Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata (review)

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.

IMG_1913

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.

73 thoughts on “Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata (review)

  1. Tony

    The impression that remains with me of this book is the depiction of the women, strong and ruthless, not people to be toyed with…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, especially Keiko. In the beginning, I thought this would be Oki’s story…but you’re right, the women end up controlling the dynamics here.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t know if you’ve ever read Kawabata, but I think you’d like him very much. The writing is wonderful – it feels light and delicate, but the emotions conveyed are deep and powerful.

      Reply
  2. nounours36

    One of my favorite book of Kawabata. We find ruthless women also in the works of Fumiko Enchi. “Masque de femme” where women manipulation is very strong, and present.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad to hear that this is one of your favourites. Snow Country is the only other Kawabata I’ve read, but I’d like to try another couple at some point. I’ve yet to read anything by Fumiko Enchi, but her name has cropped up as a couple of people I follow have been reading Masks (to tie in with January in Japan). Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll have to check her out!

      Reply
      1. nounours36

        You may try “House of the sleeping beauties/les belles endormies”, another one i appreciate from Kawabata.
        It remind me some japanese female writer, who are famous for their cruelty. Fumiko Enchi, but Taeko Kôno too, if you are interested you may have a look on ‘Yōjigari ou Chasse aux jeunes enfants’.
        It’s sometime strange to find such writer writing about aversion, frustration and feminity role.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. Yes, the art theme seems integral to the novel as Kawabata uses imagery and artistic style to illustrate aspects of the characters’ personalities. There’s something about his prose style too as if he’s pointing scenes from a watercolour. It’s quite beautiful despite the darkness of the emotions at play.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    I have said before that I really need to read more literature from a culture other then my own.

    The relationships as you describe them sound so interesting in this book.

    I really like the passage that you quoted. You hit it on the head comparing the words to a painting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s some very interesting psychology going on at the heart of this one, Brian. I could have chosen so many passages as the writing is just wonderful, like a painting. It’s worth trying Kawabata if you’re interested in exploring Japanese culture as there’s a quiet restraint to his work – it’s a little difficult to describe, but there is something inherently Japanese about the prose style (and Kawabata’s themes).

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    I’ll admit I’m not a huge Kawabata fan (although I haven’t read him in years). I liked A Thousand Cranes, Sound of the Mountain and Master of Go, but was baffled and somewhat disturbed by House of the Sleeping Beauties, Snow Country, The Lake. He does write beautifully, but sometimes his subject matter is too voyeuristic for my state. Having said that, I haven’t read Beauty and Sadness and it sounds much more from the woman’s point of view.
    I also recommend Fumiko Enchi, both ‘Masks’ and ‘The Waiting Years’ are excellent.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting to hear. Snow Country is the only other Kawabata I’ve read, and while I loved the prose in both novellas the story and themes in Beauty and Sadness edge it for me. B&S does offer an interesting insight into female psychology, and the focus of the story moves from Oki to Otoko and Keiko so it’s much more about the women in the end. A couple of the scenes are voyeuristic (that must be one of Kawabata’s touches), and the descriptions of Keiko’s art are fairly suggestive too. I didn’t find it overly voyeuristic or offputting though…one to think about perhaps.

      Another recommendation for Fumiko Enchi – that’s great, thank you. I shall have to check her out!

      Reply
  5. gertloveday

    I’ve been thinking lately that there’s something instantly recognisable about the style in a novel translated from the Japanese, or at least the ones I read which are like the ones you read, something recognisable even if there aren’t obvious semantic clues. The passages you quote reinforce that feeling. It’s something about the restraint of the style, the feeling that so much is only hinted at. And also something about the rhythm of the prose, a sort of tension behind an apparent smoothness. I wonder where that comes from.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ve captured it in your comments. There’s real restraint here and yet the emotions are powerful and deeply felt. On the surface, the prose appears delicate and lucid but so much is hidden underneath. I’ve only read a couple by Kawabata, but his prose does remind me of the writing in that Inoue novella I read last year, Bullfight. I guess it must be a reflection of the Japanese culture of the time? Tony Malone might be able to speak to this as he’s the expert when it comes to Japanese literature!

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui! I had a Japanese reading phase some years back and worked my way through all of Mishima’s work. I have several Kawabatas on Mount TBR and I really want to grab them off it now! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I thought this was excellent, very powerful. Kawabata manages to pack a lot into this novella and yet it never feels crowded or weighed down. Hope you enjoy him.

      Mishima…another great writer I really ought to get around to at some stage. So many books, so many books.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Just looking at Mishima’s Spring Snow, which has been sitting on one of my wishlists for ages. Perhaps I’ll get it once I’ve finished my first round of #TBR20.

          Reply
          1. kaggsysbookishramblings

            I wish I could remember more about his books (that’s the good thing about blogging – you’ve got something to nudge your memory! One day I *will* re-read him!

            Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Kawabata would make a good entry point as his work seems to capture something of the Japanese culture of the period – there’s a quiet restraint to the writing with deep emotions rippling beneath the surface. The quotes are beautiful, aren’t they?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. The prose is beautiful, and there’s a light-and-shade thing going on with this novella: the beauty of the writing and imagery contrasted with the darkness in the story.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Another author I ought to try at some point. Is there one novel in particular you’d recommend? I’ve looked at In Praise of Shadows but never got around to buying it (or any others by Tanizaki).

          Reply
          1. nounours36

            You may try “Svastika” or better ‘la confession impudique/ la clé’ “the key” ( i’m not sure for the english title, original title is “Kagi” ). Praise of Shadows is a short essay more than a novel, but it explain the esthetic of darkness (theme that can be found in many japan writer).

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              The Key is available in translation so I’ll take a look, thank you. I’m still interested in Shadows as way of learning more about Japanese aesthetics and culture; it might make an interesting companion piece to some of the Japanese novels I’ve been reading.

              Reply
  7. My Book Strings

    Sadly, I’ve run out of time again to read for Japanese Literature month. But I have a beautiful book with a selection of Kawabata’s writing, published by the Nobel Committee, waiting for me. Thanks for putting that back on my radar.

    Reply
  8. Caroline

    I’ve had the exact same experince with him as Marina Sofia and have stayed away from him since then. I think it was The Lake that disturbed me. This sounds beautiful and if I own a copy (I have his books in French translations so would have to check and see if anything corresponds) , I might read it. See how I like him now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I just looked at the blurb for The Lake, and it does sound very creepy and unnerving – I think I’ll avoid that one..

      As for Beauty and Sadness, the writing and imagery are beautiful but the story itself drips with sadness. The psychology is interesting, but there’s some quite dark and manipulative behaviour at the heart of this book…a couple of scenes have a voyeuristic edge to them too. It’s difficult to judge how you might get on with B&S given your other experiences with Kawabata, but I’d be interested to hear (if you have it and get a chance to try). It’s one of his later works by the looks of things, but I don’t know whether his style changed in any way.

      Reply
  9. Guy Savage

    I haven’t had the best luck with Japanese fiction to be honest. Not that I’ve ever read that much. I was looking at Japanese crime books this morning on Goodreads. Perhaps that is a better bet.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that might be your best bet, Guy. It’s hard to predict how you might get on with Beauty and Sadness, and Kawabata in general, but I wouldn’t press this one on you (especially given your experience with Japanese fiction).

      Reply
  10. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Sounds like an engaging read, love writers who can portray landscape with such vision, well especially after reading The Yellow Rain! It’s like fiction on the way towards nature writing and here there’s a strong emotional element as well. Oh so many wonderful diverse novellas to read. Thanks Jacqui, a wonderful review and great quotes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s some beautiful writing here. The other thing I loved (which I think you’d like too) is the way Kawabata uses art, colours and imagery within the story. It’s an evocative little book.

      Reply
  11. naomifrisby

    The premise of this book – someone still in love with someone else years after the event – is exactly the sort of thing to put me off a book (get over yourself!). However, that one of them then wrote a book about it and another of the characters is an artist got me interested and then Tony’s comment about the female characters made me think I might enjoy this after all!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I think you might like this, Naomi (or at the very least, you’d find it of interest!). I still need to get to Hotel Iris, but there are some connections between Beauty and Sadness and the Yoko Ogawa stories I’ve read. There’s some rather dark and manipulative behaviour going on here and an erotic, voyeuristic undercurrent too (which is why I thought of your review of Hotel Iris). Tony’s observation on the women characters is very apt, especially as far as Keiko is concerned. Oh, and I loved the focus on art, colour and imagery within the story – it’s an integral component.

      Reply
  12. erdeaka

    A very beautiful book, with a very beautiful love story, too. just the way I like it :) I read Snow Country ages ago but couldn’t really get into it. perhaps that’s because my horizon on Japanese literature was still narrow at that time. but I think I will like this one :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Of the two I think I prefer Beauty and Sadness as it has the stronger story. I love the prose in Snow Mountain (and the writing is just as beautiful here) but there’s something very elusive and mysterious about the relationship in that one. B&S begins with a melancholy love story, but the more you read, the darker it gets.

      Reply
  13. Scott W.

    I read Snow Country many years ago and remember being vaguely disappointed by it. Why, I cannot remember. But I do remember the book had a marvelously evocative atmosphere, cold and snowy like it never gets here in coastal California. If I can ever pull myself out of my current Mediterranean obsession, I should give Kawabata another try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved the writing in Snow Country, but I’m sure I failed to pick up on several of the subtleties in the story itself. There’s something quite elusive about that narrative, almost as though it’s operating on two different levels, and I wonder whether I simply read it at the surface level on first reading. One to return to at some stage.

