Authors: Yasunari Kawabata
Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka in 1899. In 1968 he became the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. One of Japan’s most distinguished novelists, he published his first stories while he was still in high school, graduating from Tokyo Imperial University in 1924. His short story “The Izu Dancer,” first published in 1925, appeared in
The Atlantic Monthly
in 1955. Kawabata authored numerous novels, including
(1956), which cemented his reputation as one of the preeminent voices of his time, as well as
The Sound of the Mountain
The Master of Go
Beauty and Sadness
(1975). He served as the chairman of the P.E.N. Club of Japan for several years and in 1959 he was awarded the Goethe-medal in Frankfurt. Kawabata died in 1972.
The Sound of the Mountain
The Master of Go
Beauty and Sadness
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, FEBRUARY
Copyright © 1956 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc
Copyright renewed 1984 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.,
New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in Japan in hardcover as
. This translation originally published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1956.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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N THE WINTER
, cold winds blow down from Siberia, pick up moisture over the Japan Sea, and drop it as snow when they strike the mountains of Japan. The west coast of the main island of Japan is probably for its latitude (roughly, from Cape Hatteras to New York, or from Spanish Morocco to Barcelona) the snowiest region in the world. From December to April or May only the railroads are open, and the snow in the mountains is sometimes as much as fifteen feet deep.
The expression “snow country,” then, does not mean simply country where snow falls. It means very specifically the part of the main island that lies west of the central mountain range. It suggests long, gray winters, tunnels under the snow, dark houses with rafters black from the smoke of winter
fires—and perhaps chilblains, or, to the more imaginative, life divorced from time through the long snowbound months.
The hot springs, one of which is the locale of
, also have a peculiarly Japanese significance. The Japanese seldom goes to a hot spring for his health, and he never goes for “the season,” as people once went to Bath or Saratoga. He may ski or view maple leaves or cherry blossoms, but his wife is usually not with him. The special delights of the hot spring are for the unaccompanied gentleman. No prosperous hot spring is without its geisha and its compliant hotel maids.
If the hot-spring geisha is not a social outcast, she is perilously near being one. The city geisha may become a celebrated musician or dancer, a political intriguer, even a dispenser of patronage. The hot-spring geisha must go on entertaining week-end guests, and the pretense that she is an artist and not a prostitute is often a thin one indeed. It is true that she sometimes marries an old guest, or persuades him to open a restaurant for her; but the possibility that she will drift from one hot spring to another, more unwanted with each change, makes her a particularly poignant symbol of wasted, decaying beauty.
It is not by chance that Kawabata Yasunari has chosen a hot-spring geisha for the heroine and the
dark snow country for the setting of this novel. Darkness and wasted beauty run like a ground bass through his major work, and in
we perhaps feel most strongly the cold loneliness of the Kawabata world.
Kawabata was born near Osaka in 1899 and was orphaned at the age of two. His short stories began to attract attention soon after his graduation from Tokyo Imperial University. He presently became a leading figure in the lyrical school that offered the chief opposition to the proletarian literature of the late twenties.
was begun in 1934 and published piecemeal between 1935 and 1937. In 1947 a final installment was added, and the novel completed as it stands today.
Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century
are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical
characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In
we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly
becomes a woman’s feet. In the best of the dialogue, one brief sentence, often a
, is exchanged for another, much as characters in Japanese romances converse by exchanging brief poems.
manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void. In
Kawabata has chosen a theme that makes a meeting between
and the novel possible. The hero is a wealthy dilettante quite incapable of love, and the heroine a hot-spring geisha, clean in the midst of corruption and yet somehow decaying before our eyes. The two try to love, but love can never bring them together. The nearer they are the farther apart they are. Shimamura, the hero, has built himself a half-cynical, half-wishful dream world, occupied by very little that suggests flesh and blood. He is an expert on the occidental ballet, but he has never seen a ballet. Indeed we are given cause to suspect that he would close his eyes if a ballet were set down in front of him. His love affair with Komako, the geisha, is doomed from the start. Through her he is drawn to Yoko, a strange, intense girl who, in Kawabata’s image, glows like a light off in the mountain darkness; but he can take neither Komako nor Yoko as a person.
They can bring him no nearer their humanity or his own, and he presently knows that the time has come for him to leave.
Komako, for her part, has missed none of this. “You’re a good girl,” Shimamura says affectionately in the climactic scene of the novel. But when, a moment later, he unconsciously shifts to “You’re a good woman,” she sees that she has been used. She too knows that he must leave. It would be hard to think of another novel in which so slight a shift in tone reveals so much.
The final scene only brings the inevitable. We know, as Komako staggers from the burning warehouse with Yoko in her arms, that Komako and Shimamura have parted. Shimamura will go back to the city and continue to play the cold dilettante, while Komako will, as she herself has said, “go pleasantly to seed” in the mountains. Yoko is the burden she must bear, and the burden is made heavier by the fact that the two women have twice been rivals in love, once, in a way never clearly defined for us, with the dying Yukio, again with Shimamura. Little of this is stated directly. We are not even told whether Yoko is alive or dead at the end of the novel. If the reader finds the last few pages puzzling, however, he should remember that everything has already been implicitly suggested. The novel has in effect ended with Shimamura
listening to the sound of the bell in the teakettle. The fire scene, beautifully written though it is, only emphasizes a point that has already been made.
is perhaps Kawabata’s masterpiece. He has found in Shimamura’s love affair the perfect symbol for a denial of love, and he has in the woman Komako and in the shadowy beauty of the snow country fit subjects for the haiku-like flashes that bring the denial forth. And, in the final analysis, the very success of the novel becomes a sort of affirmation of the humanity that is being denied.
came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.
A girl who had been sitting on the other side of the car came over and opened the window in front of Shimamura. The snowy cold poured in. Leaning far out the window, the girl called to the station master as though he were a great distance away.
The station master walked slowly over the snow,
a lantern in his hand. His face was buried to the nose in a muffler, and the flaps of his cap were turned down over his ears.
It’s that cold, is it, thought Shimamura. Low, barracklike buildings that might have been railway dormitories were scattered here and there up the frozen slope of the mountain. The white of the snow fell away into the darkness some distance before it reached them.