Beauty and Sadness opens with Oki Toshio who is on a train to Kyoto to listen to the temple bells ring in the new year. During the ride, he reminisces about his torrid affair with Otoko Ueno. They were lovers when she was 15 and half his age, and have lost contact for more than 20 years ago.
Otoko is now living in Kyoto and does not know he is coming for her. Oki’s “defiant wish to see Ueno Otoko again after all these years” reignites repressed memories.
It also sets off a psychological and erotic drama fraught with love, regret, revenge and narcissism. The flames are fanned by Keiko Sakami who is Otoko’s protegee; Keiko’s striking beauty is as disturbing as her irreverent and manipulative nature.
Beauty and Sadness was published in 1964. This was the last novel by Yasunari Kawabata before he killed himself some years later.
Kawabata was the first Japanese person to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, . He was recognised “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind”.
This is the first book that I’ve read that has been translated from Japanese into English. So I’m not familiar with what a classic Japanese literary work, if there is even a distinctive style, would be like.
I was struck by Kawabata’s elegant prose. The story goes between flashbacks from years ago and brief yet significant moments in the present. It is not always obvious what the characters are thinking or feeling, and perhaps sometimes they don’t know either.
Turbulent emotions and painful memories are unveiled amidst calm, picturesque surroundings. I love Kawabata’s lyrical descriptions – be it of the surrounding landscapes or an erotic moment.
He brings the reader through ancient stone gardens, the hills of Kamakura, as well as along the banks of Kamo River in Arashiyama. In the same vein, you would discover Otoko’s alluring beauty and Keiko’s tempestuous nature.
Here are some snippets:
“… she was impressed by the raindrops glittering in the young pines along the path… each needle was like a flower stem with a single droplet of rain clinging to its very tip; the trees seemed all abloom with dew flowers. Easily overlooked, they were subtle blossoms of the spring rain.”
“She had coaxed Otoko to do her hair for her, any way she liked, but in handling it Otoko happened to tug a few strands. ‘Pull harder!’ Keiko had said. ‘Grab it up so that I hang by it!’ Otoko let go. Twisting around toward her, Keiko pressed her lips and teeth to the back of Otoko’s hand. Then she said: ‘Miss Ueno, how old were you at your first kiss?'”
“Woods flowed by in a thick, warm-looking haze outside the window. Far above the haze, white clouds were bathed in a shimmering light that seemed to radiate from the earth.”
I was, however, frustrated by the climatic and abrupt ending of Beauty and Sadness. It left me with questions unanswered. In a way, this ambiguous ending adds to the beauty of this poignant and haunting novella which I would recommend reading.