The Master of Funerals: Yasunari Kawabata

The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata, Yellow Jersey Press, 224pp, £7.99
Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata, Vintage Books, 206pp (out of print)
Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, Vintage Books, 175pp, $12.95
The Lake, by Yasunari Kawabata, Kodansha International, 160pp, £8.99
The Old Capital, by Yasunari Kawabata, Shoemaker & Hoard, 182pp, $15
House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, by Yasunari Kawabata, Kodansha International, 160pp, £9.99

August 21 2006 / New Statesman

In 1938 Yasunari Kawabata was commissioned by a Tokyo newspaper to write about a championship game of Go between the best player in Japan, the Master, and a young, gifted challenger. It was no ordinary game of Go: the aged Master, believed to be unbeatable, is portrayed in The Master of Go - Kawabata’s book based on the 1938 match - as the embodiment of a traditional and hierarchical Japan that is threatened by the forces of change and modernity. The Master as reimagined by Kawabata has a contemplative, Zen-like serenity: through Go he has learned the art of patience and the value of silence. But he is ill, and his illness affects the game, which keeps being interrupted and then suspended; as such, it occupies a period of more than eight months, at the end of which you sense the ailing Master will surely die, as indeed he does. So, this is to be his final game, his last stand as the Master of Go.

In the oriental game of Go, black and white stones are moved on a board but, unlike in chess or draughts, it is not a game of multiple moves by the same pieces. “Though captured stones may be taken from the board, a stone is never moved to a second position after it has been placed upon one of the 361 points to which play is confined,” writes Edward Seidensticker, Kawabata’s long-standing translator. “The object is to build up positions which are invulnerable to enemy attack, meanwhile surrounding and capturing enemy stones.”

For Kawabata, Go was more than a game; at its best, and especially as played by the Master, it was an art with a certain oriental nobility and mystery. As with Japan in the immediate post-war years, the game was changing (though begun earlier, this book was not published until 1951). “From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled,” Kawabata wrote. “Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system.”

So The Master of Go is less a celebration of a great games player or work of dramatic reportage than an elegy.

Kawabata was born in the industrial town of Osaka in 1899, the son of a doctor. His early childhood was marked by trauma and bereavement: his father died when he was one and his mother when he was two. He went to live with his grandmother, who died when he was seven.

Two years later, his only sister died as well. When he was 15, his grandfather died, prompting Kawabata to reflect that, already at a young age, he had become a “master of funerals”. His first important novella, The Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old, offers a harrowingly realistic account of how he tended his grandfather on his deathbed.

Much later, after the atom bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Emperor Hirohito had unconditionally surrendered to end the war in the Pacific as well as the myth of his own quasi-divine provenance, Kawabata, by that time middle-aged and established as a writer, wrote, “Since the defeat, I have gone back into the sadness that has always been with us in Japan”.

Was this sadness common to all Japanese, as he would have had us believe? Or was it something more personal, the adult expression of the traumas he had suffered as a child? Whatever the origins of this sadness, Kawabata decided that, with the war’s end, he would write only elegies; and so, on the whole, he did, the last major writer to work in the “classical” Japanese tradition. Today, the Japanese writers most familiar to western readers, from the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe to Haruki Murakami, are internationalists in style, attitude and ambition, their politics largely leftist or liberal and their familiarity with popular culture - with Hollywood, the American vernacular, pop and the buzz of new technologies – apparent in their work.

Influenced by the formal austerity and sparse, fragile lyricism of haiku, Kawabata is a miniaturist. His is a fiction of extreme economy, even of emptiness: it’s as if he uses language not to say something but to point at things that cannot be said.

Like the youthful Hemingway or, more recently, Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written of the influence of Kawabata on his own fiction, he leaves much unsaid and unexplained. To read him is to enter into an extended act of collaboration: you are challenged to interpret and imagine, to colour in and shade the empty spaces of his stories.

Worked on and revised over many years, sometimes published as magazine extracts or episodically, Kawabata’s novels do not end so much as expire, in defiance of conventional expectations of narrative resolution and closure. You know where the novels are set but never quite know when, despite the occasional oblique reference to the war and to the social and cultural changes that followed. He understands, too, the value of silence - of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause.

Much of the subtlety of his prose-poetry - the short, intricately compressed sentences and paragraphs, the tension created by juxtaposing contrasting images - is lost in translation, especially what Roy Starrs, the author of Soundings in Time: the fictive art of Kawabata Yasunari, calls his “aesthetics of ma”. “Ma”, in broad translation, means interval or pause, and Kawabata’s best sentences in Japanese are distinguished by suspensions in the action and by pauses between clauses, the equivalent of the use of white space in Japanese ink painting, or the long pause in haiku. Perhaps it is this sense of something missing that gives his work its presiding ambiguity and vagueness.

