Presenting (One Present, and Lots of New Year’s Greetings)

Akemashite Omedetou ("Happy New Year" in Japanese)

“Happy New Year” in Japanese, as illustrated by a couple of lovely women at the folk-traditions festival I just spent several days at. Those books it’s sitting on are all the haiku- and Japanese-literature-related books I am currently reading. I highly recommend all of them.

So a couple of weeks ago I offered to give one of you a present. And all you had to do in return was cut off the pinky finger on your right hand and mail it to me … wait, was that not your understanding of the deal? Oh, okay, all you really had to do was comment on the blog sometime between then and yesterday, and then hope you got lucky in the present lottery.

This is how the present lottery worked: I made a list of everyone who commented in the appropriate time period, numbered them in the order they commented, and then went to look for the teenager. I found him in his mad-scientist lab in the basement, crouched over a computer hooked up to a number of unidentifiable electronic parts, typing gobbledygook into a little window. (He does this kind of thing a lot. I’m always a little afraid that someday the Interwebs will explode and I’ll find out it was his fault.)

I said to him, “Hey, quit typing your gobbledygook and make me a random-number generator to pick a random number between 1 and 18. Because that’s how many people commented on my blog and I have to give one of them a present and I want this to be a completely scientific, unbiased process.”

He gave me a strange look, but obediently (he is a good boy, really, despite the exploding Interwebs), he opened another little window, typed some different gobbledygook, Googled some stuff real quick, typed more gobbledygook, and then said, “Four.” I am trusting that he did actually create a random number generator and didn’t just pick a number out of his head to make me go away. But whatever, four it is.

And the winner is … Alegria Imperial, whose wonderful blog jornales you must all go take a look at right now. Her New Year haiku there is great — it features a rabbit stole, which I love because I have never read another haiku about a rabbit stole. Also it is a refreshing variation on all the other New Year rabbit haiku floating around out there right now. (2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, in case you had somehow managed not to find this out despite the fact that every single haiku poet in the universe has written a New Year’s haiku with a rabbit reference in it in the last week. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. You can never have too many haiku about rabbits, as far as I’m concerned. I’m just jealous because I haven’t been able to write a good one yet myself.)

So the present, as I mentioned in my original post, is a copy of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, which I completely-on-purpose-but-utterly-foolishly purchased a copy of at a used bookstore even though I already own one. The really great thing is that, as she mentioned in her comment, Alegria already owns one too! But it’s one of her favorite books and it’s beginning to get a little decrepit, and she was wanting another copy. So off it goes to sit on the shelf next to its brother. (Email me your snail mail address, Alegria!)

By an amazing coincidence, on Christmas Day Kuniharu Shimizu, at his fantastic haiga site see haiku here, wrote a post featuring a haiga inspired by Snow Country, along with a brief commentary. (I really recommend you visit his site to see the wonderful photo that accompanies the haiku.)

traveling alone
the other end of the tunnel
is a snow country

“I can almost hear someone in the car yelling, ” Hey, close the window, shut the cold wind out”.
This photo reminded me of Kawabata, Yasunari’s “Snow Country”. The haiku got a hint from the first sentence of the novel.

When I had chance to visit the same snow country, which is in Niigata, I took Jyoetsu Shinkan-sen train. It is the super express train with fixed window so nobody cannot open it. When a long tunnel ended, snow covered fields and mountains of Echigo-Yuzawa sprawled before my eyes. It was so nice to view such a pristine landscape from the warm and comfortable seat of the train.

— Kuniharu Shimizu

And it’s been so nice over the last eight months to view the landscape of the haiku world from the warm and comfortable seat of this blog, surrounded by so many wonderful traveling companions. I wish I could send you all presents. But I’ll give you what I can: My deepest gratitude to all of you for reading, writing back, and sharing your lives and thoughts and writing with me. I wish you all the happiest of New Years.

