The successful writer Oki has reached middle age and is filled with regrets. He returns to Kyoto to Otoko, a young woman with whom he had a terrible affair many years before, and discovers that she is now a painter, living with a younger woman as her lover. Otoko has continues to love Oki and has never forgotten him, but his return unsettles not only her but also her young lover. This is a work of strange beauty, with a tender touch of nostalgia and a heartbreaking sensitivity to those things lost forever.
Basho writes :-
The temple bell stops.
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
Isn't the consciousness of love like these temple bells? Long after its physicality ends, the essence lingers through budding emotions within the delicate sounds of the past. How is it to experience a love so abstract that death seems a friendly stranger? Ueno Otoko, loving a man who stole her childhood, delineates the purity of an overwhelming emotion –love and not clemency. Otoko lost her baby during a painful childbirth; a tearful goodbye with only the memory of her child’s pristine black hair. Otoko was 16, when she overdosed on sleeping pills after her baby’s death; a bid to escape the encumbering deficient love. As a solitary blossom among the sea of stones, Otoko bloomed amid the darkness of a distorted love perplexed at her long survival. The colours in her portraits were tales of Otoko’s poignant heart ; the brush strokes searched her child’s face.
"She had no idea of the face and form of her baby, only a vision in her heart. She knew very well that the child in her. Ascension of an Infant would not look like her dead baby, and she had no wish to paint a realistic portrait. What she wanted was to express her sense of loss, her grief and affection for someone she had never seen. She had cherished that desire so long that the image of the dead infant had become a symbol of yearning to her. She thought of it whenever she felt sad. Also the picture was to symbolize herself surviving all these years, as well as the beauty and sadness of her love for Oki."
In a Girl of Sixteen, Oki immortalized the woman he considered his only passionate love. A woman who at a tender age of 15 lost her virginity to a much married man in his 30s. Kawabata delineates Oki as a man lost in egocentric love; even though ridden by guilt of blemishing Otoko’s youth, Oki pursued the forbidden tenderness as though the inherent madness of it all kept him alive.
"It was the tragic love story of a very young girl and a man himself still young but with a wife and child: only the beauty of it had been heightened, to the point that it was unmarred by any moral questioning."
The stillness of his memories kept Otoko alive through his writings and the ringing of New Year’s bells in Kyoto with each passing year.
"What were memories? What was the past that he remembered so clearly?..............he could not escape the pain of having spoiled her life, possible of having robbed her of every chance for happiness.......the vividness of the memories mean that she was separated separated from him...."
From flaunting his affairs to Fumiko to consciously leaving his wife out of the memoirs for an untainted tale of intricate passionate love and earning his generous royalties from the book; Oki is an outright amoral man. Kawabata gives a picture of a reckless man imparting ugliness through beautiful sentiments. In the autumn of his life how could he hope for forgiveness from a woman who lived his aberrant repercussions?
Keiko on the other hand is a misguided passionate lover. One could say her love for Otoko was mere teenage infatuation, but her determination in seeking revenge from Oki throws a different light on Keiko’s commitment to Otoko. Kawabata underplays homosexuality limiting Keiko’s relationship with her teacher (Otoko) only to the idea of revenge. It may be due to Otoko resisting of letting go her past ghosts spinning a web of jealousy for Keiko. Or Kawabata hesitated in exploring a lesbian love due to cultural restraints.
"Otoko still loved Oki, her baby, and her mother, but could these loves have gone unchanged from the time when they were a tangible reality to her? Could not something of these very loves have been subtly transformed into self-love?Of course she would not be aware of it. She had been parted from her baby and her mother by death, and from Oki by a final separation, and these three still lived within her. Yet Otoko alone gave them this life. Her image of Oki flowed along with her through time, and perhaps her memories of their love affair had been dyed by the color of her love for herself, had even been transformed. It had never occurred to her that bygone memories are merely phantoms and apparitions. Perhaps it was to be expected that a woman who had lived alone for two decades without love or marriage should indulge herself in memories of a sad love, and that her indulgence should take on the color of self-love."
