Japan's neglected Nobel

Soundings in Times
March 19, 1999

Soundings in Time is the final book in a trilogy of works by Roy Starrs looking at the writings of highly influential authors of 20th-century Japanese fiction, the others being Yukio Mishima and Shiga Naoya. It is indeed remarkable that, as the inside book-sleeve notes, "this is the first full-length study of Yasunari Kawabata" in English, especially considering he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1968 with Snow Country .

Starrs analyses Kawabata's works in more or less chronological order, touching on most of his best-known novels and short stories, placing them in the context of his own development as a writer and more general literary influences of the time. He divides Kawabata's life into five sections. The first period of "self-discovery" (1914-25) is a time when he struggled to establish his literary credentials, culminating with the publication of the "lyrical" story, The Dancing Girl of Izu (1926). From the mid-1920s to mid-1930s, he was strongly influenced by modernist writings coming from Europe, represented by Crystal Fantasies (1931), a Joycean stream-of-consciousness depiction of an alienated and frustrated woman. The next decade Starrs describes as a period of "early maturity", in which he suggests that Kawabata's apparent return to a more traditional Japanese lyricism - represented by the "Haiku novel", Snow Country (1935-47) - is in fact still strongly influenced by modernism. The fourth period, of "late maturity", from around 1945 to the late 1950s, is considered the time when Kawabata wrote his best works, particularly The Sound of the Mountain (1954), in which he sees the traditional concept of mono no aware (the pathos of things) represented in the context of a fading cultural tradition after wartime defeat. Finally, the period of "postmaturity", from the late 1950s to his suicide in 1972, is a time of decline, though several works such as the surrealistic Sleeping Beauties (1961) indicated his continuing engagement with modernist experimentation.

Starrs makes wide use of western philosophy and literary criticism in his reading of Kawabata's texts, which will help the general reader, though I am not sure they are applicable to the Japanese context. For instance, throughout the book he refers to three themes - monism, narcissism and aestheticism - which he sees as basic to an understanding of Kawabata's literary impulse. Monism is related to the non-dualistic world view of Mahayana Buddhism, but he then goes on to suggest that "mystically" inclined western poets such as Dante, Blake and Yeats have also produced poems "from the perspective of a non-dualistic consciousness". I make no claim to be an expert in philosophical discourse, but this jump from eastern philosophy to western poets seems a little too abrupt.

However, the book excels in close textual readings and, though it also draws on more contemporary critics and thinkers such as Jacques Lacan, its approach might best be characterised as that of new criticism. Nothing wrong with that, but Starrs does sometimes show himself to be unduly dismissive of other approaches. For instance, he agrees with the idea that formal beauty is the very core of western literary aesthetics, despite attacks on such a view by "Marxists and others of their ilk". He is particularly unwilling to countenance "certain feminist critics" such as Tajima Yoko whose attempt to read Snow Country from the viewpoint of the main female protagonist, Komako, he considers an "artificial reconstruction of the novel". One assumes that Starrs feels he has found the true reading. This is not to say that he does not make some excellent observations throughout the book, but a little more tolerance of other approaches would have been welcome.

Stephen Dodd is lecturer in Japanese, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Soundings in Times: The Fictive Art of Yasunari Kawabata

Author - Roy Starrs
ISBN - 1 873410 74 3
Publisher - Japan Library
Price - £40.00
Pages - 247

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