A few years ago I read Kawabata’s Snow Country, a delicate and restrained story of a relationship between a Japanese man and a geisha living in the snowy mountains. It’s a beautiful novella, and with Tony’s January in Japan event well underway, the time was right for me to try another by this author.
First published in 1975, Beauty and Sadness opens with a journey: a trip by train and a journey into the past. Oki, an author in his mid-fifties, is travelling by train from to Kyoto to hear the New Year’s Eve bells. For some time he has been tempted by the prospect of being in Kyoto to hear the ‘living sound’ of the old temple bells, an event he usually listens to on the radio. But Oki has another reason for journeying to Kyoto: he longs to reconnect with his former lover, Otoko, a woman he has not seen for more than twenty years, a woman he still loves.
What were memories? What was the past that he remembered so clearly? When Otoko moved to Kyoto with her mother, Oki was sure they had parted. Yet had they, really? He could not escape the pain of having spoiled her life, possibly of having robbed her of every chance for happiness. But what had she thought of him as she spent all those lonely years? The Otoko of his memories was the most passionate woman he had ever known. And did not the vividness even now of those memories mean that she was not separated from him? (pg. 11)
At the age of fifteen Otoko fell in love with Oki, who was married with a young son at the time of the affair. Otoko fell pregnant, but her baby was born prematurely only to die shortly after the birth. As a result, Otoko experienced a breakdown attempting to take her own life in the process. Once the girl had recovered, her mother moved the family to Kyoto in an effort to put some distance between the two former lovers. These events were very painful for Otoko and to this day she remains haunted by the loss of Oki and their baby.
Oki, on the other hand, turned their story into a novel, A Girl of Sixteen, causing tension and pain to his own family as a result. The novel, which featured an idealised vision of Otoko, remains Oki’s most successful work. Praised by critics and loved by readers, the book could be considered a double-edged sword. While the novel’s proceeds helped fund an education for Oki’s children, the story itself has left its mark on his wife.
Returning to the present, Otoko (now aged thirty-nine) is a successful artist living in Kyoto with her young protégé, fellow artist and lover, Keiko. During Oki’s visit to Kyoto, he meets with Otoko and Keiko. When we are first introduced to Keiko, there are hints of darkness in her personality: Oki considers her to be ‘disturbingly beautiful’, a description which reappears during the story. Alongside this, Otoko’s portrayal of Keiko’s artistic style reinforces an unsettling sense of imbalance:
‘She does abstract paintings in a style all her own. They’re so passionate they often seem a little mad. But I’m quite taken with them; I envy her. You can see her tremble as she paints.’ (pg. 13)
Despite her relationship with Keiko, Otoko still harbours deep feelings for Oki. Aware of Otoko’s history with Oki, Keiko sets out to gain revenge on Oki and his family for the pain and hurt he has caused Otoko. Consequently, Keiko attempts to insert herself between the two former lovers, and when Otoko realises what is happening this only serves to rekindle her old love for Oki:
Their love was like a dreamlike flower that not even Keiko could stain. (pg. 85)
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Keiko’s destructive actions will have ramifications for all. She sets out to seduce Oki; his son, Taichiro, is drawn into her web. Even Otoko may succumb.
The Keiko who seemed to be under her control had turned into some strange creature attacking her. Keiko had said she would take revenge on Oki for her sake, but to Otoko it seemed Keiko was taking revenge on her. (pg. 76)
Beauty and Sadness is another subtle and poignant novella from Kawabata. On the surface, the author appears to use the lightest of brushstrokes in his writing, but the emotions in this story run deep. The intense pain of loss is echoed by the melancholy sound of the temple bells. Rarely has a book’s title captured the tone of its story so perfectly.
The writing is exquisite. One of the things I love about this novella is the way Kawabata draws on Otoko’s and Keiko’s art as means of illustrating their feelings. At one point in the story, Otoko expresses a desire to paint a tea plantation – this harks back to her memories of the period following her separation from Oki, a time when she travelled by rail between Tokyo and Kyoto. As she looked at tea fields from the train window, the sadness of parting from Oki suddenly weighed heavily on her:
She could not say why these rather inconspicuous green slopes had so touched her heart, when along the railway line there were mountains, lakes, the sea –at time even clouds dyed in sentimental colours. But perhaps their melancholy green, and the melancholy evening shadows of the ridges across them, had brought on the pain. (pg. 36)
As I touched on earlier, Keiko’s art also captures a sense of her personality. Here’s a description of Plum Tree, one of two paintings she leaves with Oki’s family as an ominous gift for Otoko’s former lover. It features a single plum blossom with both red and white petals, each of the red petals painted in ‘an odd combination of dark and light shades of red’:
The shape of this large plum blossom was not especially distorted, but it gave no impression of being a static decorative design. A strange apparition seemed to be swaying back and forth. It looked as if it were really swaying. Perhaps that was because of the background, which at first Oki had taken for thick, overlapping sheets of ice and then on closer inspection had seen as a range of snowy mountains. […] The background might be an image of Keiko’s own feeling. Even if you took it as cascading snowy mountains it was not a cold snow-white. The cold of the snow and its warm color made a kind of music. The snow was not a uniform white, many colors seemed to be harmonised in it. It had the same tonality as the variations of red and white in the blossom’s petals. Whether you thought of the picture as cold or warm, the plum blossom throbbed with the youthful emotions of the painter. (pg. 29)
That’s a long quote, but I hope it gives a flavour of Kawabata’s style and the way he uses imagery and colour within the story. By so doing, he leaves some scope for the reader to draw their own interpretation from the picture.
This powerful story touches on the dark side of desire, repressed passions and the complex nature of our relationship with love. As the narrative builds, there is a sense of foreboding; the ending is devastating and poignant leaving the reader to imagine the reverberations to come. Like Snow Country, this is a nuanced novella, one I’d like to reread.
I’ll finish with a final passage I liked; Kawabata captures the landscape and light so beautifully and once again his prose has the feel of a painting. As the colours mingle, the images emerge as if painted in a watercolour:
The glow spread high in the western sky. The richness of the purple made him wonder if there might be a thin bank of clouds. A purple sunset was most unusual. There were subtle graduations of color from dark to light, as if blended by trailing a wide brush across wet rice paper. The softness of the purple implied the coming of spring. At one place the haze was pink. That seems to be where the sun was setting. (pg. 16)
Beauty and Sadness (tr. by Howard S. Hibbert) is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 7/20 in my #TBR20.