Posts tagged “kawabata

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?

Doubting Go

“Naoki sought to examine the worth of his own popular writings in the light of the strong fascination Go had for him, and its world of pure competition.”  (Kawabata, The Master of Go, Ch. 26)

The figure of Naoki Sanjugo — a popular writer and Go-player — floats up unexpectedly in the middle of a game-longeur, as if Kawabata’s mind wondered away for a moment, lost in a fleeting, intense daydream.  The writer’s appearance is a quintessential Japanese miniature:  brief and sharp, like as a flash of lightning, and yet, like all such miniatures, ambiguous, which is to say — pregnant with all sorts of possible reflections.

The life of a writer — the usual life of a writer, not the best-seller writer’s, just ordinarily successful one’s — is laborious (“I have to turn in thirty-six pages by nine-thirty and it is past four already”) and filled with self-doubt:  Naoki’s work seemed to him, next to Go, insignificant:  a mortal crowd-pleaser, a passing insignificance.  He was right, it seems: no one remembers Naoki today, his books are used mainly as a door stop, if that, but people still play Go — and with a measure of passion higher than anything his novels have ever inspired.

In the very next chapter Kawabata continues to investigate the idea of the significance of Go:  he recalls being disturbed by the experience of playing Go against an American — (to many Japanese conservatives Americans stand in for modernity).  The American is a serious student of Go — a competent, well trained amateur; yet his attitude to the game is disturbing: there is a certain light-hearted indifference to the outcome. To him, “it’s just a game!”  All of Kawabata’s being rebels against the thought.  Go is not just a game, he wants to cry out.  It is much more important! Yet, there seems no way of explaining just how or why Go should be more important.  The only thing that makes it important is — Kawabata’s (and Naoki’s) attitude to the game:  one approaches Go in the spirit of reverence.

I suppose it is this spirit of reverence which Kawabata means when he talks about the spirit of Old Japan.  (“The spirit of old Japan has flown out of the game”).  And he means this spirit of reverence when he suggests that Go is somehow religious — (“the Way of the Warrior resembles closely the way of art, there being a religious element in both”);  not religious as in supernatural beings — like all Japanese intellectuals Kawabata is not so much agnostic as indifferent — but religious in the sense of being taken seriously, as life’s most important element, possibly as being more important than life itself.

Naoki has doubts and they focus precisely on the source of the reverence: there is nothing inherently important about Go, it seems:  “If one decides to look on Go as valueless, then absolutely valueless it is…  if one chooses to look upon it as a thing of value, then a thing of absolute value it is.”  The thing seems so…  arbitrary.  (“Relative”, they say in America).

The conclusion Kawabata seems to be drawing from this is — that the spirit of reverence which human beings can choose to bestow upon any otherwise arbitrary object — is in itself valuable.  Such an act of reverence-bestowal makes otherwise arbitrary objects special:  such objects cease to be valueless merely by the virtue of our decision to revere them.  The act of bestowing reverence is like the anointment of a king, or the dedication of a divine statue:  it creates value… ex nihilo.  And hence there is nothing mere about it… It is in one of the most important acts of life:  by creating sanctified objects within our life, the act… sanctifies life itself.

Here lies Kawabata’s problem with modernity, then:  democracy and capitalism are by their nature… irreverent:  every authority is questioned and every value evaluated in “practical” — that is to say, either utilitarian or monetary — terms.  Any arbitrary act of reverence-bestowal can and will be shrugged off by others.

Kawabata, Mishima and others have found this dispiriting, but should they have?  After all, nothing prevented Kawabata from revering Go — and other arts — personally.  That others do not as commonly as they used to, or that public institutions no longer do without questioning should not, on the face of it, change anything in his own, private dedication to them.  And if this is all that matters… but is it all that matters, then?


In the course of his game against the American, another source of Go-doubt descends on Kawabata:  against the American’s laxness, his own dedication to the game — his hell-bent intent on winning — made Kawabata suddenly feel “rather perverse and cruel”.  If it is right to revere the game… is his way of revering it worthy of it?  Or is perhaps reverence-bestowal, by its very attempt to declare an absolute, perverse and cruel?