I’ve always thought the feelings of old people are not something to be taken lightly. Being a young man I can’t even imagine what it must be like to go to bed each night with a better than average chance that you won’t wake up. Of course, that could happen to any of us, but it’s not likely, that’s the key point. I often wonder how one copes with a world that is, essentially, no longer there for you; one that ignores you, isn’t trying to grab your attention. How do you cope when life is largely one of observation rather than participation? You just do, I guess; you endure. You endure the failures – your eyes getting worse, your hearing, your movements, your mental capabilities – because the alternative is to get out, to forsake life altogether. I’m not saying, by any means, that someone who has reached this point has to succumb to depression, to inertia [unless it is forced upon you], but that in the grand scheme of things, when so many of us appear to be lost or losing while in the prime of life and perfect health, old age must be a shitty gig a lot of the time, or is certainly no cake walk. In terms of myself, I hope, if I get that far, that I approach these failures with glee, like I’ve always approached failure or misfortune, that I’m a kind but crotchety old bastard who can still laugh at himself, someone who, while staring death in the face, is the first, in this Mexican stand-off, to break, to gurn and giggle. Who knows.
Samuel Beckett, whose best work is all about ageing and deterioration, found the idea of being nose to nose with death horrific, grotesque, absurd. Kawabata, on the other hand, finds in that situation sadness and confusion. For all the supposed gloominess of outlook Becket on death comforts me; Kawabata on the same subject, however, breaks me. I read this great mournful sigh of a book a couple of years ago, and yet I’m still picking up the pieces of my heart; indeed, every so often I spy some of it under a table or catch the cat dashing around my apartment with a ventricle or two between his teeth. The Sound of the Mountain is, then, the story of Shingo, who, even at the age of 62 is experiencing decline of the sort mentioned in my opening paragraph. As with Beckett’s protagonists his awareness of the nearness of death results in a kind of madness, but not a vaudeville madness, more a quiet, ruminative kind. He is haunted by the prospect of his passing, almost literally, for he starts to hear and experience things that other people do not.
One of the things Shingo hears is the sound of the title, which is first referred to in what is, for me, not only the novel’s finest scene but one of my favourite passages in literature. Shingo is suffering from insomnia, contemplating his sleeping wife, who, he ruefully notes, he now only touches in an attempt to stop her snoring [this he does by grabbing her by the neck and shaking her! You don’t need to be Freud to see something fishy in that]. Shingo goes to the window and looks out over the back of the house, at the trees and the mountain in the distance. He hears crickets making noise in the trees, and wonders why he never noticed this before [suggesting perhaps that this noise isn’t real]; one cricket flies into the protective netting over the window, Shingo picks it up and throws it as hard as he can back towards the tree.
[from a painted Japanese screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Now, you might be furrowing your brow after reading the above description, you might be thinking what on earth is wrong with this guy? One of the best scenes in literature? He’s lost his fucking mind. Maybe I have, but the passage gave me goose bumps. Honestly, you have to read it, it’s so wonderful. Everything about it is delicate, subtle: the coarse snoring of the wife, which Shingo resents, contrasted with the sound of the crickets; the cricket – by which we mean the natural world – reaching out to Shingo, and Shingo’s rejection, his momentary defiance; the starry-eyed old man – confused, breaking down both physically and mentally -and the immense beauty and permanence of nature. Anyway, it is here that Shingo hears the sound of the mountain, the sound – a groan, a grumble – that he believes is a portent of death. I spoke of a quiet madness before, but really it’s a kind of cosmic madness, for, although Shingo feels divorced from contemporary, commercial life, he comes, as the novel progresses, to feel closer to nature, to the natural world, he comes almost to communicate with it.
Shingo doesn’t, however, only see [or hear] death in the sound of the mountain, he sees it everywhere and in everything. There’s another scene, towards the beginning of the novel, with Shingo buying seafood. As he enters the shop he notices that the lobster in the cooking pot should be alive, but, of course, it isn’t. And that might strike you as ridiculous too [dying man/dead lobster], and it would be if Kawabata, through Shingo, made a big deal of it, if he, like a lot of writers who can’t let their audience make their own discoveries, had his man engaging in introspective conversation with himself about how he is *sniff* just like that lobster. He doesn’t though; Kawabata’s touch is light, his ego non-existent. He was an incredible writer, an impressionistic writer of the highest calibre.
“It’s remarkable how we go on year after year, doing the same old things. We get tired and bored, and ask when they’ll come for us”
In terms of plot, well, there isn’t one. The bulk of the action is Shingo’s relationships, his interaction with his family, a family that he feels he may have consistently failed throughout his life. His son is a bit of a playboy, and Shingo sees in this his own mistakes. There’s some intriguing stuff about the daughter-in-law, whom Shingo is protective of, and ultimately finds himself inappropriately attracted to. I’d have to read the book again [as I plan to in the next month or so] to make more of that, to be able to discuss what I think all that means. There is, too, the spectre of his wife’s dead sister, who Shingo had the hots for; Shingo took his wife almost as a consolation prize, almost out of sympathy or duty. Now, as an old man, this woman, his wife’s sister, enters his dreams. A sign of regret? Of missed opportunity? The ghost of a greater love?
In conclusion, I want to note that, although I consider Snow Country to be Kawabata’s masterpiece, the fact that this book still touches me, still pummels me, still plays on my mind after all the time that has passed since i first read it, shows just how powerful it is. I will say, however, that it is perhaps too long, that it meanders from time to time [even for a book where meandering is almost the point] and could struggle to hold your attention over the full distance.