Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Literary Birthday

Today, according to the New York Times' On This Day page, was the birthdate of Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1968). (Wikipedia lists his birthdate as June 14, so once again I find disparate sources regarding an author's birthday).

In any case, Kawabata earned the Nobel Prize for three of his books in particular, one of which is the spare and lovely SNOW COUNTRY. I have a colleague who absolutely hates this novel, but each time I read it I find something more lovely in it because of its sadness, and because of the very Japanese notion that what is fleeting, what is temporal, is more lovely because of its evanescence.

It is the story of a married man who goes to a Hot Springs resort in the snowy mountainous region, where the Geisha have bad reputations and limited futures. He falls in love with the Geisha he meets there, and she with him--but that's all I can say without spoiling the story.

Kawabata himself had a reputation for melancholy in his work. He addressed this in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "My own works have been described as works of emptiness, but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West." A noteable distinction, as was his mention of some of his peers who had died by suicide. Kawabata seemed to find this regrettable but at the same time interesting; he said "I neither admire nor am in sympathy with suicide . . . " but later in the same paragraph he asks, "Is there one who does not think of suicide?"

Perhaps he foreshadowed his decision to take his own life (in 1972).

I wonder if it was the poet in Kawabata that kept him always on the verge of thoughts of sadness and death. He likened the style of his novels to the style of the Japanese haiku; in fact, he began his Nobel Speech with a poem he loved:

"The winter moon comes from the clouds to keep me company.
The wind is piercing, the snow is cold."

This poem, ironically, sums up the mood of SNOW COUNTRY, a novel which is both beautiful and sad. Kawabata, I think, would suggest that the two often go hand in hand.

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