Novella a Day in May 2020 #30

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata (1935-7 trans. Edward G Seidensticker 1956) 121 pages

My brother doesn’t often lend me books, in fact I can’t remember the last time he did. So when he lent me Snow Country with the warning ‘I want it back’, I thought it must be exceptionally good. Turns out my brother and the Nobel Prize committee are in agreement on this, as Snow Country was cited when Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

It begins with Shimamura, an overprivileged wastrel who doesn’t have to work, leaving Tokyo to travel to a hot spring town in the north of Japan. He is captivated by Komako, a young geisha who works there.

“The more he tried to call up a clear picture of her, the more his memory failed him, the farther she faded away, leaving him nothing to catch hold. In the midst of this uncertainty only the one hand, and in particular one forefinger, even now seemed damp from her touch, seemed to be pulling him back to her from afar.”

Shimamura has a wife and children back in Tokyo so the relationship with Komako is a commercial one, but still one in which both seem emotionally invested. I say seem, because nothing is ever spelled out in Snow Country. This is not the novella to read if you want fully rounded characterisation or plot development. What Kawabata creates is series of impressions, moments and images that layer on top of each other.

“The woman’s hair, the glass of the window, the sleeve of the kimono – everything he touched was cold in a way Shimamura had never known before.”

That’s not to say that Snow Country is an unsatisfying read. Kawabata is a beautiful, precise writer and he crafts an atmosphere expertly. The natural surroundings are stunningly described, and the people are believable and idiosyncratic, even though we know very little about them.

“there was something sad about the full flesh under that white powder. It suggested woollen cloth, and again it suggested the pelt of some animal.”

It’s also a deeply melancholy read. The two main characters will never be together and both seem trapped. Shimamura by his inability to find a meaningful way to spend his time, Komako by debt and circumstance. The sadness of it all crept up on me due to the writing style I’ve described, and it seemed all the more poignant for doing so, rather than explicitly announcing itself.

My memory is terrible, so as a reader I find what tends to stay with me is not plot or character, but more the atmosphere of a novel and the feelings it evoked. Snow Country is one of those that will stay with me a long time.

“All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls. And he knew he could not go on pampering himself forever.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #5

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino – Hiromi Kawakami (1995, trans. Allison Markin Powell 2019) 195 pages

I really enjoyed the previous novels by Hiromi Kawakami that I’ve read, Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop, so I approached The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino with high expectations. Although this was still highly readable and full of well-realised, idiosyncratic characters, I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as the others. I think this is because I misunderstood the title. I thought Nishino was the subject and the Loves were the object. But, in having the Ten Loves tell their stories in individual chapters, it turns out they are the subject, Nishino the object – an enigmatic object who remains mysterious to the end.

This is not a novella about the romance of love, though it is about the impact of romantic encounters. Kawakami is interested in how people relate to each other and the effect that we have on people’s lives that we can’t recognise or fully comprehend. She’s not interested – at least not here – on rose-tinted explorations of romantic love. The first chapter is from the point of view of a married woman who has an affair with Nishino:

“What is love, really? People have the right to fall in love, but not the right to be loved. I fell in love with Nishino, but that’s not to say he was required to fall in love with me. I knew this, but what was so painful was that my feelings for Nishino had no effect on his feelings for me. Despite this pain, I longed for him more and more.”

We then go back in time to when Nishino was at school, and learn something of his painful past:

“A strange air drifted around Nishino. An air that none of the other kids in class had. I had the impression that, if I were to try and push that air around, there would be no end to it. The more I tried to push it, the deeper I would get caught up in it. And no matter how hard I pushed, I would never reach Nishino on the other side.”

Nishino is someone who is never without a partner, and sometimes these women overlap. The women’s perspectives on each other add to the narrative; one of his loves is stunningly beautiful, but we only learn this from his subsequent girlfriend, as the woman herself would never describe herself that way.

Despite his womanising, it is Nishino who comes across as vulnerable, much more so than the women, even when he causes them pain.