      And you’re right about the evocative atmosphere in Snow Country. It must be one of Kawabata’s strengths as there are some beautiful portrayals of landscape and sunsets in Beauty and Sadness, too. B&S has a stronger, clearer story at its heart so it might be worth a try if you ever wanted to revisit Kawabata. Mind you, I can understand the attraction of all those Italian books you’ve been reading recently! (I have a similar obsession with the wines of Italy, Spain and Corsica – hard to tear myself away from these regions.)

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        Speaking of evoking atmosphere (and of mountains, and of Japan), I should have recommended Michele Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains in connection with your reading Kawabata. Perhaps that’s a stretch – and/or reflects my limited exposure to literature from/about Japan – but in reading Bailat-Jones’ novel I kept flashing back to whatever few tatters of memory I had left of Snow Country – at least in terms of atmosphere.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Well, I’m very glad you dropped by to recommend it to me! Funnily enough, Fog Island Mountains is on my radar as I follow Michelle on twitter, so I’ve seen bits and pieces about its release. It sounds absolutely wonderful, right up my street. Thank you, it’s great to know it comes with your endorsement.

          I’ve reached the halfway point in my attempt to read twenty books from the TBR before buying any others so I’ll add Fog Island Mountains to my wishlist. (What’s the betting that this new wishlist will contain more than 20 books by the time I’ve finished this thing? Quite high I’d say!)

          Reply
  14. The Little Reader Library

    I’ve read very little Japanese literature Jacqui, I’ll take note of this author to look out for in the future. I love the quotes you have picked out, especially the one about the sky, the purple colour. And I enjoyed how you’ve written about it the writing, ‘the lightest of brushstrokes’, lovely phrase.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Lindsay. The quotes are beautiful, aren’t they? Art and paintings are integral to this story, so it seemed natural to continue the theme in describing Kawabata’s prose style. He’s worth a look if you’re interested in trying some Japanese lit as his books are considered to be classics.

      Reply
  15. litlove

    I read this several years ago, and so it was fascinating to read your beautiful review and have the book returned to me. I did enjoy it, although Japanese literature is something I often struggle with: something about the contrast of the violent emotions with the delicacy of the language. I ought to love it, and yet… maybe sometimes it feels incongruent and odd. But that’s by the by, this novella is indeed exquisite.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know what you mean about the contrast between the violence of emotions and delicacy of language as that tension is present in this novella (and I’ve noticed something similar in Yoko Ogawa’s stories too). Kawabata’s prose and use of imagery are beautiful, but the story itself is very disturbing at times. I wonder whether there’s something in the Japanese culture, a tendency to repress certain emotions such that when they come to the surface the effect can be rather dramatic? Kawabata wrote this one in 1964; hopefully things have moved on since then…

      Reply
  16. Bellezza

    I have only read The Sound of the Mountain, The House of the Sleeping Beauties, and The Old Capital by Kawabata. But, it is no wonder that he was the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1968, I believe). As I was writing in my review for The Sound of the Mountain, his writing is deceptively simple. Then, you find yourself pondering what he says for days. Personally, I’m crazy about Japanese literature, but it took awhile to develop such an affinity. In my Western approach, I was initially coming to it expecting a story which was tightly drawn. Now I know to read it for the language, for the mood, and for a “slice of life” rather than the story per se.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m with you on the writing, Bellezza. At first sight, Kawabata’s prose seems so simple and lucid but there’s depth to it too. (How did he do it, I wonder?) It’s hard to describe but like you I found myself thinking about these characters and events for several days. Perhaps it’s the emotions that run deep and continue to reverberate over time. I’ll have to get hold of The Sound of the Mountain as I enjoyed your review of that one; hopefully it’ll be my next Kawabata.

      Talking about the language, mood and slice of life in Japanese literature, have you read anything by Yasushi Inoue? I’ve only read Bullfight so far, but I think you’d love him.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s a good thought, he might be. Pushkin Press have published three of his books over here but I’m not sure if they’re available on your side of the pond.

          Reply
  17. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  18. Emma

    I’ve read a book by him and I don’t remember anything about it, which is not a good sign. I haven’t had the best experience with Japanese literary fiction so far. However, I’ve stated The Cat by Soseki and this one’s great.

    Like Naomi, the story of people who haven’t moved on after twenty years rather puts me off and if it’s coupled with a love triangle, that’s a definite no-go. Love triangles bore me, I always want to tell them to make a decison and live with it. ;-)

    That said, I can see why the Higashino I reviewed recently resonated with this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This isn’t for you then, Emma! I think you’d find it rather annoying. The Higashino sounded great so I should take a look at him. I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything by Yoko Ogawa, but her stories might be of interest: they’re quite unsettling, but there’s a sense of sadness and isolation too. Something in your Higashiro review reminded me of Ogawa’s stuff.

      Great to hear you’re enjoying Soseki. I’ve yet to read any of his books, but he’s on my list for sure. I’ve had my eye on The Gate for some time…

      Reply
  19. Pingback: The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue (tr. Michael Emmerich) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s