Wurzburg, or How to write a Kawabata
Bedridden after surgery, I have been reading a Kawabata, my 5th or 6th, and toying with the idea of writing one myself. The idea is Huellean (Pawel Huelle wrote a prequel to Magic Mountain, see here), but Kawabata’s Spartan brevity does not allow for prequels — Kawabata writes like a stone-cutter carves: by removing material rather than adding it. Not one excess word is the rule. Therefore, any addition to a Kawabata, such as a prequel, is an anathema. A Kawabata must be free-standing, a separate novel in its own right.
The plot is easy enough: all one needs to do is follow the tried and true: a cultured, thinking man of about fifty undertakes a solitary pilgrimage to a cultural destination — something obscure and very high-brow; there he meets an accomplished young woman; the meeting occasions memories of past events; some inconclusive conversations follow, some of them about art, which may or may not lead to physical intimacy; the man returns to his former life with a sense of resignation while reflecting on the desolation wrought by time. 10 chapters, 150 pages. No more than three weeks of work: just the time I need to recover.
The project requires 1) a scheme, 2) two decisions, and 3) the resolution of one difficulty.
1) The scheme must be classical: in Kawabata it’s usually the seasons; times of day; or festivals. But it could perhaps be the three acts of a play, say, or the stages of a tea-ceremony. In Ray’s Kanchenjunga it is the weather: clear skies, clouds gather, dense fog, fog lifts, clouds part, bright sunlight — within this cycle of weather, the plot thickens and — is resolved. Perhaps, if I located my Kawabata in Europe, a Roman scheme could be used: the three theological virtues, say, or the four elements, or the seven good deeds. This must not be too contrived, though: many such attempts have failed on account of being too heavy handed: the scheme must be present, all encompassing, yet natural and unobtrusive. If it must be explained, it has failed. Perhaps it’s best to stick to weather.
2) The two decisions are:
i) First, choice of cultural destination. Somehow Nikko’s on my mind, in winter, in snow. One winter day, in heavy snow, over twenty years ago, I got lost on my climb through the dense ancient forest that covers up the mountain up to the lake. I fell in deep snow up to my arms, a troop of monkeys passed overhead, it began to grow dark, I began to fear for my life. It is a good setting for philosophical reflections — and — think about it — the mountain, the snow, the falling dark, the imminence of death — what a powerful literary symbol, very Magic Mountain-like.
Yet, I should probably avoid a Japanese destination: the point is not to copy Kawabata: a Kawabata cannot be a pastiche of itself; it cannot be a masquerade. It has to be something true, authentic, my own. Besides, moving the location to Europe would have an added bebenfit: it just might allow me to — Rameau-like — “hide art with art” (i.e. conceal the fact that my novel is in fact a Kawabata).
So, perhaps I ought to make my destination– Würzburg. Many years ago I passed through there. I arrived in the morning and departed by dusk. (There’s the scheme!) It was a beautiful autumn day — and a dramatic moment in my life, a kind of Scylla-and-Charybdis passage from slavery into exile — I was on my way to the refugee camp, on a 24 hour transit visa from Sweden to Austria, where I would give up my old passport and officially break with my masters — in exchange for nothing but the right to throw myself upon the mercy of the free world. Nine tense months’ wait later, the free world would accept me and I would breathe out: I wouldnot have to crawl back, tail between my legs, to my old masters, swearing loyalty evermore and begging them not to whip their runaway slave to death. Of course, that day in Würzburg I hadn’t known yet that the free world would accept me. The moment was pregnant with hope and fear and amazement at my own daring.
I waited for my train to Vienna in the park. I remember leaving its autumnal beauty at dusk with great sadness in my heart — I had not had enough time to get to know it — as the watchman strode through the paths ringing energetically a large hand-bell to announce the imminent closing of the wrought iron gates.
I didn’t know then about the Tiepolo. Many years later I tried to go to Würzburg to see the Treppenhaus, and to walk again in the park, but friends who were to come along didn’t turn up, my train was late, I didn’t make the connection. Yes, I should go back there again. Why not make it into my Kawabata.
The second decision to be made would be:
ii) The encounter.
The difficulty here would be to choose one from all the memorable encounters I have had with beautiful, interesting women. Perhaps instead of one, I could describe two; or, rather, one but double: an encounter I had several months after my divorce. In the lobby of my hotel in Phnom Penh I met and lunched with two western women, two days in a row, one after the other, one a Latin-American brunette, the other a Scandinavian blonde. They were both exceptionally beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, educated women, gushing with youth and health, and they both obviously enjoyed my company, perhaps because I could regale them with enthusiastic talk about Cambodian sculpture and dance-drama in a way in which no light-weight youngster half my age ever could; perhaps because I was being my Old World self: courteous, polite, considerate; but perhaps also because… I was safe: it was all strictly uncle-like. It was such a great pleasure for all that. It made me feel that I wasn’t all dead yet.
3) But the difficulty, which lies in the memory bit, may well be insurmountable. While I sympathize greatly with the mood of kokai — saudade – regret – zal — see this post on the aesthetic of regret; and relish it in art, poetry and music; I do not actually think with longing of any of my past affairs. There is nothing of the past that I miss. For all my inclination to feel sorry for myself, I am, I suppose, as everyone should be: always happier today than ever we have been. I simply cannot imagine who my hero could long for!
This is not to say that I do not have regrets or longings; but they are for places — like Nikko; or for art — like the Würzburg Tiepolo; or for activities — like riding my orange 125 cm in cold driving rain on winding roads along the Thai-Burmese border. To long for lovers seems obviously childish — after all, any attempt to find happiness in another person must misfire if you cannot find it in yourself.
A part of me welcomes this idea as a challenge: yes, let us write a Kawabata to make just this philosophical point: that people do not matter, things do. Let’s have a Kawabata with a hero who longs for places or art, not women. But, then doubts assail me: to long for things and places — instead of people — seems… unKawabatan. And… unnovelistic. Has anyone ever heard of a novel without a love interest? Is such a thing even possible?