The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (tr. Edward G. Seidensticker)

The Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata is perhaps best known for Snow Country, the story of a doomed love affair between a wealthy city-based man and an innocent young geisha who lives in a remote area by the mountains. It is a work of great poetic beauty and subtlety – and yet there is something strange and elusive about this novella, a quality that makes it hard to pin down. The same could be said of The Sound of the Mountain, written in the early fifties and translated into English in 1970. Once again, I find myself being drawn into a world that feels so different from my own, delicately conveyed like the brushstrokes of a watercolour painting.

The novel focuses on Ogata Shingo, a sixty-two-year old man who lives with his wife, Yasuko, in the city of Kamakura, just south of Tokyo. After thirty years, any feelings of love or passion have long since disappeared from the couple’s marriage, leaving Shingo preoccupied with a number of things – mostly concerns about his family, the inexorable march of time and his failing memory. There is a sense that life is gradually slipping away from Shingo; the world around him is changing and not necessarily for the better. In this scene, he has just been struggling to do up his tie.

Why should he suddenly this morning have forgotten a process he had repeated every morning through the forty years of his office career? His hands should have moved automatically. He should have been able to tie his tie without even thinking.

It seemed to Shingo that he faced a collapse, a loss of self. (p. 195)

Shingo is at an age where several of his contemporaries are succumbing to various illnesses, some of which end in death –  a strong sense of loss pervades throughout the novel. Moreover, there are times, especially at night, when Shingo is visited by the sound of the mountain, a distant rumble that seems to suggest that his own passing might not be too far away.

It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth. Thinking that it might be in himself, a ringing in the ears, Shingo shook his head.

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain. (p. 4)

Also living with Shingo and Yasuko are their wayward, unsympathetic son, Shuichi and his long-suffering wife, Kikuko, a beautiful, sensitive young woman who represents the main source of brightness in Shingo’s life. In short, she reminds Shingo of Yasuko’s sister, the long-lost love of his youth who died before he decided to get married.

Kikuko was for him a window looking out of a gloomy house. His blood kin were not as he would wish them to be, and if they were not able to live as they themselves wished to live, then the impact of the blood relation became leaden and oppressive. His daughter-in-law brought relief. (p. 25)

Even though he has only been married to Kikuko few years, Shuichi already has a mistress, Kinu, whom he visits after work, frequently leaving Shingo to travel home alone from the Tokyo office where the two men are based. Like Shingo himself, Kikuko also feels rather lonely and isolated in her life. In the absence her husband, she enjoys Shingo’s company, helping him to unwind on his return from the city. That said, there is nothing overtly sexual about Shingo’s relationship with Kikuko; for the most part, it seems more a case of mutual respect coupled with a deep sense of empathy. In other words, their attraction is predominantly spiritual rather than physical. Nevertheless, there are occasions when Shingo’s fondness for his daughter-in-law starts to raise questions in his mind.

There was an undercurrent running through his life the abnormality that made Shingo, drawn to Yasuko’s sister, marry Yasuko, a year his senior, upon the sister’s death; was it exacerbated by Kikuko? (p. 78)

Yasuko, for her part, is more forthright than Shingo, and she urges her husband to tackle Shuichi head-on over his affair and subsequent neglect of Kikuko. Furthermore, Yasuko believes her husband to be soft, particularly in his favouritism for Shuichi over their other child, Fusako. Shingo, however, has a tendency to procrastinate over familial relationships, preferring instead to avoid any unnecessary conflict. That’s not to say that he doesn’t feel guilty about his lack of intervention here – in fact, he feels it very deeply – but in spite of this, he allows the situation to fester.

This same sense of procrastination also characterises Shingo’s relationship with his rather disagreeable daughter, Fusako, who has recently come back to the Ogata family home following the breakdown of her own marriage. Moreover, Fusako has two young children in tow: a petulant toddler who clearly takes after her mother, and a more placid baby who spends most of her time asleep. Once again, guilt-ridden passivity is the order of the day as Shingo opts to let matters run their natural course.

