Yasunari Kawabata reveals to what degree intricacy and complexity can exist among human relationships within his final published novel, Beauty and Sadness. Following in the same vein as his taut and spare Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, where Kawabata effectively condenses life-sized moments into poignant points, Beauty and Sadness is a great novel that shares many of these similar strengths. Finishing at a lean 206 pages, much psychological intensity and artistic craft are set within, and universal themes like love, jealousy, revenge and manipulation are all handled with subtlety and beauty.
The idea of using beauty to gain power is not something new, but in Beauty and Sadness we have fully-fleshed characters and moments distilled memorably just by way of a few dialogue exchanges. In fact, very often it is what the characters do not say that reveals the most about them.
Oki Toshio is a novelist traveling to Kyoto to hear the New Year’s Eve Bells with an old lover, Otoko Ueno. Otoko is a painter who is sexually involved with a young woman named Keiko. When Oki arrives in Kyoto, we get the sense that he is lonely and hoping to reconnect with Otoko, but they fail to reconnect in the ways he hopes. Instead, multiple love triangles unfold, where the young Keiko seduces the older man that is Oki, yet while the two are engaged within their sex act, Keiko shouts out Otoko’s name. The reason for this is not what one might think.
Oki also has a wife in addition to a son that is Keiko’s age. Later, Keiko admits that she used her beauty and her sex to “break up his family” and also “seek revenge” on Otoko’s behalf. She admits to her older female lover that she spent the night with Oki out of jealousy, but when Otoko asks the question if she should be the one jealous, neither women have an answer they are willing to speak of.
Keiko is an excellently crafted manipulator and arguably a masochist. See seems to take pleasure in making those around her miserable. Despite being much younger than Otoko, Keiko speaks to the older woman with a bit of condescension and disdain. Keiko is a brat who lacks respect for those around her, and yet it takes reading the full novel to really see this unfold. Kawabata only reveals these insights in subtle ways that build throughout the narrative. It is this very quality that makes Beauty and Sadness the complex work that it is, one that requires an observant eye and mind to understand.
More layers are added to the dynamics when the narrator questions Otoko’s motives:“Even if she had been led into her infatuation with her pupil Keiko, so much younger and of her own sex, was that not another form of infatuation with herself?”
The narrator continues with: “Had Otoko not wanted to create a pure, lovely image of herself? Apparently the girl of sixteen who loved Oki would always exist within her, never to grow up. Yet she had been unaware of it…”
The love triangle, while on the surface could seem soap-operatic, is nothing of the sort, because of the intricate ways in which it is handled. The intricacy, coupled with these underlining questions of identity and memory, all give Beauty and Sadness an extra layering of psychological depth and resonance.
Eventually, Keiko seduces Oki’s son, Taichiro, once again using the act of falling in love as revenge. When Taichiro questions her on this, Keiko admits that it is “feminine jealousy,” and that she is jealous “because Miss Ueno still loves your father… because she doesn’t bear the least grudge toward him.”
Beauty and Sadness also offers moments of philosophical rumination, such as when the narrator notes: “Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”
This insightful observation also relates to the characters at hand. We get the sense that they are just floating through time, allowing circumstance to control them. Keiko is perhaps the only one this does not fully apply to since she, being the one with such beauty, is able to control and manipulate those around her. Keiko even gets Taichiro to convince his mother that they are to be married, or rather, it is Keiko who convinces his mother of this, but Taichiro does not offer any disagreement. Instead he says nothing.
Eventually, an accident occurs where both Keiko and Taichiro’s lives are in question. The reader is not a witness to the accident, but is only told of it. The omission of the event makes the impact all the more powerful, since we can only imagine what went on. This is a perfect example illustrating how great storytelling resides not only in what is shown, but in what a writer chooses to omit.
The ending of Beauty and Sadness leaves much to be implied. Similar in ambiguity to the powerful and effective way Kawabata ended Snow Country, Beauty and Sadness shares that same level of ambiguity, albeit differently, yet the characters are still impotent to the circumstance that surrounds them. We are not told everything, and this only heightens the novel’s power.
Beauty and Sadness is structurally and lyrically much to be admired and the translation by Howard Hibbett does not disappoint. Here is a slice of true beauty and proof that with beauty does come power.