My reading over the past week has been strange – discontinuous and yet oddly potent, and not just because my own little world has been unusually intense. It was quite the week to pick, for instance, to read my first Japanese novel. Or novella would be a better description, as Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness weighs in at a mere 140 pages. It’s not a book that is lush with description, but it situates its story in a vivid landscape, moving between Tokyo, Kyoto and Kamakura. My geography is not great, so I had to just wonder whether these places, evocative names to me, had been affected. On the other hand, I felt I had access to disquieting knowledge that the characters did not, and it seemed odd to watch them busy with the tragedies of the narrative, unaware that real, contemporary trouble was headed their way. A passage that would normally have passed me by stuck out with an oddly prophetic overtone:
‘The Moss Temple was restored in 1339 by the priest Muso, who refurbished the temple buildings and had a pond dug and an island constructed. It is said that he would lead visitors up to a look-out pavilion at the top of the hill to enjoy the view of Kyoto. All those buildings had been destroyed. The garden must have been restored many times, after floods and other calamities. Apparently the present dry landscape symbolizing a waterfall and a stream was constructed along a path lighted by stone lanterns leading up to the look-out pavilion. Since it was a stone arrangement, it had probably remained unchanged.’
I was probably influenced by the context in which I read it, but the novella seemed to me to be torn between the transient if intense nature of human passion and the eternal, immortal products of art. It concerns ageing novelist, Oki, who decides one New Year’s Eve to look up his former mistress, Otoko, with whom he had an affair twenty years ago. It ended in disaster; Otoko, only 16 at the time, losing their child in a premature birth and then attempting suicide. Oki had problems of his own assuaging his wife, although getting her to type up the manuscript of the novel he subsequently wrote about the affair didn’t seem to me like the finest strategy ever devised. The novel remains his best known work, a matter of ambivalence to Oki, who is tied more tightly to the past because of it. When memories turn into the stone gardens of art, then no mere tide of time can wash them away. So, off Oki goes to stir up the life of Otoko once again. She is now a well-known painter and living with her protégée, a very young, emotionally unbalanced woman called Keiko. Keiko knows all about Oki and is moved to passionate jealousy because of the hold she thinks he still exerts over Otoko. And so she determines on revenge and exacts it in strange and self-serving ways.
This was a peculiar little book – cruel and serene at the same time, its concerns intimate in an invasive way, stripping the characters down to their most damaging weaknesses. And yet it was also very exquisite and beautiful (if we may discount a slight clunkiness in parts due to translation). It was a slow, lingering read, I found, despite its brevity, and not one to attempt if you want to feel sympathy for the characters concerned. But it’s one of those books that stay in the mind for an unexpectedly long time. It is out of the stuff of sadness that beauty in art is formed, is I think what it is saying. For human beings do not behave in beautiful ways, and we must look to art to redeem them.
This message became all entwined with the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I also happened to be reading. What a fine writer Scott Fitzgerald is! His prose is clear and sensual and pungent, his characters are vivid and pathetic, idealistic and hopeless. What I enjoyed about these stories is that, unlike the contemporary trend for a slice of life, they focused on particular, tense situations. I finished each one feeling I had had a meal, not a snack. In ‘The Ice Palace’, Sally Carrol from down South wants to break out of the sleepy warm prison of indolence in which she lives by marrying a young man from New York. To celebrate their engagement she makes a midwinter trip to meet his family and finds that climate has more effect than she bargained for. In ‘Winter Dreams’ intelligent and successful Dexter falls in love with the vapid and unreliable Judy Jones and is ready to give up anything for her very fickleness, for the great mistake she represents. In ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ awkward debutante Bernice gets more lessons in life than she bargains for from her cruel cousin Marjorie, but enacts a very satisfying revenge. ‘May Day’ focuses in on one wild party night after the end of World War II in which the courses of several lives are decided. What a world Fitzgerald must have lived in! The capricious Jazz Age, excessive and optimistic, full of economic potential for the bright young man, full of emotional disaster, though, for his romantic sensibilities. Business is easy, but living is difficult in these stories, because love itself is simply an attraction to trouble waiting to happen.
Fitzgerald and Kawabata; different continents separate them and half a century of time, yet they developed unexpected similarities for me. For both writers, the love affair represents a form of culturally accepted madness. Their characters are beautiful, talented, resourceful, but nevertheless hell-bent on destroying their potential for happiness, because they ask too much of life, and too much of each other. But the poignant, sensual beauty of the prose in which their stories are written lends a spurious nobility to their mistakes and failures. They made for intriguing reading, but after all that intense and febrile emotion, I need a mental palate cleanser. Robust characters sporting a sense of humour next, please.