He knew that as her father he should step forward to give Fusako advice; but she was thirty and married, and matters are not simple for fathers in such cases. It would not be easy to accommodate a woman with two children. A decision was postponed from day to day, as if the principals were all waiting for nature to take its course. (p. 25)

Kawabata paints a very nuanced portrait of Shingo here, a man troubled by the tensions and difficulties in the relationships that surround him, especially those in the modern world of post-war Japan. One feels great sympathy for this individual in spite of the inherent flaws and shortcomings in his character – after all, we are all human with our own particular weaknesses and failings. Central to the novel is the question of how much responsibility a parent should take for the happiness of his or her children, particularly where their marriages are concerned. As the consequences of complications in Shuichi’s and Fusako’s respective marriages unfold, Shingo finds himself haunted by a sense of guilt. While he tries to do the right thing, especially for Kikuko and Shuichi, a number of unanswered questions continue to prey on his mind.

How many times would Kikuko, now in her early twenties, have to forgive Shuichi before she had lived with him to the ages of Shingo and Yasuko? Would there be no limit to her forgiving?

A marriage was like a dangerous marsh, sucking in endlessly the misdeeds of the partners. Kinu’s love for Shuichi. Shingo’s love for Kikuko – would they disappear without trace in the swamp that was Shuichi’s and Kikuko’s marriage? (p. 96)

All in all, this is a beautiful, delicate novel laced with a sense of longing for the past, a time when human relations and emotions seemed more straightforward, certainly as far as Shingo is concerned. In several respects, I was reminded of The Gate by Natsume Söseki, a story of urban angst in early 20th-century Japan which I wrote about last year.  At first sight, The Sound of the Mountain might seem a relatively uneventful story of an ordinary Japanese family trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, there is a lot going on here; we just have to tune in to the author’s rhythm to see it.

The book also contains some lovely writing on the natural world. A majestic display of sunflowers in neighbouring gardens; a flock of buntings taking flight; the sight of fresh buds on a Gingko tree – all of these things represent moments of beauty and simplicity in Shingo’s life.

For more reviews of Japanese literature, see Dolce Bellezza’s event which is running to the end of the year.

The Sound of the Mountain is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

32 thoughts on “The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (tr. Edward G. Seidensticker)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent and very sensitive review as always, Jacqui. Sounds like a very nuanced study of some very complex family relationships – obviously an author I need to actually read! (as I do have some of his works on the shelf).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. It’s good to hear that you have some of his books in your TBR (he’s definitely worth trying, especially if you’re in the mood for something subtle and understated). I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on with him.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    This is a very insightful review.

    The book’s plot and characters sound so good.

    I need to read more Japanese literature. This is one of many books that seem very worthwhile that I want to explore.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Bellezza might be able to comment on this if she drops by, but I suspect this book is fairly representative of Japanese fiction from this period (it was published a few years after the end of the Second World War). Even though it’s fairly quiet and understated in style, there is an undercurrent of unease running through the narrative – possibly a hangover from the war and the changes this heralded in terms of the nature of life in Japan. I think you’d find it an interesting read.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      In some ways, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that, Guy. It’s been a quite while since I read Snow Country, but I do recall having mixed feelings about it. There was something elusive that I couldn’t quite put my finger on – maybe unsavoury even. He can be quite brutal sometimes, Kawabata – I didn’t think that was the case here, but I have seen it in another of his novels, Beauty and Sadness.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          This one isn’t romancey. The closest comparison is probably something like Soseki’s The Gate, which I think you’ve read. It has a similar tone – rather melancholy and understated.

