Posts Tagged Nobel

Kawabata-san: a Fleeting Glimpse

As with all the arts – and sciences too – I think, one’s tastes and allegiances can – should – evolve over time. We may fanatically adhere to one musician, writer or artist above all in our youth then, in maturity, wonder what possessed us.

I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter some of the world’s greatest writers. Victor Hugo was the lion of my youth, and I still read him occasionally. I might have one more go at Les Miserables, which I’ve read six times. His lesser-known novels Toilers of the Sea and Ninety-Three are terrific page-turners with Hugo’s signature heart-stopping personal and moral dilemmas, and I really should pick up Notre-Dame de Paris once more.

Note that latter title: Wikipedia notwithstanding, it’s not The Hunchback of Notre-Dame; it never was. Quasimodo – as great and noble a character as he is – is not the title character of the novel; the cathedral is. Reading a good unabridged translation makes that clear enough.

Hugo’s irresistible romantic drive stoked my occasionally reckless and misspent youth (or what I like to imagine was), such as when I walked away from a final aimless year at university to undertake the rock musician vision quest. I still remember sitting in a large park in small-town Southern Ontario, being moved to tears by reading of Cosette’s thought, “Perhaps he is my mother, too, this man.”

Of all the writers I’ve encountered, however, the one who resonates with me the most now is Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel Laureate.

Kawabata-san famously said that, after Japan’s defeat in the war, he would only write elegies (although that was arguably no change from his prior work). All of his novels which I’ve had the fortune to read in translation certainly fit that category.


The journey began 24 years ago, when I read The Master of Go for the first time. The elegy ethos – and the tension between the classic and modern Japanese cultures – is perhaps at its sharpest in this story, which is built upon Kawabata’s reporting of a famous 1938 match between a legendary old master and the best of the younger, modern generation of players. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Kawabata cited The Master of Go as his favorite among his works (and the only one which he regarded as finished).

Kawabata’s three novels cited by the Nobel Prize Committee are Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Old Capital. As outstanding as they all are, the last is my clear favorite.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, from the late 8th century until 1869, a year after the Meiji Imperial Restoration, when Tokyo became the capital.

Kawabata’s exquisite descriptions of natural scenes, Kyoto’s numerous religious festivals, and the city itself are sufficient to recommend The Old Capital, but what makes this gem really glow is the masterful, understated portrayal of character and relationship. Little is said; much more is left unsaid. As a molecule is mostly empty space, Kawabata’s meaning is found mostly between the written lines. I don’t claim to understand very much of what he’s getting at, so far; as with any subtle art, understanding comes with practice.


Photo by Yousuf Karsh.

Kawabata-san’s influence must inevitably drift into the music, and so it has, from the beginning of the eyes cast down project. It’s most notable in the elegy pieces Like a Riven Cloud, At This Body’s Final Hour, Transitional and Mister God, This is Taylor, as well as an album in progress about which it’s too early to speak. As I wrote in the story of the Souls Adrift, in Disrepair album:

“For me it sums up the material world, with us struggling our way through it. Fish out of water. A suitable continuation of themes ruminated upon in the Separate Ones album…” In a sense, as far as this world is concerned, I can only write elegies, too, because this temporary, chaotic ball of matter, birth and death is not our home.


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Mishima (Divinations, #5 of 5)

Yukio Mishima with poster for his film Yukoku (Patriotism)

We end this cycle the way we began, with a fascinating but tortured personality. From my first reading of John Nathan’s biography of Yukio Mishima, the legendary Japanese writer haunted me for years. I read over a dozen of his novels in translation including, of course, the fabled Sea of Tranquility quartet (he really should have won the Nobel for that) and the idyllic Sound of Waves.

Mishima’s impact on me echoed for some time, even after I wrestled with him by writing this piece. But in a way, the circle had finally closed by the time my favorite band, Jack or Jive, released their 2008 album Kakugo, which includes an updated version of the first song from their first album. That song, Worry About the Country, features a portion of Mishima’s dramatic pre-suicide speech to a captive audience of Japanese soldiers.


Defiance lash electric
Nova crash this bubbling sunless sky
Crack the dull shimmering backdrop
  of complacent denied history

I crush in my charged hands
  the calm deceitful mask
Dust for placid choking civility
Finger my sharp man’s teeth
Now I must resolve you –
  settle this dissonance

Yukio Mishima in his study, probably mid-1950sYou rolled the mirror –
  made a microscope
Turned upon yourself like a blade
Self-fashioned, tradition’s martyr
Slave to destiny embraced too easily
Stinking illogic of waste

You dug but rooted not
  the heart of sorrow
No, you had to have your emperor
Your confessions were all
  bloody Grand Kabuki masques

I saw a midget black cloud
  racing raging smash its form
    on a giant, immovable, massive –
      and lose integrity

Your protest exploded sharp the night
Howling Sun’s eclipse
Final blinding dying lines lashing out

Your reaction thundered through
  exquisite gardens
    magical pavilions
      delicate banquets
        thrashing waves
Swept over that terrible, final
  sunlit sterile hill

You pulled a swift curtain
Jumped from grace with the sea
  headlong to sink and drown
Had it to be
  such trouble to float?

Yukio Mishima making his final speechWhy not harbor still mobile life?
Daring see more
  what might you say?
Your life a brief brilliant flurry
  echoing after images lost
    seared by memory denied yourself

What murk of mine reflects yours –
  filling to flow over?
What fascinates me,
  strange haunting man?
A warning empty death awaits
Aching truth of action void
  divorced from healing self

Finally the storm clears
  into cool still light
    leaving gifts we may appreciate
      in or out of time

Life comes a flash, subsides
What did you find
  as you made your mark
    on the world of words?
      – on your smooth, rippling belly?

Son of Steel, gave no shape to anger
  but bowed before it invisible
I must work a resolution
  short of death
Be no Sensei of mine


Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan

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