Yasunari Kawabata spoils his readers. So far, everything I have read by him has been, well, great. From his novels like Snow Country and Beauty and Sadness to his shorter works like Palm-of-the-Hand Stories to finally House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, one can’t help but revel in his literature.
This particular collection contains only three stories but they are ever so rich and layered. These tales are a must read for anyone who enjoys the short fiction form, and if looking for an introduction to Japanese literature, this isn’t a bad place to begin.
The first and longest tale in the collection is the title story: “House of the Sleeping Beauties”. It finishes at just under 100 pages, so it’s more a novella than short story. This is one of the oddest, dream-like, yet beautiful works I have read.
The story involves an old man named Eguchi who visits a house that offers the service of spending the night beside an attractive sleeping girl. All the girls are young and none ever know of the men who spend the nights beside them. When the men wake in the morning, they leave before the girls awaken. The girls are, in a sense, “a living toy”, but even their meaning goes even further in that narrator’s claim is that they are “life itself.”
The contrast of the old man nearing the end of his life and how he relates to the youthful sleeping girls recurs throughout the tale. Eguchi, due to his age, is regarded as ugly, while the girls represent beauty and life. The girls are not only in a literal state of unconsciousness, but are in a continual state where “beautiful flesh was forever being born.” Just to give a slice of the philosophical lyricism involved:
“Were not the longing of the sad old men for the unfinished dream, the regret for days lost without ever being had, concealed in the secret of this house? Eguchi had thought before that girls who did not awaken were ageless freedom for old men. Asleep and unspeaking, they spoke as the old men wished.”
So while the lonely Eguchi spends his night beside a sleeping beauty, his mind drifts back to memories involving his old lovers. He begins to see his past within the sleeping girl beside him, and as shown in the above quote, he is able to imagine the girls into whatever he wishes. There are so many elements “House of the Sleeping Beauties” contains: life and death, youth and aging, fantasy and reality, imagination and memory, sex and desire. All of these things aid in the composition of a living person with a living mind.
Eguchi then begins to question the greater ideas in his life, asking himself with sleeping girl beside him: of good and evil, which has he served? Thinking of past affairs, the narrator notes how these affairs were mere moments in a long life and “flowed away in a moment.” Then, the idea of evil is probed further when the narrator mentions that when “beguiled by custom and order, one’s sense of evil went numb.” That these girls are beside him and powerless allows Eguchi to conclude that the act of lying beside them is evil, and were he to strangle one of them, the evil would become more obvious.
The ending is also typical Kawabata in that it is symbolic and not overtly explained—finishing with a question that readers will not necessarily be able to answer.
“One Arm” is the second tale and it involves a woman giving her arm to a man, and allowing him to spend the night with it. Equally as dreamlike, the arm begins speaking to the man and of course this offers up questions with regard to where a person ends… and begins. If something is separated from us, what is it that makes us miss it, and does what we miss reside more within ourselves than the actual thing itself? “Had the arm, separated from the body, been separated too from he shyness and reserve?” the narrator asks.
Then, there is a scene where the man notices his arm has been exchanged for the woman’s arm. What surprises him is that it happens with ease: “There was no shuddering and no spasm, in the girl’s arm or my shoulder. When had my blood begun to flow through the arm, her blood through me?”
“Of Birds and Beasts” is the final story and it involves an old man who acquires both birds and dogs and upon caring for them, he begins to recall past memories. There is an absence of sentimentality to the tone and the cruelty of nature is touched upon, yet the tale contains genuine pathos. This story is actually one of Kawabata’s earlier tales (written in the ‘30s) while the earlier two were both written much later in his career, in the ‘60s.
Other than the obvious lyrical quality of the three tales, each shares the similarity of a “hidden realism”, for while on the surface it is easy for one to categorize these tales as fantasy and dreamlike (for they do offer some of those elements) the rumination and philosophical questioning involved are universal, realistic and timeless. Sure, it’s silly to imagine a house constructed of Sleeping Beauties waiting there for the arrival of old men to rest beside them each night, but the thoughts of life and death that Eguchi thinks about while lying awake are common within any culture. Likewise, the same can be said of “One Arm”, yet the ideas of mortality and where exactly existence resides are realistic queries common for those pondering the human condition as it relates to both loneliness and eroticism.
So, at the risk of sounding repetitive I will repeat myself: House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories is a great collection of tales—read them and you will be spoiled, too.