Japanese Literature: Yasunari Kawabata

I am reading Japanese authors whose works have been translated into English. I just completed Kawabata’s “Beauty and Sadness'”. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968. He was born in Osaka, where I currently live in 1899 and committed suicide in 1972. He is most famous for his books Snow Country (1956) and Thousand Cranes (1959).

Beauty and Sadness is his last novel, which came out in  1961. It is the story of author Oki Toshio. When he was newly married, he had an affair with a 16-year old girl, which ended with her getting pregnant, having a miscarriage, and spending a short time in a mental institution. Today, this would be considered a criminal offense. In the book, he keeps his marriage and gets fame for the book he wrote inspired by the affair. The story mostly takes place 25 years later when the girl is an artist in Kyoto. I won’t give more of the plot away, but it involves a possible murder. I thought it was a good story and the descriptions of Kyoto’s temples were vivid. The women are wearing kimonos often, which I find today in Japan, very rare.

In my opinion however, it had rather weak character development and there were many holes in the plot. Kawabata wanted to be a painter and the book has a lot of references to visual arts. The book has been made into a movie twice, one Japanese and one French. The ending allows for much reader speculation and it would make a good book club selection, as there would be lots to discuss.

I don’t think I will read any more of his works but it was good to be introduced to such an important literary figure in Japan.


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