Late Kawabata: “The House of the Sleeping Beauties” and “One Arm”

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I can understand the reluctance of the Swedish Academy to give a Nobel Prize for literature to Mishima Yukio, who was only 43 when it gave the first prize to a Japanese writer. Though he had published more than 40 works of fiction, they surely thought they could get back to him later and did not realize he would be dead in another two years.

They had missed giving the prize to Tanizaki Jun’ichiro before his death in 1965, and gave the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1968 to Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), longtime president of PEN Japan (and like Mishima, a Japanese writer with many contacts with western writers). All three strike me as authors of quite kinky fiction and personal obsessions, though the specifics of the obsessions differed among them.

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Kawabata and Mishima (pictured together above) seem to have thought a lot about the ravages of aging. Mishima decided not to experience them. Kawabata was already writing about misanthropic old men in his 1933 story “Kinjû” (Of birds and beasts). Though Kawabata does not seem to have been as antisocial as the unnamed protagonist of the story, like him, Kawabata had many house pets, dogs and caged birds. The misanthropic protagonist had decided that “he did not like people. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters: the bonds were not easily cut even with the most unsatisfactory of people” He is pretty cavalier about the deaths of his pets, too, losing interest in newly acquired ones fairly quickly.

Nihilist though he is, the protagonist had dropped out of a love suicide pact earlier. As with other Kawabata fiction, the story ceases rather than ends. He wrote it one night before a deadline and did not return to attempt to craft an ending.

In a (plot-spoiling) introduction by Kawabata’s protégé, Mishima Yukio praised the ending (that might be considered open) of the novella Nemureru Bijo (The House of the Sleeping Beauties, first serialized in 1960-61). The age of its protagonist, Eguchi, is repeated noticeably often: 67 (seven more than Kawabata’s at the time). He begins visiting a special kind of bordello where impotent old men are relieved of performance anxieties and disappointments by going to sleep with drugged naked virgins.

Eguchi is “still a man,” though thinks that going to permanent sleep with a beautiful, naked virgin would be a good way to go. This fantasy (within a fantasy) is partly dispelled when another client does die on site and is carted away unceremoniously.

Neither Kawabata nor Eguchi not the proprietress seems to have given any thought to the clients having tongues and fingers… Well, the proprietress believes the referral system screens out those who might not be “gentlemen” who would take advantage of the sleeping beauties beyond the prescribed limits. Eguchi reflects that “for an old man who was no longer a man, to keep company with a girl who had been put to sleep was ‘not a human relationship.’” Not “a living doll” or a “living toy,” but for an old man she “could be life itself,” unconscious of itself and of who was spending the night being warmed by her youthful heat and able to enjoy gazing on beauty without being seen or judged… or known.

Aside from my subversive thoughts about policing what the clients do, I find the setup extremely creepy (I don’t share Tanizaki’s foot fetishism, either…) What I like about the novella is the memories and dreams that flood Eguchi on each of the five nights he spends (with different drugged women). The use of stream of consciousness was already present in “Of birds and beasts.” In “The House of the Sleeping Beauties” the memories are of women with whom Eguchi had been intimate. I find the flashbacks in both stories more interesting than the conduct being narrated.

Though I have not read any of it, Kawabata apparently wrote some surrealist fiction between the world wars. “Kataude” (One Arm, 1964) opens with “’I can let you have one of my arms for the night,’ said the girl. She took off her right arm at the should and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee.” The narrator is able to tell form the arm that the woman is a virgin (to put it mildly, Kawabata was hung up on virgin women). He replaces his own arm for a while with it, but when he wakes up is frightened to see his own arm lying there. He is only in his 30s, and the arm can speak (unlike the drugged beauties). The isolation from anything like normal human relationships and embrace of quite abnormal (not just unusual!) relationships of all three male protagonists makes the three fictions fit together, and I guess the setup of “House of Sleeping Beauties” could be considered almost as surrealistic as the substitution of limbs. (Indeed, Eguchi thinks that the elbow of one of the sleeping beauties seemed alive as well as beautiful.) The objectification of women is pervasive in Kawabata (and Tanizaki) fiction, though “House of Sleeping Beauties” takes it to an extreme, even beyond “One Arm” (in which the arm speaks, so has some agency).

“One arm” was the last work that Kawabata finished. Like many a Nobel Prize winner, after the award he gave lectures but did not do any more of the kind of work that won him the prize. One may wonder if Mishima would have continued to churn out fiction and plays had he won the award that he badly wanted. The second (in 1994) Japanese Nobel Prize laureate, Ôe Kenzaburô (1935-), who has psychopathologies of his own to nurse/revisit, has (two novels, along with considerable punditry, however).

– – –

Kawabata’s and Ôe’s Nobel lectures are both online at nobelprize.org. In his, Ôe spoke at length about Kawabata’s, in particular Kawabata’s differentiation between Zen detachment and western nihilism.

I also recently wrote about Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, the substance of which has already evaporated from my memory, as that of Snow Country has despite having read it twice.

Mishima: “Because a virgin ceases to be a virgin once she is assaulted, impossibility of attainment is a necessary premise for putting virginity beyond agnosticism. And does not impossibility of attainment put eroticism and death at the same point?” As is often the case, I don’t follow Mishima’s logic, and also don’t share his feeling while reading House of being on a submarine using up its oxygen in reading the novella.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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