          Reply
  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I tried reading this in German a few years ago, but I didn’t get on with it. I should try an English translation; maybe that will work better. I love your comparison to brushstrokes of a watercolor painting. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It just felt like a good way of expressing the delicacy of the style – his writing is beautiful and subtle with enough space for the reader (or viewer) to bring their own interpretation to the picture. Yes, it might be worth trying the English version – there are times when the ‘right’ translation can make all the difference. :)

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    I haven’t read any Kawabata – in fact my reading of Japanese literature in general is lacking, apart from Murakami and Tanizaki (even that combination suggests how haphazard it is!). I really feel I need to make more of an effort so this may be one I look to next year.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – to be honest, my own experience of Japanese literature is probably equally patchy and haphazard! Murakami (again), Kawabata, Yoko Ogawa and the occasional Soseki. Oh, and Yasushi Inoue – I’ve read a couple of his novellas. This is my favourite of the three Kawabatas I’ve read so far, so it’s definitely worth considering if you fancy giving him a try. In terms of style, it’s quite similar to Inoue’s The Hunting Gun. I can’t recall if you’ve read that one?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t. I’ve only read a couple of his novels: The Remains of the Day and never Let Me Go. He’s an author I’d like to go back to at some point in the future, so thank you for the tip.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        Artist was my favourite of the Ishiguro’s I read (ages ago), so I’d second that recommendation.

        This sounds interesting. I’ve read a fair bit of Japanese fiction though not in recent years and not Kawabata. It sounds like an Ozu film.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s interesting about the Ishiguro. I’ll definitely be checking it out. Thanks for adding your endorsement to Gert’s recommendation.

          Funnily enough, I couldn’t help but think of Ozu here too. Mountain has the kind of pace where everything unfolds so slowly and delicately. Time to re-watch of Tokyo Story, I think.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Thank you. It’s an interesting novel with a lot more to offer than appears at first sight. I enjoyed it as a bit of a change in tone from some of the other books I’ve been reading lately.

      Reply
  5. bookbii

    Lovely review, Jacqui, of a beautifully sensitive book. I loved the koan-esque nature of some of the writing, and the elusive, slightly melancholy tone. I keep meaning to re-read this but have never quite got around to it. Maybe soon now. Beauty and Sadness is also a lovely read, as is The Master of Go which is odd but strangely meditative. Kawabata writes with sensitivity and a light touch, as though he surrounds you in a fog of emotion which seeps into you without you really knowing exactly why or how.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I had to look up the meaning of koan! Yes, that’s very apt – there is something slightly oblique and elusive about the way in which the story is presented (and I mean that in a positive way). It reminds me of one of those classic Japanese films, something like Ozu’s Tokyo Story which unfolds very slowly and delicately.

      I think you’re the third person to recommend The Master of Go (the other mentions were on Twitter), so I shall have to take a closer look. Thanks for the tip!

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    This sounds rather wonderful and very melancholy. I think I’ve read Snow Country a long time ago and, like Guy, didn’t like it but I think I’ve read other books by him, which I found beautiful. I can’t tell you the titles as I own most Japanese literature in French or German translations. I would definitely love to read this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I haven’t come across The Lake – probably one to avoid by the sound of things. I think you would like this one a lot. It doesn’t have any of the malicious or vengeful undercurrents that were present in Beauty and Sadness (my previous Kawabata). Instead, it’s more gentle and restrained – melancholy is definitely the right word for the tone.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. He’s worth considering, especially if you fancy trying something different. The observations of the family dynamics are captured with real subtlety here.

      Reply
  7. Tredynas Days

    Having just read Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes I feel inclined to dip into more Japanese lit, especially this author; like you and others above I’ve not read too much of it, a sad omission. I love the films too (mentioned by Max earlier); Kurosawa is one of my favourite directors.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would definitely recommend his work, this book in particular. Snow Country is the one that seems to get the most attention, but Mountain is my favourite of the three I’ve read so far. I need to explore Kurosawa’s films in more depth, especially Ikiru which has been recommended to me on more than one occasion (it’s great to hear you are a fan too). That said, there’s definitely a touch of Ozu here, both in terms of pace and tone – I couldn’t help but wonder if Ozu had been influenced by Kawabata when he made some of those films.

      Reply
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