Been reading this amazing collection of short stories by Yasunari Kawabata this week, "First Snow on Fuji." Translated by Michael Emmerich, the stories date from the mid-1950s and there are some real gems here.
The title story recounts the doomed love affair of a young couple who get pregnant before the war (WWII) and because of happenstance are not allowed to remain together. The woman is taken by her family away from Tokyo ostensibly to protect her from the air raids but really so that she would not be tempted to marry the man who impregnates her. The story starts eight years after this, the couple is reunited on a train, looking out the window at the first snowfall on Mt Fuji. They discuss their recent pasts--she has left her husband after eight years of marriage though, as custom seems to dictate, she is no longer allowed to be with her two young children--but they also reflect back on the child they had together who died shortly after birth. It is this death, both the death of the child and the death of their love, that haunts them both. Mixed in with this painful history is Japan's own painful wartime experience: the air raids, the mass loss of life, the radically altered society.
"Let's talk until morning," Utako whispered, "But I don't want to talk about some things, okay?"
Jiro put his arm around her and drew her closer to him.
"Are you able to sleep well these days?"
"Oh, I'm always so exhausted...hold me the way you used to," Utako said, lying very still.
"Hmm - how was that?" Jiro felt slightly at a loss.
Utako smiled. "I can't believe it - you've forgotten, haven't you?"
"And you used to be so quiet."
"Of course. I didn't know anything then."
Jiro closed his eyes, trying to call up the images of Tokyo's streets burning in an air raid. He remembered the broken corpses. This was the method he used to keep his desires in check.
So much is communicated in this little scene from the story: pain of loss, aging, memory, desire, war, guilt.
Other stories stay with me, as well: "Silence," about a writer who loses his voice and ability to write after a stroke and the pain his daughter goes through in sacrificing her life to take care of him. In "Row of Trees," a family falls apart while oddly focused on the fact that the leaves on the trees outside their house are falling off in a bizarre, seemingly inexplicable way.
Kawabata was Japan's first Nobel Prize-winning writer (in 1968) and the introduction to the collection here (by Emmerich) traces the difficulties he faced once he became so enormously successful. Oddly, the theme of the silence of the writer surfaces strongly in this collection, one of Kawabata's last before success truly would silence him. He died, of suicide, in 1972, four years after his Nobel win and two years after his most famous protege, Yukio Mishima, committed suicide himself in a spectacular and quite public coup attempt (beautifully chronicled in Mishima, by Marguerite Yourcenar).
Yasunari Kawabata, 1940s