful.
And yet, they are bound by something… not even the horror and beauty of the death in the end, and all the little preceding deaths of moths and things that build up to it, goes beyond the bounds of… and now I don’t know what word to use. Propriety would not be quite right, and etiquette speaks of something learned and practiced, where to me it seems to me the characters are bounded by something else. Maybe it’s simply control, or calm of the sort that one can sometimes gain away from one’s context (as Shimamura is).
Maybe this is the great romanticization that we meet in old Japanese culture (for the book was begun in 1934 and “published piecemeal between 1935 and 1937”), that bounds and guides the forcesof human emotion? In stories about emotions and entanglements we tend to romanticize the way emotions can be guided, “husbanded” (literally, if one refers to the whole romance-marriage tradition going back to Shakespeare) into domesticity; of course, there is also the trend of the French romances: the illicit affairs, the adulteries or seductions of maidens, but as Christine da Pisan noted, these almost always end in destruction, for these sorts of things are never reconcilable to the world.
The world in which Shimamura lives is also one where the domesticated man – the man who can exist in social life – is bounded by, well, something. But it is not true love. In all of the story, this domestic reality seems to amount to a few mentions of his family and wife in Tokyo, left behind while he visits the hot springs. Early on he imagines returning with his wife, having Komako be her companion. And yet this becomes impossible, as the relationship between himself and Komako develops.
When does it veer out of control? It is not when he misspeaks and injures her heart. It is not when he returns knowing that perhaps he should not. It is not even when he feels a stab of pain becoming aware of how human emotions truly exist in time:
But this love would leave behind nothing so definite as a piece of Chijimi cloth. Though cloth to be worn is among the most short-lived of craftworks, a good piece of Chijimi, if it has been taken care of, can be worn quite unfaded a half-century and more after weaving. As Shimamura thought absently how human intimacies have not even so long a life, the image of Komako as the mother of another man’s children suddenly floated into his mind. He looked around, started. Possibly he was tired.
He had stayed so long that one might wonder whether he had forgotten his wife and children. He had stayed not because he could not leav Komako nor because he did not want to. He had simply fallen into the habit of waiting for those frequent visits [of hers].
No, while he vaguely senses he is in the wrong for “pampering himself” in this situation, he only really reacts to the pressure of the domestic impulse (an externally imposed impulse) when, in public, witnessing a minor disaster, he finds himself edging away from Komako’s side in order to escape public scrutiny (something she, in earlier conversations, ambiguously mentions but also claims not to care much about).
And yet… it is not public scrutiny that binds him throughout. Nor do I believe there is a lack of feeling for Komako, in fact. I think what I am missing here is some element which is understood for a Japanese reader, at least of Kawabata’s time, which is that Shimamura is somehow simply civilized. The way in which he relates to the people around him, and to himself, is simply a sign of that. Being civilized is difficult only because we are human… we have drives, needs, unfathomable desires, and all around us are the same sorts of confusing creatures, all themselves brimming with the same sorts of conundrums. To be civilized amid all of that takes a tremendous amount of self-control, and I imagine to Kawabata’s mind a certain degree of disconnection from one’s bewildering, uncontrollable feelings.
In the place of this, one must become enamored with the phenomenal world, an appreciator of the stunning quotidian, surrendering to experiences that are as unrelentingly sensuous as they are presented to be in this novel: the heat of the hot springs, the beauty of a dead moth, the cool pale of Komako’s skin, the delicate color of the autumn maple leaves… it is altogether bound, connected, of a piece, because when one must exert the amount of control over oneself that Shimamura and Komako must themselves exert, one must still remain human. So, one finds oneself being the most absolute epicurean possible.
And yet one senses that this is no more perfect that the romance story that haunts our Western dream of how emotions can be bound to the will of man, in order for us to civilize ourselves. This is perhaps why death is so markedly prominent in Japanese at, and why it presents itself at the ultimate moment of this novel. This solution makes us all the more aware of time, of our status as creatures subject to and bounded by time. And knowing that is difficult, although knowing that seems to have been the solution that was given to a Japanese of Kawabata’s time: being human, it seems, is utterly difficult anywhere. Being civilized is harder still.
It is, perhaps, possible to see another way; that a too-perfect realization of the power of time (and by extension death) as a boundary for our experiences, is what makes the characters in Kawabata’s novel so deeply epicurean, so very haiku-minded, appreciating stunning beauty and pains, seeing these contained and striking (and very common) moments interwoven like the delicate threads of Chijimi cloth. It may be that the haiku and the value of tranquility proceeds from the forceful awareness of death. I don’t know what is the seed-germ and what is the sprout and fruit. But it seems to me from the little I know that these strands are bound together tightly in older Japanese art and culture.
In any case, for a Western reader, one can (even without fully understanding the dynamics of Japanese culture and these finer points) still enjoy an exquisitely crafted novel replete with absolutely beautiful moments all bound together by a narrative the characters and story of which, while they do remind one a little of what one imagines would be the content of a Kabuki or Noh drama, still do nothing less than bewitch one when one finds oneself face to face with the pages of this book.
I highly recommend the novel, and shall try to find more of Kawabata’s books when I get through some more of the books in my already-enormous waiting to-be-read pile.