Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata (Translation: Howard Hibbett)


Ah. Lost love. Adultery. Two extremely mishandled subjects in literature, yet so immensely powerful when done right. What do I say about Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Beauty and Sadness that has not already been said? What is it about this deeply haunting novel that lingers behind the dusty drapes of your mind long after you have turned the last page?

Beauty and Sadness is the story of Oki, a famous novelist, and Otoko. While in his early 30s, Oki had an affair with the fifteen-year old Otoko. Oki is already married and has a son. His wife, Fumiko, finds out about the affair, and Oki abandons the now-pregnant Otoko. Otoko delivers the child prematurely, and the child dies even before she could see it. All she ever finds out is that the child had jet black hair, like her own.

Oki then writes a novel about his affair with Otoko, which is considered to be his most accomplished work. He makes his wife type it out for him, and though jealous, she proceeds to do so. As it is obvious that the girl in the novel is Otoko, she is forced to leave Tokyo and move to Kyoto. All her prospects of ever getting married are ruined by the novel.

Now, over twenty years later, Oki wants to visit Kyoto and celebrate the New Year with Otoko. She is now a famous painter, and lives with her protege and lover, Keiko, a girl of volatile temperament. Convinced that Otoko is still in love with Oki, Keiko wants revenge – both on Otoko’s behalf, and also, out of her own jealousy.

Thus begins this strange and simple story of lost love and human nature.

This story reminded me in part of Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) but perhaps only because of how delicate both these love stories are, in essence. They have very different plots.

Beauty and Sadness is one of the most visually enchanting books I’ve ever read. Consider this: The misty spring rain softened the outline of the mountain across the river and made it even more beautiful. Such beauty, such vividness. Granted that the book has the slightly stilted quality that nearly all translations have. But it only made me wonder how much more beautiful this book would have been in the original Japanese; how much it would have appealed to a native speaker who understood all its nuances.

It also explores the painful landscape of lost love, with all its demons – jealousy, heartbreak, rage, revenge. And the quietness with which those who have once loved someone continue to love them, though that part of their lives has forever ended: Even now he’s there within you, and you’re within him.

Most importantly, the book does not offer you everything on a platter. You fill the story in, in its little blanks. Never has a story of such passion been narrated so dispassionately, thereby severing all connection between the writer and his characters – describing them with no judgment at all – the very part where other writers fail when writing about adultery. Do we hate Oki? We must, but we don’t – we see him through the eyes of Otoko, one whose love for him has transcended everything else. Where does one find such love, except in art and literature?

And as it gradually culminates to its tragic end, you sigh and weep, for the love that once was. For one that will, perhaps, for eternity be.

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