In 1968, Kawabata became the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his Nobel lecture, “Japan, the Beautiful and Myself” (in which, addressing a western audience, he sought perhaps too consciously to conform to stereotypes of the mysterious Orient), he described the influence of the classical poets and Zen on his work. “The Zen disciple sits for long hours silent and motionless, with his eyes closed. Presently he enters a state of impassivity, free from all ideas and all thoughts. He departs from the self and enters the realm of nothingness. This is not the nothingness or the emptiness of the west. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless.”

He could have been describing the aged Master as he sits impassively at the board during a game of Go. Indeed, in his later works, the central male characters often yearn for Zen-like states of grace and harmony while remaining resolutely of this world, burdened by doubt and erotic longing. As a young man Kawabata had an intense, unfulfilled relationship with a young dancer. She became the inspiration for his novella The Izu Dancer (1925), and he returns again and again in later books to a certain ideal of female purity - youthful, innocent, chaste - and shows how the real must necessarily violate the ideal.

In his novella The Lake (1954), he describes a teacher’s obsessive pursuit and stalking of an adolescent girl: he watches her from the shadows, sometimes feeling “like dying or killing her”, so tortured is he by thwarted desire. House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961) is about a brothel where elderly men, often impotent and close to death, go to spend the night lying beside sedated young women. The rules of the house prevent them from having sex with the women, even if they could. This does not stop Yoshi Eguchi, who is slightly younger than other visitors, from fantasising about one of the women with whom he is infatuated. Sometimes, resting beside her, he dreams of strangling her, to preserve her virginity in death; at other times, he longs to die in her arms, a rapturous surrender. The insistent linking of sex and death is powerful in these later works, and reading Kawabata one can be reminded of Othello and the tormenting desire he feels for his young wife Desdemona, her skin “smooth as monumental alabaster”, even as he prepares to murder her.

Beauty and Sadness (1965), the most gripping and tightly plotted of all Kawabata’s novels, is about a successful writer called Oki who, in regretful middle age, returns to Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, to discover what became of a young woman with whom he had a relationship many years before and later wrote about in one of his novels. The woman is called Otoko; she and Oki had a child that died as an infant. In the real time of the novel she is a painter and living with a younger woman, her lover. She has never forgotten the writer or ceased to love him, and his return unsettles not only Otoko but also her lover, who is intent on avenging the unhappiness that Oki caused all those years earlier through his carelessness and arrogance. Once again, themes of male narcissism, sex, death, erotic obsession and the vulnerability of female purity are interconnected, and the preoccupation with mutability is acute: even in translation, one is moved by the delicacy of the imagery and the understated precision of the limpid prose.

As a young man, Kawabata attended Tokyo Imperial University, where he became interested in European avant-garde literature and painting. He co-edited a journal called Literary Age, in which, attracted by the Arnoldian idea that literature and art would one day replace religion as the pre-eminent moral force in our lives, he introduced Japanese readers to Joyce and Proust as well as the work of the surrealists, the German expressionists and Dadaists.

Slowly, however, as Kawabata moved away from European modernism and embraced cultural nationalism, his stories and novellas - with their tea ceremonies, geishas, formalities and rituals - increasingly revealed the influence of the classical Japanese tradition in style and sensibility. Perhaps his finest work is Snow Country (written between 1935 and 1947), set on the inaccessible and mountainous west coast of the main island of Japan, where snow settles for at least five months of the year. It is here that Shimamura, a wealthy habitué of the metropolis, travels by train through the snow to visit a hot-spring geisha called Komako. The hot-spring geisha does not have the same privileges as her city counterpart: she is condemned through social status to a life largely of servitude and isolation. The relationship between Shimamura and his geisha has a strange, formless indeterminacy. They may feel a kind of love for each other, but it is a love that imprisons rather than liberates: in seeking beauty, the jaded Shimamura discovers ultimately that he can know only sadness.

If there is a recurring motif in Kawabata’s work, it is the cherry trees that bloom exquisitely for a couple of days each spring before shedding their flowers, and which the Japanese celebrate with hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties. In The Old Capital (1962), a late work praised by the Nobel committee, the cherry blossom spring in Kyoto is described with great precision. “The scarlet double flowers were blooming all the way to the tips of the slenderest weeping branches. It would be more fitting to say that the flowers were borne upon the twigs than to say they were simply blossoming there . . . The faintest touch of lavender seemed to reflect on the scarlet of the flowers.”

One understands why Kawabata would be so moved by the transience of cherry blossom: in many ways, he must have spent much of his life mourning something important - first the parents he never knew; then his grandparents with whom he lived; and later, after the defeat, the rituals and ceremonies of the old nation that he sought to dignify in his fiction even as they were being overwhelmed by the relentless American-led forward march of technology and progress.

In 1972, at the age of 72, suffering from insomnia and unsettled by the fame that the Nobel Prize had brought him, Kawabata killed himself by putting his head in a gas oven. As a practitioner of Zen, he did not believe in an afterlife. But perhaps he believed in the afterlife of art. And he chose well the month of his death - April, as the cherry blossom flowered.