Three Granta contributors introduce their favourite Japanese books.
Snow Country (Yukiguni), by
(Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker)
I’ve loved this novel for many years. It is a romance without any romance and a love story without much love. Quietly, quietly (with language that seems so fragile), it dismantles the things we hope for. Is beauty a thing that lasts? No, it’s a thing that wastes and decays. Will romantic love fulfil us? No, not really; we can never escape ourselves enough to give another the love they want. Don’t we, at least, belong to a glorious natural world? Again, not really; even as we admire its glory we find ourselves separate from it.
Snow Country takes place in a hot spring resort somewhere in the western mountains of the Japanese mainland, where men go for reasons that aren’t quite the waters and the scenery. Shimamura is a rich married man from the city, and Komako a country geisha working in the resort. To say they fall in love would be wrong – Shimamura falls into habit and Komako into dependence. Each year that Shimamura returns, his habit of sleeping with Komako grows more complacent and disdainful, and Komako’s dependence on him grows more desperate and reckless.
But this is a Kawabata novel, therefore exquisite, and if I make it sound heavy or hard then I do it an injustice. Each word is a snowflake falling, and with each paragraph the snow settles deeper. Kawabata’s writing has its roots in haiku, and it alerts us to sudden beauty with images that are precise and incongruous. The silence roars, the mountains float. On every page light exerts itself in some form, upon the mountains, the snow, faces and bodies.
It’s a novel of almost-but-not-quite. Shimamura is constantly aware of beauty, but when beauty comes near its perfection leaves it. He admires the white kaya grass that spreads out ‘silver in the sun, like the autumn sunlight itself pouring over the face of the mountain’, but when he sees it up close it seems coarse and unlike ‘the grasses that had moved him’. It’s almost as if the world cannot live up to its abstract promise. But to me, the novel is such a pleasure to read because it is full of that promise regardless. It surges with an emotional heat that wants to burn if only it can find an outlet; the characters want to love, and almost do. Shimamura, who seems without emotion, sees two lovers part at a train station and suddenly wants to weep. In the last section Shimamura and Komako are in thrall to the Milky Way that arcs above them, even as their lives together fall apart.
‘People are delicate, aren’t they?’ says Komako, and Shimamura agrees. ‘It was through a thin, smooth skin that man loved.’ And in thinking this, he longs for that smooth skin, and for a moment his hope is renewed, as if Kawabata wants to say that we hope even where we don’t get, and maybe the hope itself is enough.
Schoolgirl (Joseito), by
(Translated by Allison Markin Powell)
is the English translation by Allison Markin Powell of ???, which was published in Japan in 1939 when
was twenty-nine or thirty. It’s narrated in the first-person by a young student, maybe in her early teens. She relates one day of her experience, from ‘Laying in bed each morning, I’m always so pessimistic’ to going to school to eating dinner to trying to sleep and sleeping. She does this by selectively presenting her internal monologue to the reader and sometimes commenting on it in a manner that is consistently endearing, surprising, moving, insightful to me. She often describes her behaviour and thoughts and feelings as occurring ‘for some reason’ or ‘suddenly’. Schoolgirl is a short book. I’ve read it 4–5 times. By my estimate it’s 20 per cent shorter than the short story ‘Good Old Neon’ by David Foster Wallace.
Here is a passage from early in Schoolgirl:
Sometimes, I’d be soaking in the bath and suddenly glimpse my hand. Then, I would become convinced that however many years from now, while soaking in the bath, I will be transported to this moment when a random glance at my hand turned into a stare, and I will remember how it made me feel. These thoughts always make me rather gloomy. And once when I was putting rice into an ohitsu serving bowl, I was struck by – well, it would be an exaggeration to call it inspiration but I felt something charging within my body–zipping through me like, how shall I say, I would almost call it a philosophical glimpse – and I gave myself over to it, then my head and my chest became transparent all the way through as a sense of my own existence floated down and settled over me and, silently, without making a sound, as pliant as tokoroten before you make them into noodles, I felt at the mercy of these waves, a light and beautiful feeling that I would be able to live on this way. Now, this wasn’t a philosophical commotion. But it was frightening, rather, this premonition of living like a kleptomaniac cat, stealthily and quietly, and couldn’t lead to any good. To go on like that for any length of time, it seems, you would end up like you’re possessed. Like Jesus Christ. But the idea of a female Jesus Christ seems appalling.
Literary Mischief: Sakaguchi Ango, Culture, and the War
(Edited by James Dorsey and Doug Slaymaker, translations by James Dorsey)
History may be written by the victors, but sometimes the most provocative war literature emerges out of defeat. The conflict between public rhetoric and lived reality is never so stark as after a war is lost, so an accounting of some kind has to be made. For
, whose essays and fiction I first encountered through then-unpublished translations by the scholar James Dorsey, that accounting began with an exploration of post-war decadence.
‘We are decadent not because we were defeated in the war; we are decadent only because we are human, only because we are alive.’ You’d think Sakaguchi would have written that years after the Japanese surrender, in the midst of economic recovery, but he didn’t. He wrote it in 1946, amidst chaos, suffering, and starvation. He could have chosen to emphasize that suffering, like Masuji Ibuse’s novel Black Rain, about the after-effects of the atomic bomb. But Sakaguchi goes in a different direction.
Things have changed in the last half year. I take my leave to humbly serve and shield our Sovereign Lord. If I should die at our Sovereign Lord’s side, I’ll have no regrets. The young have all ‘scattered as the blossoms’, but they have also survived to become black marketeers. Now that you, whom I love, have left to shield our Sovereign Lord, I no longer wish to live a hundred years. Within the space of half a year, the girls who sent off their men with such brave hearts, will have grown increasingly businesslike about the task of bowing before their husbands’ memorial tablets, and the day is not far off when their hearts will find room for the images of other faces. It is not that humans have changed. Humans have been like this all along and what has changed is only the outer layer of things.
That’s the opening of ‘On Decadence’, an essay I’ve thought a lot about in the years since I returned from war. Though Sakaguchi clearly delights in his ironic juxtapositions, he’s no scold seeking to expose hypocrisy. He’s on the side of the widows and black marketeers, for whom the old ideology of the state never fit. The choices of individuals sometimes seem to diminish to nothing in accounts of great events, but for Sakaguchi those choices are everything. The stunning failure of Japanese imperialism doesn’t send him into despair because he never believed redemption could be found through politics anyway. For him, it’s about human autonomy – acting in spite of the vast mechanisms of state power. Our decadent humanity, then, is a blessing as much as a curse, and in his fiction Sakaguchi wrote characters whose brutality was matched by a capacity for transcendence. He later wrote, ‘[We must] search for our own true voices. The widows need to fall in love again. . . The returning soldiers need to become black marketeers. . . There will be nothing pretty and proper about this. It will take an existential gamble, betting with one’s blood, with one’s flesh, with the most basic of screams.’ ?
Book covers courtesy of Penguin Books, One Peace Books and Lexington Books