Kawabata, Master of Go
In 1938 a game of Go was played in Japan — “the game of the century” — over a six month period, 18 meets, and 54 hours’ playtime (19:57 for the defender, the rest — 34 hours+ — for the challenger). Yasunari Kawabata, a humble newspaperman then, covered it for the Nichinichi, the ancestor of today’s Mainichi. In 1954, a disastrous war, defeat, occupation and 16 years later, he reworked his 18 newspaper reports into a work of fiction, a shosetsu, as the Japanese call it, not exactly what we mean by a novel.
He later said he considered The Master of Go his best work.
The game was fought between the reigning Grand Master — he’d held the Honimbo title for nine consecutive years — and a challenger who’d once been his student.
Kawabata’s novel is not the sort of BS that comes out of Hollywood about genius mathematicians and artists: Kawabata knew what he was talking about and the novel contains a succession of diagrams documenting the progress of the game which Kawabata understood better than Seidensticker, the translator, does. As it happened, in a development Kawabata was to hold significant for the rest of his life, the challenger won in the end, by five points.
By coincidence, Kawabata was at Atami, a beach resort, covering a literary festival, when the Grand Master died there several months after he’d suffered his first — and final — defeat. The writer was asked to take the Grand Master’s death-bed photos. He writes:
I looked at the body. The head of a doll, and the head only, seemed to protrude from the honey-comb pattern of the rough-woven kimono. Because the body had been dressed in an Oshima kimono after the Master’s death, there was a bunching at the shoulders. Yet, one had from it the feeling one had had from the Master in life: as if from the waist down he’d dwindled away to nothing. The master’s legs and hips: as his doctor had said at Hakone, they seemed scarcely to bear his weight. Taken from the Urokoya, the body had seemed quite weightless except for the head. During that last match I had seen the thinness of the Master’s knees, and in my pictures, too, there seemed only to be, quite gruesome, only the head, as if somehow severed. There was something unreal about the pictures, which may have come from the face, the ultimate in tragedy, of a man so disciplined in art that he had lost a better part of reality. Perhaps I had photographed the face of a man meant form the outset for the martyrdom to art. It was as if the life of Shusai, Master of Go, had ended as his art has ended, with that last match.
This is what I have been banging about elsewhere: that it is OK to become so committed to art that one loses the better part of reality because reality just ain’t that great. (Compared to art, anyway).