While it’s taken a while to wrap 2020 up completely, what with all the awards and stats and general reflections to be taken care of, it’s finally time to start the new year off properly, and what better way to do so than with my now traditional January in Japan reading project? None, of course 😉
What started off as a full-blown blogging event several years back is now more of a personal journey, but it does coincide with Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge (running from January to March), and I’m always happy to persuade others to pick up a book or two. This year I’ll be spending the month in the company of some great writers and works, with a mix of the new and the old in a variety of styles and genres. Hopefully, I’ll be able to introduce you to some lesser-known authors along the way, but we kick off today with some stories by a very familiar face – 行きましょう!!!
You might think that Yasunari Kawabata, one of Japan’s two Nobel Prize in Literature laureates, needs no introduction, but you’re probably unaware of his work for the Japan P.E.N. Club. According to translator Michael Emmerich, the writer was very busy in the late 1950s with his work promoting Japanese literature, in particular helping to organize the international P.E.N. conference held in Tokyo in 1957. It was at this time that he produced the short-story collection First Snow on Fuji, consisting of ten pieces reflecting his desire to make the most of the time available to him for writing.
Several of the shorter offerings here feature a rather dense, oblique style, with much packed into a few pages. ‘Raindrops’ consists of conversations in a house on a rainy night, with the sound of ambulance sirens in the distance, whereas ‘Her Husband Didn’t’ is a short tale of a middle-aged woman’s affair with a student, and the reasons behind it. In ‘A Row of Trees’, a family is surprised at the way leaves have fallen from trees at the bottom of a hill, but not at the top, with this anecdote then blending into a story of the daughter, an old visitor and a missing purse. These are all mere glimpses of the whole and leave the reader searching for meaning between the lines.
For me, though, the longer pieces were more enjoyable. For example, the title story has two former lovers on an overnight trip to Hakone, an impulse decision taken after an encounter at the station. It’s a gentle, understated piece, in which we see each through the other’s eyes, learning how time has changed them:
Jirō wanted to see Utako’s face as it used to be. It was painful for him to look at her haggard features. And so from searching out the Utako he had known in the Utako before him, from trying not to see the Utako before him, his own eyes came to have a fatigued look to them. He didn’t want her to feel that he was staring at her, but he didn’t know where else to look.
‘First Snow on Fuji’, p.132 (Counterpoint, 1999)
Despite the initial awkwardness, they eventually begin to recognise each other beneath the mask of years, realising that even after so much time, a connection still exists.
Perhaps my favourite inclusion was the opening story, ‘This Country, That Country’. It’s by far the longest piece here, divided into short chapters, and provides a clever take on marital life and romantic entanglements. We begin with a scene featuring a woman reading in a newspaper of couples overseas who swapped their partners, and her surprise at how simple it all seems sets the scene for what’s to follow:
Impatiently, Takako tried to jam the newspaper that contained the story in near the bottom of the stack she was making in the corner of the closet, but she couldn’t make it go in.
She pictured herself squatting there, disgracefully posed, and suddenly found herself besieged by sinful thoughts.
Hiding the newspaper was not her only sin.
‘This Country, That Country’, p.7
You see, Takako is in the mood for some partner-swapping of her own, and as the story progresses, we learn of her desire for her neighbour, her other affair, the neighbour’s wife’s scheming and the jealousy displayed by her own husband. The newspaper story may paint the idea of marriage rearrangement as relatively painless, but Kawabata effortlessly shows us how far from reality that ‘clean break’ is in this messy, tangled affair.
Another interesting piece, perhaps providing the greatest insight into the writer’s own thoughts, is ‘Silence’. Here, the narrator visits a paralysed colleague, one who has given up on all language, spoken and written, after a crippling stroke. Throughout the visit, the writer’s daughter ‘interprets’ her father’s thoughts, and her desire to help him continue his writing leads the visitor to ponder the nature of writing.
There’s an extra eerie element to ‘Silence’ in the form of a ghost said to hitch a ride in cars driving back through the tunnel leading to the older writer’s house. Even if the narrator is unconvinced by the stories, the taxi drivers’ refusal to drive alone at night gives him pause for thought, particularly after a few hours in the presence of his silent friend. It all sets the scene for the final pages, when the drive home in darkness suddenly takes on a different perspective…
After all these stories, First Snow on Fuji concludes with something slightly different. ‘The Boat-Women: A Dance-Drama’ is a rare work for the stage, a piece taking us back to the era of The Tale of the Heike. The play begins with an aristocratic family who are soon to be separated after the turmoil of the Taira downfall. In later scenes, we follow a blind biwa player and a beauty turned lady of the night as they attempt to track down the rest of their family, making for an enjoyable historical vignette with samurais and courtesans.
As always, Emmerich provides a sensitive, compelling translation, and his excellent introduction explores this busy period of Kawabata’s life, explaining how the stories foreshadow the writer’s future, and perhaps even his death. It also contains a nice nugget of information concerning ‘Yumiura’, a short piece featuring a woman visiting a writer she claims to have spent a night with decades earlier, one the man can’t remember. According to Emmerich, there’s a suggestion here that this is a less-flattering take on Kawabata’s famous story ‘The Izu Dancer‘, with hindsight turning the earlier story from a poignant, passionate tale to a quick holiday fling – which is certainly an interesting take.
First Snow on Fuji might not be the first book that comes to mind when discussing Kawabata, but it’s an excellent collection of stories by a world-renowned writer in his prime, and well worth tracking down. It may be a little too subtle for some readers at times (if that’s possible with short stories), but it’s always enjoyable, and at its best it’s essential Kawabata. It certainly made for a good start to this year’s JiJ, and there’s much more to come this month. Look out for more J-Lit reviews very soon 🙂