Monday, May 6, 2019

Holding Beauty and Sadness at Arm's Length

I’m talking about the novel by Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness, which I had begun to read for the Classics Club Challenge.

The start of the novel opens with the main character, Oki Toshio, reminiscing about bells ringing during New Year’s Eve in Kyoto. A little later, he is sitting in a tea house on the grounds of a temple on New Year's Eve. The great bell at this particular temple doesn’t sound quite right; he and the women he’s with are too close to it. The experience of a bell winds up being different in-person than in his nostalgic thoughts about listening to the ringing over the radio.

The moment reflects a theme in the novel - the stories we tell about ourselves and others close to us are prone to distortion, warped by our character, our feelings, and what we wish to focus on. Oki, who is a novelist, understands that fiction can distort reality, including idealizing people or removing essential parts of their humanity. His fictional distortions have led to a bestselling novel and to pain and betrayal for people in his life.

There are genuinely beautiful passages in Beauty and Sadness, including descriptions of paintings and the possible psychological state behind them. What kept me from finishing the novel was the hollowness of the characters and the way they seemed programmed to fulfill certain functions in the novel. They appeared to act on desire, jealousy, vengefulness, and what they consider love. But each struck me as not quite human. For example, there’s a teenaged character, Keiko, who uses her beauty and sexuality to enact vengeance. She just doesn’t seem real at all. More like a figure from mythology or fairy tales, something like a succubus.

Maybe that’s what the author aimed for, but within this particular work, I don't think it was effective. As for the other characters, they also appeared to be stuck in various ways, hurting each other or acting on impulses, each in the manner of an automaton following instructions from the author. Was the author deliberately making puppets of the characters, and showing that their passions were just strings jerking? I don't think the characterizations worked well.

I also don’t think my reaction to the novel stemmed merely from cultural differences. I’ve enjoyed works by other Japanese authors and have enjoyed various Japanese films as well. But the characters in this one pushed me out of the story with their hollowness. They were vessels that sometimes rattled weakly and emitted steam and other times leaked a bitter lukewarm liquid. I set them aside and turned away from them.