Late last year Vintage International re-released Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties”, a novella, short story (?) that had been out-of-print in English for about thirteen years. It appears as though even Nobel Prize winners have books that simply disappear. For many years I had wanted to read this story, but could not find a decently priced second hand copy, so once I learned of the re-release a pre-order was placed, and I eagerly awaited the book’s arrival. The edition contains three “stories”, “House of the Sleeping Beauties” (1961), ”One Arm” (1964) and the earlier “Of Birds and Beasts” (1933). Having recently read Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” as part of my “World Ulysses” tour, it was timely to read another early work and a couple of later stories from his oeuvre.
The book opens with the title story, where our ageing narrator, Eguchi, visits a country abode to sleep next to a naked sleeping teenage girl. His visits to sleep with different drugged virginal nude girls become more frequent, and each visit makes up one chapter, five visits, six girls. This is a work of unspoken secrets, “all was silence”, “nothing suggested that the room had unusual secrets”, the only disquiet in the opening scenes being a stylized bird on the Madame’s obi knot on her kimono. A work that balances age and youth, male and female, ugliness and beauty, eroticism and innocence;
Had he not come to this house seeking the ultimate in the ugliness of old age?”
Written in light, exquisite prose, a whisper, the meditative reflections of an old man, juxtaposed against the reflective beauty of the sleeping virgins, through this light touch the imagery is delicate, yet at the same time the subject matter is oppressive, a beautifully balanced exploration of death, memory, and desire;
For the old men who were customers the woman could “trust”, sleeping with a beauty who would not awaken was a temptation, an adventure, a joy they could trust. Old Kiga had said to Eguchi that only when he was beside a girl who had been put to sleep could be himself feel alive. (p22)
The fantasy world of a red velvet alcove, with sounds of waves crashing in the background, whilst an old man views sleeping beauties and recalls erotic interactions from his past, is a meditation on both possession, and obsession as well as a reflective musing on the beauty of innocence and youth.
Might it be called the surprise of suddenly being pulled away from the everyday world? (p35)
This is a haunting, sad, obsessive tale, balancing the macabre with the surreal, the potential repulsiveness with the prospective magnificence. The pussyfooting of “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa”, where the teenage prostitutes sit on the periphery is now suddenly an ageing writer’s obsession, the dark, secret preoccupations now the main theme for Kawabata’s work.
It was a house frequented by old men who could no longer use women as women; but Eguchi, on this third visit, knew that to sleep with such a girl was a fleeting consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness in being alive. And were there among them old men who secretly asked to sleep forever beside a girl who had been put to sleep? There seemed to be a sadness in the young girl’s body that called up in an old man a longing for death. But perhaps Eguchi was, among the old men who came to the house, one of the more easily moved; and perhaps most of them but wanted to drink in the youth of girls put to sleep, to enjoy girls who would not awaken. (pp58-59)
This edition contains an introduction by Yukio Mishima, and it should come with a spoiler warning, unless you want the last of the five chapters in the story revealed I suggest you skip reading the three page introduction and head straight into the text itself.
There could be for an old man worn to the point of death no time of greater oblivion that when he lay enveloped in the skin of a young girl. (p47)
The next story in the collection is “One Arm”;
“I can let you have one of my arms for the night,” said the girl. She took off her right arm at the shoulder and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee. (p103)
This is a bizarre story where a young woman removes her arm and gives it to our narrator, an older man, for the night, he then recounts his journey home, his sleeping with the arm and his fixations. Another story of possession, obsession, beauty and youth, male and female. Here we have a blurring of fantasy and reality, fetishism and control. Similar in themes to “House of the Sleeping Beauties” using meditative, sparse and reflective prose, we also have the theme of “sleep” dominating the tale, a place where the fantasy can become reality, peace…an otherworldly state…
“Self? What is that? Where is it?”
“Far away,” said the arm, as if singing in consolation. “People walk around looking for selves, far away.”
“And do they come upon them?”
“Far away,” said the arm once more (p111)
The final story in the collection is “Of Birds and Beasts”, where our narrator is a hermit animal collector;
But for him life was filled with a young freshness for several days after a new bird came. He felt in it the blessings of the universe. Perhaps it was a failing on his part, but he was unable to feel anything of the sort in a human being. And it was easier to see the wonders of creation in a moving bird than in motionless shells and flowers. The little creatures, even when caged, gave forth the joy of life. (p131)
Here it is a human’s withdrawal from social relations and using pets as his interaction with the world. There are some striking examples of Kawabata’s style in this short story, where two extremes, opposites, can take shape within a single sentence;
Love of birds and animals comes to be a quest for superior ones, and so cruelty takes root.
Any kind of inhumanity, given practice, becomes human.
In these two examples, love becomes cruelty and inhumanity, human, it is through these exploration of extremes that I enjoy Kawabata’s work. In these three stories, that cover thirty years of his work, we can see numerous dichotomies in play.
Another common element used in each story is observations made whilst removed, in “House of the Sleeping Beauties” it is the voyeurism of the narrator observing the sleeping girls, their helplessness and his control, he could kill them if he chose to do so, in “One Arm” it is the meticulous detail of the inherited arm, in “Of Birds and Beasts” it is the narrator’s ability to observe pets being discarded as trash. Our narrators somehow on the outside of the action, drawing the reader into the observational, you are the voyeur.
Skilful, moving, meditative and thought provoking these are three stories that any fan of Japanese literature, or short stories should seek out.