“I wanted to flee from Nishino as quickly as possible. This desire welled up from the bottom of my heart. I still couldn’t put my finger on what the sense of discomfort was – all I knew for sure was that it was present. And no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t make it go away – that cold and awful uneasiness.

I wanted to flee. This simple thought flooded my mind. The same way that I had wished I could love him.”

Through ten very different women, we catch glimpses of Nishino but we never see him fully. This captures the central question of the novella: how much do we ever know another person? It’s not a bitter question though, or a desolate one. Rather it is one of compassion. I came away from Ten Loves… with a sense not of the importance of romantic love, but of kindness. Because at the point you touch another person’s life, you have no idea of what has gone before and what they carry with them.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #1

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2016, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori 2018) 163 pages

It’s always with some trepidation that I embark on Novella a Day in May, as I’m never sure I’ll make it to the end. This year the feeling is even more marked, as with all that is happening in the world I’m finding it hard to read as well as write blog posts. But I do really enjoy NADIM, so I’m making a start and I’ll try not to berate myself if I don’t finish this year. Onwards! 

I shouldn’t really worry about not feeling ready or particularly organised, as the world has a way of laughing at such endeavours. I read Convenience Store Woman a while ago and thought I’d get it written up well in advance of NADIM 2020. Then somehow the document got overwritten  – and by somehow I mean I stupidly overwrote it – and I couldn’t recover it. So I’m writing this months after I initially read the novella. It speaks to its strength that even with my terrible memory I could recall how good it is and how much I enjoyed it.

Keiko is in her mid-thirties and has been working in a convenience store half her life. For all of her life, she has never fitted in:

“My parents were at a loss what to do about me, but they were affectionate to me as ever. I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home. I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.”

Within the highly ordered, routine environment of the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart convenience store, Keiko finds her approach works well.

“For the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part of the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day, I actually became a normal cog in society.”

However, as a woman approaching middle-age, Keiko comes under pressure to become a different type of normal cog. She is always single, with no interest in sex. She will not be getting married or having children any time soon, and the job that was at first tolerated by others, is now thought odd as it is not a career. Her sister has helped by thinking up a lie she can use, that she has health issues that suit a part-time job, or elderly parents that need her support, but still Keiko finds herself coming under closer scrutiny for her life choices.

A new employee at the store, Shiraha, may offer a solution. He is a misogynist with ill-thought out social theories and is completely unlikable. However, if they live together, Shiraha gets a place to stay and Keiko can pretend to fit in. What could possibly go wrong?

Keiko is a truly unique character. She is detached to an almost disturbing extent – whacking a playmate over the head with a shovel as a child, idly wondering about knifing her nephew to keep him quiet. Ultimately though, she is a convenience store woman to her core:

“A convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities, it has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like. I nodded in satisfaction and walked briskly around the store checking the displays. […] I could hear the store’s voice telling me what it wanted, how it wanted to be. I understood it perfectly.”

Convenience Store Woman is funny and almost surreal in places, but it is also an incisive look at what it means to be a woman struggling to find a place of acceptance within a society that oppresses who she truly is.

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” (George Burns)

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! From my twitter feed, I know for some that means being as far away from relatives as possible 😉 If Christmas advertising were to be believed, we should all have families like this:

Whereas in fact the reality may be closer to this:

In which case I would say well done you, because I’m the only person alive who doesn’t like It’s a Wonderful Life *ducks for cover* whereas the Addams Family are awesome.  Whether you spent Christmas with George Bailey or Uncle Fester,  I thought this week might be a good time to look at families that are found in unexpected places.

Firstly, Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999) which I picked up after loving Our Souls at Night so much and many bloggers recommended I start the Plainsong trilogy. All the things I enjoyed about Our Souls at Night were here: a gentle, unshowy voice, believable idiosyncratic characters, ordinary lives shown to have a delicate beauty.

Set in the fictional prairie community of Holt, Colorado, Plainsong focusses on a pregnant schoolgirl, Victoria Roubideaux, and one of her teachers, Tom Guthrie, who is splitting up with his wife. After Victoria is thrown out by her mother, another teacher, Maggie Jones, suggests to a pair of elderly brothers, Harold and Raymond McPheron, that they take her in.

