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[739] Beauty and Sadness – Yasunari Kawabata

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” Even now Oki’s words had not faded from her memory. The dialogue in his novel echoed them and seemed to have taken on a life apart from either Oki or herself. Perhaps the lovers of old were no more, but she had the nostalgic consolation, in the midst of her sadess, that their love was forever enshrined in a work of art. ” (126)

This eloquent and lyrical novel allures to a motif, the strange and nihilistic self-love pf the character Otoko. Ueno Otoko has established to be a successful painter in Kyoto. At age 16 she gave birth to a stillborn child from a forbidden love affair with a married man, Oki Toshio, who is almost twice her age. She managed to escape from mental hospital after her suicide attempt because of her unrequited love for Oki.

I suppose even a woman’s hatred is a kind of love. (94)

The novel begins as Oki, now in his mid fifties, is on a train to Kyoto for the New Year’s Eve belling tolling, which gives him an occasion to visit Otoko, whom he has not seen for 24 years. Otoko, too, has remained single and unmarried since the traumatic affair. During the visit, Oki meets Keiko, Otoko’s young portege and lover, in whom he sees the full bloom of Otoko’s lost beauty and passion. His affair with her has been an instrument to his success in literary career—he used the affair with Otoko to write his first novel, which brought hurt and humiliation to Otoko but wealth and fame to himself. Keiko sets out single-mindedly to revenge for Otoko by seducing Oki and his son Taichiro, using her beauty as a weapon.

Kawabata’s story takes place in that ethereal realm that lies between abstraction and reality. In the novel her writes Oki has immortalized his passion for Otaoko. Otoko wants to express her sense of loss, her grief and affection for the child she had never raised in her painting. Keiko wants to prove her love for Otoko by seeking a revenge for her. They are all entwined in this destiny but that neither one of them is comfortable with this destiny. They are all connected in a morbid way, and so their reflections abound, multiply, and reinforce the same locales and images. In a sense, they are lost in the confusion between image and reality.

Kawabata’s style is simple and light, but the novel is carefully constructed such that past events are often called and accumulated in the narrative to render a timeless quality. Since there is a poetic flow to it, the book is better relished slowly, to allow that bewildering array of reflections on the part of the characters to soak in. The recurring imagery—those flowers, temples, stone garden—all ingrained in characters’ memories, continue to reinforce and distort their reflections, and this is what makes the book very literary.

208 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Polite and Honoific Form in Japanese Language

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A passage from Kawabata’s elegiac Beauty and Sadness reminds me of the ordeal of learning honorific form in Japanese language class:

She was taunting him again. Oki came from the western part of Japan, and had never really mastered Tokyo polite speech; Fumiko, however, had been brought up in Tokyo, so he often asked her help with it. Yet he did not always accept what she told him. A tenacious argument would turn into an endless squabble, and he would declare that Tokyo speech was only a vulgar dialect with a shallow tradition. In Kyoto or Osaka, he would insist, even ordinary gossip was usually very polite, quite unlike Tokyo gossip. All sorts of things—mountains and rivers, houses, streets, heavenly bodies, even fish and vegetables—were referred to with polite expressions. (Strands of Black Hair)

Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Since most relationships are not (considered) equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including position within the family, position within an organization, job, age, experience, or even psychological state (for example, a person asking a favor tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. Polite forms are used for new acquaintances, then discontinued as a relationship becomes more intimate, regardless of age, social class, or gender. Polite forms are also used to make a distinction between in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. One of the complexities of the inside-outside relationship is that groups are not static; they overlap and change over time and according to situation. This distinction between groups is a fundamental part of Japanese social custom.

Yasunari Kawabata

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Yasunari Kawabata was another sad case in the Japanese literary scene in terms of how writers would end their lives by committing suicide. In 1972, Kawabata became despondent over the grotesque public suicide of his friend and portégé Mishima Yukio and, far more quietly and decorously, committed suicide himself.

When Kawabata was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 1968, the novel most often mentioned as his great work was Snow Country (which I have avoided for a long time), a tale of sexual obsession set in the snowy mountain vastness of northwestern Japan. But to my own taste Beauty and Sadness is a more subtle, and more moving, work. It tells of the reunion of an elderly man and a woman artist whom he loved long time ago, of the jealous rage the artist’s young portégé conceives on her behalf for having been jilted in that affair, and of the terrible revenge she wreaks on the old man’s family.

Kawabata is an author to read if you’re into obsessive qualities in writing style. Love, regret, obsession, eroticism, and evil blend in his slight, almost ephemeral prose, where more is implied than is ever made explicit.