Wednesday, 15 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 10 - Yasunari Kawabata

In last year's original series, there was a serious oversight - neither of the Japanese Nobel Laureates were included.  With Kenzaburo Oe, I did have my reasons as I was saving him for later until I'd read more of his work.  With Yasunari Kawabata though, it was a genuine mistake - in my mind I'd actually already written the post...

Let's rectify that today :)

Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka in 1899, and his early life was a sad one.  He was orphaned at the age of 4 and grew up with his grandparents until their death forced another move.  At the age of eighteen, he went off to school in preparation for university exams, eventually enrolling at Tokyo Imperial University.

It was there that he caught the attention of famous writer Kikuchi Kan, and pieces of his writing were published in Kan's magazine Bungei ShunjuIn 1926, 'The Izu Dancer', his first really successful story, came out, but his serialised work of the next few years went through various styles; his serialised novel The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa was a vibrant western-influenced novel set in a bright, trashy part of Tokyo (a far cry from one of his next works, Snow Country!).

After World War Two, Kawabata arguably produced his best work, perfecting a style which was drifting, beautiful and oblique - what we now see as a typically-Japanese style of writing.  He finished works like Thousand Cranes, The Sound of the Mountain and The Master of Go (a semi-fictional account of a famous contest).  Not content with just writing, Kawabata was also the president of Japanese PEN and an ambassador for Japanese literature (in a couple of anthologies I've read, dating from the 1960s, the editors have expressed their gratitude towards 'Mr. Kawabata'!).

His literary career culminated in the bestowal of the Nobel Prize in 1968, the first time a Japanese writer had received the award.  Sadly though, he died four years later in what appeared to be a suicide (although some people have their doubts).  Haunted by nightmares of Yukio Mishima's shocking death, it seems Kawabata was seeking some peace...

My three picks?  Well, if I'm entirely honest, I haven't always got Kawabata completely.  I've enjoyed most of those I've read (six or seven of his major works), but I've only loved a few.  These really hit the mark though:

1) The Sound of the Mountain - Easily my favourite Kawabata work, a slow, poignant portrait of an old man facing his mortality - while his family does its best to disturb the peace of his golden years.

2) The Old Capital - A story of a year in Kyoto, The Old Capital is an elegant love story, with layer upon layer of meaning (most of which will undoubtedly be missed by the average Anglophone reader...).

3) Snow Country - A man travels from Tokyo to spend time at a traditional hotel with his lover, a young Geisha.  It's a wonderful story to read, but having tried it twice, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it ;)

Bonus pick: 'The Izu Dancer', included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, is a beautiful twenty-page tale.  It was my first introduction to Kawabata, and it's still one of my favourites.

Another giant enters the hall of fame - and about time too.  Have you read anything by Kawabata?  Do you agree with my views, or do you have a different favourite?  Perhaps his writing is not to your taste...  Whatever your view, please leave a comment below - that's what the box is for ;)