Keiko- Otoko’s protégée and a jealous lover avenged Otoko’s melancholy through the malicious play of her physical splendor consuming Taichiro in her seduction. Fumiko whose love was loyal and simple towards Oki, yet appallingly as she prospered in Otoko’s printed exhibition. Otoko who still loved Oki, her mother and her baby and never let go of her 16 yr old from her soul, the very reason of her being hesitant in sketching Keiko somehow seem to be her teenage apparition. And, Oki who could never distinguish nostalgic remorse from factual remorse. Akin to the moss covered roof at the restaurant that never had the chance to dry out because being weighed down by the huge tree, all of Kawabata’s characters were stuck in time buried under the obscurity of memories and prejudices
"Time passed. But time flows in many streams. Like a river, an inner stream of time will flow rapidly at some place and sluggishly at others or perhaps even strand hopelessly stagnant. Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same was for all human beings, every human being flows through time in a different way."
Cherry blossoms in evening.
Ah well, today also
belongs to the past.
Love is narcissistic, deviant, vengeful, powerful and yet somehow beautiful. It breathes life into one’s solitude only to revel in the silence of emptiness,. Happiness is transient and it is in sadness that tranquil loveliness bloom like a white lotus on fire. Beauty encompasses sadness through a spate of sorrows and death; the fleeting exquisiteness of cherry blossom that eventually meets the earthly grave.
Beauty and Sadness is much more than a mere contrivance to attract potential readers, this magic narration, shrouded in magnificent contradiction, has the power to shock right from the beginning with the indwelling lyricism emanating from its title.
Beauty and Sadness. Opposing concepts fused and confused in a blur of balmy ocher and passionate red, in the inevitable passage of time and the timelessness of the frozen moment, in the unconditional love and the implacable revenge, in the required brushstroke of fiction to capture a perpetual reality in a canvas.
This is not a journey for everyone, only for those who willfully choose the forking path of love, for those who struggle against treacherous jealousy with an obstinacy that does not yield to continuum disillusionment, for those who can find in themselves enough insight to bask in that strange scent of mixed roses and cinder, for those daring enough to dance to the rhythm of the beat and the beating heart of the beauty and sadness.
Otoko and Oki’s affair, whose love set fire to their existence and changed not only their lives but also the ones of the yet unborn, becomes the center of the story. Theirs was a brief but intense relationship, Otoko was only fifteen, Oki was a married man in his mid thirties with a newborn son. When Otoko’s illicit baby dies in childbirth and Oki abandons her, she tries to commit suicide but Oki’s brief return brings her back to life.
Twenty years pass and Oki has become a celebrity thanks to his most famous novel based on his affair with Otoko, a book that immortalized their love forever, a moving work of art that made of Otoko an eternal young girl of fifteen.
Otoko has arisen as a battered survivor. She is now a recognized painter in the Japanese tradition who has finally found peace in the company of her female pupil and whimsical lover Keiko. But Otoko’s love for Oki has never run dry.
A fateful encounter between Otoko and Oki reopens unhealed wounds from the past and triggers a chain of events which none of them could have ever predicted, blurring the thin line between love and hate, compassion and revenge.
How do we chop through the frozen sea of others? How can we prevent the past coming forward, how can we avoid the past reviving again and meeting us in its complete strangeness?
A building sense of doom contracts and expands fluidly attuned to the poetic melancholy of the Japanese landscapes, where ancient temples, traditional ceremonies and snow covered and eerie mounts serve as a nest for the development of this classic tragedy of memorable love, loss, madness and revenge wrapped up in the stillness and delicate contemplation that such profound feelings require. Lyric passages about the anthem of human connectedness and their mismatched selves are brought up to life with Kawabata’s careful choice of words.
Beauty and Sadness is one of those rare but not impossible love stories which can’t be erased like one does with discarded tea leaves at the bottom of a cup or like a forgotten picture buried deep at the back of a neglected drawer. This is a hymn to beauty which will remain embedded in the most recondite part of any sensitive, pulsating soul. The essence of existence becomes a feeble and restrained throb accompanying those who allow themselves to be dragged by the flowing stream of this perturbing story.
In an exotic Japan, where tradition and the disturbing presence of unfulfilled desire, meditation and yearning, colorful art and greyish death are inexorably melted, the tearing loss and the stand-still moment will reincarnate into scarred flesh, invoking cold Beauty and piercing Sadness as a chant for passionate love, regardless of the powerful inner currents which presage the insurmountable tragedy.
