The three pieces included in this collection all show a unique side of this legendary writer.
Called an “esoteric masterpiece” by Yukio Mishima in the book’s introduction, Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties consistently lives up to that first word, if not always to the second. Nobel Prize winner Kawabata’s is undeniably gifted in his prose, the ingenuity of his scenarios and the emotional depth of his work. Yet the three pieces included in this collection, the novella “House of the Sleeping Beauties” and the short stories “One Arm” and “Of Birds and Beasts,” are all problematic from a feminist perspective and coldly intellectual to the point of exclusion. This makes for tough reading, but those willing to devote the requisite energy will find the rewards are plentiful.
The main attraction is the novella “House of the Sleeping Beauties,” one of Kawabata’s most famous pieces and one that has been adapted into multiple films, most recently Australian filmmaker Julia Leigh’s 2011 Sleeping Beauty. It’s the story of a house where older men pay to sleep beside nude young women who have been drugged. It’s an intriguing set up, though one ripe for nasty exploitation, and while Kawabata mostly resists that, the expectation of abuse is ever-present, lurking like a malevolent spirit. This is a shame, because the real draws of the piece are its finely textured meditations on aging, loneliness, attraction and dreams. Kawabata, as translated here by Edward G. Seidenstecker, writes in distant but transfixing prose, his themes ranging from distant, disparate thoughts to incisive points over the course of the piece.
The other two stories in the collection hit with less weight given the fraction of the real estate they take up, but each contains more magic than the headliner. “One Arm,” a uniquely Kawabatan approach to magical realism, tells the story of a girl removing her arm and giving it to a man for the night, while “Of Birds and Beasts” tells the tale of an old man and his compulsive collecting of birds and “beasts”–dogs in particular. Like “House,” both stories are centered on ruminations of male aging. It’s poignant but is so often contrasted with female sacrifice, suffering and even death that it becomes something different. While Kawabata’s men age thoughtfully and gracefully, it’s at great cost to his women.
Plot aside, there is a great deal of joy simply in Kawabata’s language. While it may seem culturally on-the-nose to compare his prose to haiku, his abbreviated, sense-heavy prose brings that poetic style to mind. Seidenstecker, the premiere English translator of Kawabata’s work, highlights simplicity. Kawabata, as a new sensationalist, was interested in the minutiae of modern life, particularly from a sensory perspective, but also strove for clear and unencumbered prose, and as a result there is a lush starkness to the sentences.
Kawabata is often called an erotic writer, and given the sexual and bodily nature of his work in House of the Sleeping Beauties that label is somewhat applicable. But the focus of this eroticism is more about death than pleasure, more concerned with what is happening in the male mind than with the female body, though both are covered extensively. It’s sexual but occasionally unpleasant, though given Kawabata’s focus on modern sensuality perhaps this is the point.
Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties is a paradox that reads as something simultaneously fresh and out-of-date. The clarity of his prose in translation is extraordinary as is his unique method of feasting on the senses with lean, spare description. But his treatment of women is odd and often dismissive, his ideas sometimes too opaque. Still, it is impossible not to appreciate the power of Kawabata’s imagination, style and influence, and the three pieces included in this collection all show a unique side of this legendary writer.