Snow Country: the novel and haiku (June 30: 1-2)

I recently read the Japanese modern classic novel Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, which I recommend without reservation to anyone who likes both novels and haiku. Here’s why:

“Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century haiku masters. Haiku are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman’s feet. …

“The haiku manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void.”

— Edward G. Seidensticker, from the introduction to his translation of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

I was totally fascinated by the idea of a novel inspired by haiku — two literary forms that on the surface could not possibly be more different. The novel, as it happens, is actually my favorite literary form; I just can’t write them (and believe me I’ve tried) because my attention span is not nearly long enough, which is why I write haiku instead. And much as I love the challenge of trying to recreate an experience and an insight in the few lines of a haiku, I frequently find myself frustrated by the tininess of its canvas — hence all my haiku sequences and narratives.

I love Seidensticker’s definition of haiku (another one to add to the collection on my mantelpiece) as “tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms.”

I was also really interested in Seidensticker’s further description of haiku as a fusion of “motion and stillness.” Something to think about. Does he mean literally motion and stillness, or something more like concrete images, an engagement with the physical world, vs. abstract insight or internal activity? That he then goes to equate this with “a mingling of the senses” confuses the issue further for me — does this imply that mixing senses creates a kind of movement in the poem and in the novel?

There is certainly not much literal movement in the novel; all that happens in it is that a pretentious, self-involved guy from Tokyo goes several times over several years to a mountain resort to visit a particular young geisha with whom he is — not exactly in love, but in fascination. There are only a few other characters who are named or described in any detail, and most of the book consists of conversations between the two main characters, detailed descriptions of their surroundings, and the thoughts of the male protagonist (the viewpoint is third-person limited, so we don’t get to find out what the geisha is thinking).

“Brief flashes in a void” — this is an excellent description of the overall impression the novel gives. There are the mountains, the snow, a fairly incoherent relationship between two people, all these things seeming blank and quiet, a canvas on which appear sudden splatters of awareness much like the condensed expression of awareness of a haiku, powerful, vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, feelings. They seem to be drawing the man from Tokyo forward, toward some kind of decision or personal change — though what kind, we’re not in the end quite sure. Here’s an example:

“From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.”

— Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, p. 30 (Perigee Books edition)

Here are the mixture of senses — sight, sound, touch — that Seidensticker refers to, and also the fusion of motion and stillness — this is a static picture of some trees and yet they are described in terms of active movement — they “threw up their trunks,” the needles “blocked out the sky,” they are ready, most shockingly, to be used as “a terrible weapon for some god.” There is both beauty and harshness and cruelty in this scene, as there is in the relationship between the two main characters.

There are several passages that you can easily imagine a classical haiku poet seizing on as material, like this one:

“Before a white wall, shaded by eaves, a little girl in ‘mountain trousers’ and an orange-red flannel kimono, clearly brand-new, was bouncing a rubber ball. For Shimamura, there was autumn in the little scene.”

— Kawabata, p. 109

(mountain autumn
in her new red kimono
she bounces a ball

— MLA)

or this one:

“[A building is on fire.] At the edge of the garden, withering chrysanthemums were silhouetted against the light from the inn — or the starlight. For an instant he almost thought it was the light from the fire.”

— Kawabata, p. 163

(chrysanthemums
withering in the light
from the stars

— MLA)

The final pages of the novel, the content of which I won’t discuss here because I hate spoilers, are a tour de force of sense-mixing, of powerful incongruities, of stillness and motion fused in the purest way imaginable. And the final line, just to give you a sense of how haiku-like Kawabata can be, is: “the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.” There are some modern haiku poets (and I might be one of them) for whom that would be a perfect, complete one-line haiku.

Don’t you want to go read it now instead of reading my long, boring treatise on it? Or did you stop reading my treatise a long time ago and go buy it or score it from the library? Either way, good for you.

Postscript: Via a link to “possibly related posts” at the bottom of this entry I discovered the following closely related essay by an Indian writer — she discusses both Snow Country and another Kawabata novel. Very interesting perspective.