Posts Tagged “Victor Hugo”

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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Quasimodo’s Bones (Divinations, #3 of 5)

Victor HugoWhere was I? Musing on impermanence… I wonder if this piece will survive me. Victor Hugo probably had no such doubt about his legendary hunchback character. That novel’s final image birthed and informed my piece, over 160 years later.

Jack or Jive named one of their albums Mujyo, which means Transcience. The words “transcience” and “conscience” each contain the word “science”. Telling and ironic.

Arthur C. Clarke has long been one my prized writers. My favourite novel of his, The Songs of Distant Earth, really resonated in my mind around the time this was written.

Quasimodo’s Bones

Crescent slits the fertile Sky
Her blood the Ocean
Saturate in life changing
Bathing the open shore
Kisses passion pounding
A gift remains, hurled adrift
Glitter shiny – stone cold enamel
Spiral child

Gale slashes the futile hill
Hollow temple dust aswirl
Dionysus howls abandon
One grain too many too few
Pride of the polis totters
Ground to pieces – crash to earth
The Ancients reclaim their glory
Crushed empty shell

Oceans swelling towering dance
Sinking soaring forest reef
Sunken bubble in earth
Ancient magical creatures vanish
  as rough walls wash smooth

Blinding disk fuse the sterile sky
Awash in aching flame
Slashing burning tides of sand
  disperse those waters of old
Landscape swirling shifting
Spiral child scratched dimmed dusted blasted
Drowning grain by grain
Engulfed in dry earth

Michael Whelan's artwork for Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Songs of Distant Earth

We have ignition –
Desert sands fused
Polished glittering jade
Life green vista
Museum floor at ground zero
Now I am become –
  code name Trinity

Solitary fish leaps for glory –
Now I am not where I am!
My deep world lies flat beneath me
What alien vista this?
Suspended, dry – what are these lights?
Floating, not floating?
That distant edge –
  the end of this new world?
Restored to my old!

Diamond in sands of time signatures
At last to ashes to dust
Even the Magic Flute may fade
As memorial stones crumble
Bones in the expression of love
Disintegrate – re-earthed to atoms

As we build forever empires
Permanent structures –
  of quantum probabilities
A new bright smudge in the night sky
  heralds a star’s death ages past
Its dust blasted around half a galaxy
  – spiral parent –
Only now we get the first clue
The beginning after the end

To Arthur C. Clarke


The pyramids at Giza, Egypt

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