Someone, somewhere once asked: "Is love worth it"? I would answer that yes, it is.
This book also features a female artist whose character I loved (Otoko) and her very bizarre protege whose behavior baffled me in its erratic and harsh nature. Even after finishing this novel yesterday and thinking about the younger female artist, (Keiko) I have a difficult time figuring out what she really did mean and what her true feelings are. She appears honest in intent at times but then contradicts herself completely. It would be difficult to trust anything she says or does. Murakami has some interesting female characters who can sometimes be unpredictable but Keiko is written 100x stronger than any of his.
This novel captures beauty, sadness, and mental illness in the way the characters experience loneliness, depression, as well as great love and passion but it also explores something completely different. There's a real sense of the Japanese spirit, here, and it became even more clear to me how different overall the Japanese psyche is in comparison to the American psyche. There's a sense of appreciating certain things about nature...noticing certain things, even small things of great beauty and experiencing immense pleasure from them, as well as honoring and remembering the dead. There's a ceremony in the way these characters experience the ringing of bells to the moon to a lock of hair.
Overall, Kawabata has shown us the beauty and sadness in existence and he has succeeded. I can understand why he won the Nobel Prize and I look forward to reading other works of his. I'd really like to read a much longer work, though, next time if it exists. (I've only come across even shorter novels from him, though) I prefer much longer novels to short ones and 206 pages just seemed as if it wasn't long enough to explore all of these deeper themes. If it takes me weeks to read something, I am more fully connected to the characters over time and I think of them in the glimpses of my day when my mind wanders. This one was more of a crash and burn story for me, especially towards the end. Even when Kawabata made such an effort to explore the great moments of beauty and sadness in life, he ends it suddenly and makes the reader feel a little unsatisfied and wanting more.
pg. 79 "It's easy for a woman to go wrong."
pg. 80 "I'm not afraid of suicide. The worst thing is being sick of life."
pg. 110-111 "I like the idea of saying thank you on behalf of the weather...To be sure you could interpret her remark that way. Apologizing to them for the rain was natural enough...She seemed to be speaking for the weather, or for Mt. Arashi in the rain.
pg. 120 "There's no such thing as a woman who can't marry!"
"But there is."
"If you don't, we'll be among the unmourned dead."
"I don't know what that means."
"They're the ones who have no relatives left to mourn them."
"I know but I can't imagine what that would mean." She paused. "You're dead after all"
"It's not just when you're dead. A woman without husband or children must be like that even while she's still alive."
pg. 132 "Old couples getting divorced are bad enough but there's nothing sadder than when they commit suicide together. It must make an older person feel so agitated to see such articles in the papers. Even more so than the way young people feel about the suicide of young lovers."
pg. 134 "Again this morning he found himself complaining about the decay of language...Words change so fast it makes your head spin. So they only have a short life, and even if they survive they're dated-like the novels we write."
pg. 145 "Loneliness seemed to come and go as it pleased."
pg. 157 "A slender neck means you've never loved a man."
pg. 158 "You're not eating," he said. She had hardly touched her dinner.
"The bride doesn't eat at the wedding reception."
"There, that's the kind of thing you say."
"You're the one who started talking about food!"
pg. 183 "...then there's 'Hermitage Away from the Hateful World'"
pg. 189 "It seems strange for a tomb to create a memory"
"But they're built for memories, aren't they?"
There's a lot of beautifully serene evocation of Japanese tradition and history, unexpectedly - but very effectively - set against a story of boiling passions and the unhealed harm people do to each other. And some very interesting glimpses at the complex ways that art and life intersect, both for writers and for visual artists. I particularly liked the little digressions into the physicality of the writing process, and the differences between the effect of manuscript, typescript, woodblock and movable type. And the well where the 12th century writer Fujiwara Teika is said to have drawn water for his inkstone.
There is - probably inevitably - an element of male voyeurism in the way Kawabata writes about the relationship between the two women, with rather more discussion of breasts than we really need, but there's also an intriguingly offbeat fascination with body odour (male as well as female) that you probably wouldn't find in a western novel. And - just like The sound of the mountain - we shouldn't allow all the obi-tying and bath-running to distract us from the way the story is driven by strong female characters. Another superb miniature.