This was my first time reading House of The Sleeping Beauties. I bought it sometime last year but the timing was poor, since I’d just had surgery and was reading it while insomniac and full of stitches, and eventually had to put it down halfway through. I’ve just read it through now. I think it is the most perfect book I’ve ever encountered.
There is a theme in Kawabata which I’ve never seen dealt with as accurately or as cuttingly elsewhere, of people with extremely heightened aesthetic and sensual abilities, hyper-able to appreciate and study beauty, who are also completely without morals, and who mistake their genius sensitivities for goodness. I guess you see Europeans taking about this, but since Europeans fundamentally dislike and distrust beauty you can’t take them too seriously. Kawabata loves and understands beauty and clearly detests the men who replace their morality with aestheticism.
I like Kawabata for many reasons. Principally I love his technique. I am like a Kawabata protagonist in many ways. By biological settings and by cultivation I am extremely, painfully sensitive to sight and touch and all the animal gifts by which we interact with our atmosphere. What I seek in fiction is creation and sustainment of atmosphere. It is what I admire. It is what I enjoy. For me, it is the absolute art, to which all other author’s-arts aim. Kawabata is the great master of developing and galvanizing an atmosphere. I have never seen anyone better. In this story Kawabata smacks the scene and it begins to spin, deep dark and lovely and evil, hovering above earth, and doesn’t stop spinning until the last few sentences, when it blows up and kills you.
Here’s an interesting thing, and it is the impetus for my writing this. When I’d finished the story and blown up, I wanted to read the intro. My understanding was that the intro was written by the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, who I admire enormously and whose translation of Genji I have also read. But I was puzzled reading this intro. Very prettily written, very clear-minded, and yet, apparently, missing the mark completely. “Does not impossibility of attainment put eroticism and death forever at the same point?” it asks, and claims that reading this story one “knows with the greatest immediacy the terror of lust urged on by the approach of death”, and ultimately concludes that the story paints an unusually vivid image of life. This seems to me the opposite of Kawabata’s mind—a mind in which the main character is depraved beyond self-awareness, beyond life, beyond death, and at once supremely capable of sensual appreciation. He is not an icon of the man near death (and in fact literally isn’t near death; it is important to the story that our main character is a man of early old age participating in something designed for men of actual senility)—he is an example of a man who has died morally and lives ghoulishly on. His eroticism is half-human. Could Seidensticker have translated so beautifully and yet so direly misread the story?
Well! Come to the end of the intro and see the name signed: Yukio Mishima. Mishima! I say that so often. I say it like Jerry Seinfeld saying Newman! Mishima, my demon brother. Mishima is the man Kawabata writes about. No man has ever lived who has been more able to write about the body and its sweetnesses, and no man has ever been more morally barren. Mishima was a fantastic, phantastic presentation of a man who was able to walk and talk and write while already dead.