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Friday, August 26, 2005

The brilliance of Yasunari Kawabata

At first glance, Yasunari Kawabata wouldn't seem to fit the conventions of a Nobel-prize winning author. He doesn't overreach for big themes, he doesn't make grand pronouncements about the human condition or the inevitability of war and discrimination; and his prose style (at least in English translation - I've tried reading the original Japanese and it ain't easy) is lucid and free of fancy diction. None of his books are intimidating, plus-sized tomes crammed with psyche-penetrating monologues and dissections of the spirit - far from it, in fact: you could read most of them in a day, or a couple of hours if you're fast. There are few large, decisive gestures: Kawabata's characters don't embrace life so much as stand outside of it looking vaguely perplexed and distant.

But Kawabata's simplicity is deceptive. It is not the same as the simplicity (or perhaps "simple-mindedness" would be a better term) of Western writers like Steinbeck and Hemingway. The simple substitution of a synonym in some of his lines of dialogue, barely noticeable, can signal immense shifts in tone and purpose. This spareness is alternately beautiful and terrifying: Kawabata is spare not because he aims to reduce his style to some empirical formula of concision, but because he perceives a vast nothingness at the heart of the universe, not separate from life but pervading and infusing anything and everything.

Kawabata is not "big-hearted." He does not "love" his characters in the sense we might be accustomed to. They often seem like impersonal dots viewed from the outside, on a vast stage of nature. And his character development is ambiguous - the characters possess traits, to be certain, but they are sometimes little more than sketches. This is not to say that they lack realistic motivation; on the contrary, they are all too human. But their thought processes are not detailed with the obsessive precision of, say, Mishima. Because that would be tedious. Kawabata carries on from Akutagawa the ability to make his epiphanies more like tiny porcelain figurines rather than bloated, pages-long revelations.

It's not so much that his work is devoid of conventional dramatic elements - far from it - it's just that the overwhelmingly understated tone has a curious flattening effect: is the apparent death of Yuko in Snow Country, say, of any more import than the falling snows themselves? Or witness the gut-wrenching lightness used in Beauty and Sadness when the protagonist's casual mistreatments of his wife lead to her miscarriage. I've never read another writer that can wield understatement like Kawabata. When most writers try for it they do so out of some perceived need to seem sophisticated by avoiding laughable hyperbole. Not so here: everything is flattened and removed, a vast Earth seen from space in which tiny points of beauty stand out like jewels.

As a Modernist writer, Kawabata is more than capable of incorporating surrealist imagery; simultaneously, he feels no need for gimmicky structural tricks: the talking, disembodied arm in his story "One Arm" is described with the same austere detachment as the board movements in The Master of Go. His stories are full of inexplicable or unresolved elements that don't thematically connect so much as suggest some kind of cohesion. This extends to his life. Kawabata committed suicide - why? He didn't leave a note. Unlike Mishima, whose motivations were made pretty explicit by his life and work, Kawabata - as in his work - explained nothing.

Indeed, his Nobel lecture explicitly condemns suicide as "not a form of enlightenment." Was his self-inflicted end, then, a betrayal of his principles, or a final devestating irony? I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect he'd probably say something like "They're not opposites."

So long, Kawabata-sama.