While House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories is a thin paperback, it packs a heady dose of surrealism and desire.
Published in the early 1960s by Kodansha and translated by Edward Seidensticker, this book comprises three short stories by Yasunari Kawabata: House of the Sleeping Beauties, One Arm, and Of Birds and Beasts.
The protagonists are men in their middle age or advanced years, presumably lonely and unmarried. Immersed in unusual situations, they contemplate life and death, reflecting on memories of different women from their past.
House of the Sleeping Beauties is the first story and the longest of the trio. 67-year-old Eguchi forays into a secret world of sleeping beauties, where old men pay money to sleep next to young nubile women who are in a temporary state of drugged unconsciousness. There are rules of engagement and the men must not do anything in bad taste.
Giving everything over to him, aware of nothing, in a sleep as of suspended animation, she breathed gently, her innocent face on its side. Certain old men would perhaps caress every part of her body, others would be racked with sobs. The girl would not know, in either case.
After I got over my initial incredulity, I wondered – just like Eguchi did – what went through the mind of the other men who visited this house of sleeping beauties. Were they sad, lonely, desperate, bored, or perhaps wanting to feel alive again? As for the girls, what motivated them to submit themselves to this unconsciousness?
One Arm, the second tale, is bizarre. A woman gives one of her arms to a man for a night. Embracing it close to his body, the man speaks with the arm, coaxing and caressing it, before taking it and replacing one of his arms with it. The manner in which the man and the arm interacts is akin to a seduction between a man and a woman.
“I’ll have it.” I was not conscious of muttering the words. In a trance, I removed my right arm and substituted the girl’s. There was a slight gasp – whether from the arm or from me I could not tell – and a spasm at my shoulder. So I knew of the change.
The girl’s arm – mine now – was trembling and reaching for the air. Bending it, I brought it close to my mouth.
“Does it hurt? Do you hurt?”
“No. Not at all. Not at all.” The words were fitful.
A shudder went through me like lightning. I had the fingers in my mouth.
Somehow I spoke my happiness, but the girl’s fingers were at my tongue, and whatever it was I spoke did not form into words.
“Please. It’s all right,” the arm replied. The trembling stopped. “I was told you could. And yet…”
Of Birds and Beasts is the last story and, unlike the other two tales, it was written much earlier in the 1930s. The protagonist is cold and indifferent, maybe also cruel and selfish. This character makes me uneasy and I don’t like him.
… He did not like humans: Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters: the bonds were not easily cut even with the most unsatisfactory of people… There was, on the other hand, a certain sad purity in making playthings of the lives and the habits of animals, and, deciding upon an ideal form, breeding toward it in a manner artificial and distorted: there was in it a godlike newness.
It’s hard to read House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories without feeling perturbed. The surreal narrative and unsettling feeling, like in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, lingered long after I had finished reading the book.