9781582431055 / 1582431051

First Snow on Fuji





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About the book:

Although he was the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) remains much more obscure in the West than his high-profile protégé Yukio Mishima. Yet he's a writer of formidable talents. For one thing, Kawabata recognized early on the affinity between Japanese poetry--with its abrupt transition from image to image--and the jump-cut flavor of modernist prose. He also explored erotic life at a truly microcosmic level. Some may find a novel like The Mole--which revolves around a woman's habit of fiddling with her eponymous birthmark--a little too molecular in its approach. But sex, like God, is in the details, and throughout his career Kawabata has unearthed some surprising truths about our most urgent appetites.

First Snow on Fuji, a collection of stories originally published in 1958, is a fairly representative slice of the author's oeuvre. In "Her Husband Didn't" (a classic Kawabata title, by the way), a woman's earlobe becomes the discreet object of desire:

The earlobe was just as round and plump as an earlobe ought to be--it was small enough that Junji could squeeze it between the tips of his thumb and forefinger, no bigger than that--yet it filled him with a sense of the beauty of life. The smooth skin, the gentle swelling--the woman's earlobe was like a mysterious jewel.... He had never known anything with a texture like this. It was like touching the lovely girl's soul.
For Kawabata's characters, the physical usually leads straight to the metaphysical, which is what prevents him from deteriorating into a soft-core thrill merchant. And in several of the other stories here, he proceeds directly to the weightier issues. "Silence," for example, is at once a study in failing inspiration and a gloss on Kawabata's own career (the latter argument is made very effectively by translator Michael Emmerich in his introduction). And the title story offers an intriguing take on memory, which Kawabata seems to regard as a distinctly feminine operation: it's "the docility of women that makes it possible for them to return to the past."

What we love most in a writer--the idiosyncratic music of his or her prose--is the hardest thing for a translator to capture. There are times, alas, when Emmerich's ear seems inadequate to the task. His rendering never falls beneath a certain literate level--but for a writer of Kawabata's minimalistic delicacy, a clunky transition or flatfooted phrase can sink the whole enterprise. Readers might prefer to start, then, with Thousand Cranes or Snow Country. But for all its linguistic flaws, First Snow on Fuji reminds us that in literature most of all, less can be more--much more. --James Marcus

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