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Love Through the Looking Glass

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata translated by Howard Hibbet Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 206 pp., $7.95

By Robert W. Keefer

KAWABATA delighted in reflections. At the beginning of Snow Country, a man on a train is astonished by the sudden image of a woman's face in the window beside him; the "other worldly power" of this symbol recurs numerous times in this short novel, evoking a poignant sense of identity and separation, of love tempered by loneliness.

Beauty and Sadness, Kawabata's last novel, incorporates this theme into the very structure of the story, and uses it to explore the limits of human involvement. The book's characters, and their relationships, reflect each other in bewildering array; images distort, obscure, and sometimes clarify each other as if through the mirrors in a circus fun-house.

Oki Toshio, a successful but somewhat lonely novelist in his tifties, decides to visit one of the loves of his youth. Ueno Otoko. This visit awakens feelings of passion and remorse that had lain dormant through the 24 years since their separation; he had deserted the 16-year-old Otoko following her suicide attempt prompted by the death of their premature baby. During the visit, he meets Keiko, Otoko's young protege and lover, in whom he sees the full bloom of Otoko's lost beauty and passion. But aware of Otoko's past. Keiko sets out single mindedly to seduce both Oki and his son Taichiro attempting to gain revenge for her mistress.

Kawabata's story takes place in that ethereal realm that lies between abstraction and reality Both Otoko and Keiko are painters living through and for their art Otoko plans a painting called Ascension of an Infant as a redemptive memorial to her head baby

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.

THE COMMON factor uniting all the characters in the story is itself an abstraction--a romantic novel, in which Oki had sought to immortalize his passion for Otoko. The novel was a work of love, and an immediate success. The book had made his career, had meant luxuries for the family and education for his children; but it nearly destroyed his marriage and later cast Otoko into the harsh glare of public curiosity.

All the characters, however, are uncomfortable with their shared destiny. Oki wonders:

...what, for example, was the relationship between the Otoko in his novel and the real Otoko? It was hard to say.

And when Keiko confesses her acute desire for revenge to Taichiro, he replies:

"I can't help what happened in this distant past. But does our being here together have anything to do with that old tie between Miss Ueno and my father?"

But Taichiro, like the others, remains helpless.

What he finds is that the sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon their sons. His relationship with Keiko is doomed by the specter of his father's affair with Otoko. In a sense, he must repay Otoko, through Keiko, for his very existence--a life that was purchased at her expense.

Thus the reflections abound and multiply. Oki sees Otoko in Keiko; Keiko sees a youthful Oki in Taichiro. And Otoko finally loses her lover to Oki and Taichiro just as Oki's wife once lost him to her.

Kawabata's attention to small details reinforces this sense of multiple images. Characters mouth the same words, think the same thoughts, and even visit the same locations as if they were indeed living each others lives.

All the characters in Beauty and Sadness are finally lost in the confusion between image and reality Otoko seeks release from her sadness in the vision of her Intant. Oki tries to break out of his loneliness by finding the heroine of his novel in its model. Confronted by these images, none of the characters is finally able to smash the mirror to see the others as real, independent people.

AS IN PREVIOUS works, Kawabata creates here an entire symbolic world through the use of colors. The painting that had brought Oki to visit Otoko was of a red flower.

...larger than life, with few leaves and a single white bud low on the stem. In that unnaturally large flower he saw Otoko's pride and nobility.

When Keiko presents him with one of her paintings, it is of a plum blossom "as large as a baby's face," mixing the colors red and white:

Whether you thought of the picture as cold or warm, the plum blossom throbbed with the youthful emotions of the painter. Probably Keiko had painted it just for him...

This mingling of passion and cool detachment completely infuses both Oki's love for Otoko, and its later reverberations.

Kawabata casts the novel in his familiar impressionistic style. The action drifts smoothly, almost dreamily: the actual time span of the novel is only half a year, but past events are called and accumulated until the story finally assumes a completely timeless quality.

In one of his frequent digressions, Kawabata seems to remark on his own structural style:

Time passed. But time flows in many streams. Like a river, an inner stream of time will flow rapidly at some places and sluggishly at others, or perhaps even stand hopelessly stagnant. Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows the same for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.

Due to Kawabata's lightness of touch, Beauty and Sadness may appear on casual reading to be rather slight. Yet it is perhaps the most elegantly constructed of Kawabata's novels. Like all of his works, it needs to be relished by the reader slowly, more like poetry than prose: associations must be given time to form, small details must be carefully absorbed. Kawabata was a master lyricist and a great writer about love; behind the misty outlines of his style one is bound to find a solid artistic core.

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