“ You’re getting goddamn stubborn and hard to live with. That’s all I’ll say. Raymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.

What?

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.”

They offer Victoria a home, and the portrayal of their developing relationship with the young woman is just lovely. The brothers are set in their ways and unused to female company. Victoria is shy and unsure. The tentative gestures they make towards one another pay off and a tender, mutually nurturing affection develops.

“The brothers were watching her closely, a little desperately, sitting at the table, their faces sober and weathered but still kindly, still well meaning, with their smooth white foreheads shining like polished marble under the dining room light. I wouldn’t know, she said. I couldn’t say about that. I don’t know anything about it. Maybe you could explain it to me.

Well sure, Harold said. I reckon we could try.”

Meanwhile, Tom’s sons Ike and Bobby are struggling to come to terms with their mother’s depression and subsequent leave-taking. A similarly unexpected yet gentle cross-generational relationship develops between the boys and elderly, isolated Mrs Stearns who they know from their paper round.

“The timer dinged on the stove. They took the first oatmeal cookies out of the oven and now there was the smell of cinnamon and fresh baking in the dark little room. The boys sat at the table and ate the cookies together with the milk Mrs Stearns had poured out into blue glasses. She stood at the counter watching them  and sipped a cup of hot tea and ate a small piece of cookie, but she wasn’t hungry. After a while she smoked a cigarette and tapped ashes in the sink.

You boys don’t say very much, she said. I wonder what you’re thinking all the time.

About what?

About anything. About the cookies you made.

They’re good, Ike said.”

Plainsong is a gentle tale about all that human beings can give and be to one another, but it is not remotely sentimental or rose-tinted. Haruf shows, he doesn’t tell, with a restraint and subtlety that is easy to underestimate but is absolutely masterful. I find his writing incredibly moving. It’s going to be a real strain on my 2018 book buying ban not to rush out and buy the novels of his I don’t yet own.

Secondly, Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (2013, trans. Alison Watts, 2017). Again, this is a simply told tale of ordinary people, and it is truly heartwarming. The main protagonist is the decidedly unheroic Sentaro. He has a criminal record and is employed by people he owes money to. He sells dorayaki – pancakes filled with the titular paste – with no pride in or commitment to his work. One day Tokue, an elderly lady with a visible disability in her hands and face arrives in the shop:

“ ‘I had one of your dorayaki the other day. The pancake wasn’t too bad, I thought, but the bean paste, well…’

‘The bean paste?’

‘Yes. I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.’

‘You couldn’t? That’s strange.’ Sentaro made a face as if to show how regrettable that was, though he knew full well his bean paste could to reveal no such thing.”

Sentaro employs Tokue on the understanding that she will not interact with the customers who he thinks will be put-off by her disability. Tokue’s delicious bean paste brings more customers to the shop and business begins to boom. As Sentaro and Tokue’s relationship develops, he begins to understand that she has survived Hansen’s disease (leprosy) but is still subject to significant stigma around the disease. One of the schoolgirl customers, Wakana, becomes very attached to Tokue, and they visit her at the asylum she continues to live in although the government has passed an act which means those with Hansen’s disease are no longer kept in isolation.

“Nevertheless human lives had been swallowed up by this place and for a hundred years, continually spurned. It felt to Sentaro as if the singular silence rose from the very earth beneath their feet, steeped as it was in sighs and regrets.”

Sweet Bean Paste is about living life to the full even when society is circumscribing it in cruel ways. It is about friendship’s power to heal and to empower. It is also about opening ourselves to experience the world in new and surprising ways, no matter our age. Tokue has an almost mystical relationship with her cooking, which enriches both her and those who consume her food.

“When I make sweet bean paste I observe closely the colour of the adzuki beans faces. I take in their voices. That might mean imagining a rainy day or the beautiful fine weather they have witnessed. I listen to their stories of the winds that blew on their journey to me.”

And so in the end, I think Sweet Bean Paste is about nourishment in all its forms; it is there for the taking if we have the wisdom to see it and the open hearts to embrace it.

To end, never let it be said that I shy away from the obvious: