I was shocked, when I first came to this part of the world, that not every literary person had read Kawabata. Desperately I tried to persuade everyone I know to read Kawabata so we could talk about how great he was, as soon as possible.
The story I’d use to make my pitch is ‘The House of the Sleeping Beauties’. It probes the themes of the obsession towards youthful female bodies and the dread about one’s pending mortality and renders them into a quiet and stifling entity.
At the end of the story, Eguchi – the old man who visited the House to admire the fresh-faced beauty – didn’t die, it was someone else who passed away. Although the death was denied by the woman of the house, Eguchi felt certain that the sleeping girl had turned into a corpse in the middle of the night. He would not be persuaded otherwise, because the truth was, this was exactly what he’d hoped to find in the House of Sleeping Beauties – the eventuality of mortality.
First published in Japanese in 1961. First published in English in The House of the Sleeping Beauties Kodansha, 2004
Not as lionised or as well-known as either Mishima or Tanizaki, Nobel laureate Kawabata was easily their equal, as exemplified by his compact novels, Thousand Cranes, Beauty and Sadness and Snow Country. He was equally masterful when it came to the short story. The short tales collected in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories are almost a precursor of flash fiction, given their brevity and density of thought, emotion and observation. ‘Autumn Rain’ begins with the line: ‘Deep in my soul I saw a vision of fire falling on mountains red with autumn leaves’ and continues with the same intensity, until it suddenly switches to more quotidian matters. The narrator is a man travelling by train to Kyoto to see a girl he remembered from a hospital when she was a baby, born at the same time as another girl who died. Now in the prime of her life, the girl who survived is about to be married. The nature of the narrator’s link to the girl is opaque – is he her father? Or was the girl who died his daughter? Or did he even aspire to marry the girl herself? The story is too brief to provide the answers. Yet the imagery of decay and death, of fire and water, of vulnerable children, adds up to a poignant picture of the fragility of life, and mankind’s tenuous place in the universe.
Collected in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1988
Similar to ‘The Bridegroom Was a Dog’ mentioned above, this is also a long short story available in a mini-collection form. But this is just about the creepiest, weirdest story I’ve ever read. An older man pays to sleep next to a young woman at a weird brothel-esque house for narcoleptics.
First published in Japanese 1961. Included in The House of Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, Vintage International 2017