Recently, I have found myself daydreaming about my past partners, specifically the most intimate moments; not for masturbatory purposes, nor because I long to go back and be with those girls, but because I find the openness, the opportunity that was afforded me in those moments, extraordinary. That someone would let me, would want me to caress their bare skin, or kiss their thigh, still stuns me. Then it occurs to me, while wandering through these pointless daydreams, that someday the skin I once caressed will be shrivelled and sagging and old, and I am forced to acknowledge to myself that my own will be too, and that the desire to plant those types of kisses will seem ridiculous, if it even exists within me at all; and that likewise, the desire to be kissed by me will exist in fewer and fewer women.

In House of the Sleeping Beauties Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata explores many of these same feelings, focussing on memory, death, old age, eroticism, innocence etc. Eguchi, a sixty-seven year old man, arrives at a house, that is something like a brothel, where one can pay so as to be allowed to sleep beside a young woman. And by sleep we mean sleep. The girls have been put under before you enter the room, and will not wake no matter what you do. Yet visitors must not engage in any ‘funny stuff,’ such as putting a finger in a girl’s mouth. It is only by behaving yourself that you will become a trusted customer. One of these trusted customers is Kega, who introduced Eguchi to the place, and who he describes as being so old that he is ‘no longer a man.’ It is not made explicit in the text but it is clear that what he means by this, at least in part, is that he can no longer have sex, and so he is of course no threat to the girls in the house, he is no threat to any woman anywhere.

“A poetess who had died young of cancer had said in one of her poems that for her, on sleepless nights, ‘the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned.”

Eguchi, although advanced in years, is not quite in the same situation; he is shocked by how beautiful the first girl is, and that shock, you could say, is the stirring of desire, a sign of life, of vitality. Moreover, he wants to violently rouse her, indicating that he isn’t ready yet to give up on life, to settle for a living toy, and get his kicks only in his mind. As is often the case with Kawabata’s work, the natural world could be said to further illuminate the author’s themes and mirror the main character’s emotional and mental state. Once inside the room Eguchi notes that the wind is bringing the sound of approaching winter, and winter is of course the final season of the year, the one that we would most associate with death, with barrenness, with unhappiness. The old man also hears the sound of crashing waves, which, again, suggests life and vitality, and even rage.

Tellingly, Kega confesses to Eguchi that it is only when sleeping beside one of the girls that he feels alive, which hints at the special allure of the house. The girls are not simply there to provide a passive kind of companionship. That could be got in any number of ways. The girls act as a reminder, they ferry the old men back to a time when they were in reality going to bed beside young women or at least when there was the possibility of doing so; they make the men feel young again, helping them to forget that they are eyeballing death…because who can think about the end when there is a beautiful, naked young woman in bed with you? Bearing in mind the emotional and physical state of these men, it is also important that the girls themselves are non-threatening; if they are not awake they cannot judge, even silently, and there can be no awkward conversation, no expectations, and no obvious, embarrassing generational gap. It is only when they are asleep that the fantasy can be maintained.

Baron Raimond von Stillfried - Sleeping Japanese Woman 1870

Had Eguchi been a Kega, had his experience of the house been as entirely positive, the story would not be as interesting as it is. Certainly in the beginning, far from finding peace in the situation, he feels disquieted by it, as indicated by the poem he recites to himself, which references drowned corpses. Moreover, one of the women is referred to as a ‘phantom.’ This could be understood as a reference to her white, unblemished skin, but the real significance of this comparison is in the girls being, like the men themselves, somewhere between life and death. Sleep, which is often called the cousin of death, is a strange intermediary stage between the two states of being, having much in common with both. The sleeping beauties are, in a way, like corporeal, touchable memories or fantasies; they are malleable, supple; they can be manipulated into being anything [imaginatively, not literally]. Sex dolls work in much the same way, in that anything can be projected onto them.

Yet, as with all great literature, it is possible to see more in the story than the specific situation Kawabata describes. Making my way through it for the second time I was put in mind of Jeffrey Dahmer, who claimed that he zombified his victims so that they wouldn’t run away or refuse him. One could, therefore, interpret House of the Sleeping Beauties as a comment on human neediness, a neediness that isn’t limited to the elderly. Also, more could be made of what I was discussing above, in relation to sex dolls. It is becoming increasingly the case that men [and women too perhaps] don’t want and cannot handle real people; what they want is something perfect, something visually clean and pure, something always obliging. You need only look at the popularity of the dead-eyed, plastic princesses of porn; these women always look great, are never unavailable, and, crucially, do not ask anything from you. In contrast, reality is icky, it is disappointing; real people disagree with you sometimes, they have their own desires and demands.

It has become a cliché to describe Kawabata’s prose as Haiku-like, which, as with many sound bites and blurb-worthy comments, is nonsense. However, his style is economical and unfussy, with the writer preferring short evocative sentences and, for the most part, avoiding metaphors and similes. This goes some way to explaining why his work seems clean and graceful, despite the often unpleasant content. Yet it is also worth noting that with House of the Sleeping Beauties Kawabata’s touch is not as light as in his most well known novels, Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain, with a greater emphasis on psychologically probing his characters and situations. Indeed, numerous times during my reading I had noted down an idea or interpretation, only for the writer to himself voice that idea a few pages later. This is perhaps why the story appealed so strongly to Yukio Mishima, who thought it one of Kawabata’s best, if not the best of all. In fact, there is a rumour, which I don’t take seriously, that Mishima himself may have written it. In any case, none of this is meant as a criticism. This is, without question, one of the top-tier novellas, as beautifully dreamy, and moving and perfect as Casares’ The Invention of Morel and Turgenev’s First Love.

House of the Sleeping Beauties usually comes packaged with two other stories, One Arm and Of Birds and Beasts, which are much shorter. Both are fine, but I did not feel compelled to write about either of them.



One of my blogging friends {I don’t have many for perhaps obvious reasons] described my reviews a while ago as caustic. Aye, maybe they are. It’s a description, or opinion, that I encounter a lot, and it’s funny to me because I feel myself as though I’m just, y’know, kidding around and yet I appear to offend people quite often, without much effort. Maybe my sense of humour, my sense of fun is, um, pretty niche. Indeed, I once had a record 10 friends unfriend me on my [now deleted] facebook account on the back of a joke about kids. Here is the joke:

Did anyone hear about the kids that were given cocaine in their trick or treat bags this Halloween? The police are saying that it was an accident, which is true, as I meant to give them cyanide.

DISCLAIMER: I do not advocate giving children drugs, or even cyanide.

I wouldn’t like to say whether my offending these people was because I am an arsehole or because they are touchy and humourless [and I wouldn’t like you to spam the comments of this review with your opinion on the matter either], but it doesn’t bode well when reviewing a book that is a macabre tale of murder and mayhem instigated by two men with an erotic fixation with youth. Oh well.

In an effort to give you an idea of what to expect from Gombrowicz’s deadly duo let me utilise a few visual resources. First of all, does anyone remember this guy?


Well, imagine two of him. Now imagine them older, less energetic, but even more devious. Perhaps, for good measure, add some of this lady to the mix:


Hell, why not throw in a soupçon of this man while you’re at it:


And, well, if you can imagine such a thing, such a pair, you might have some idea of what to expect.

Now, I can sense some of you might be feeling uneasy already, your arses might be starting to shift uncomfortably in your seats, so let’s, just for shit and giggles, crank it up a notch, and consider some of what these two men get up to. In short, Pornografia involves a couple of old geezers visiting a friend and developing an unhealthy interest in his young daughter and a young male acquaintance. Before long they are encouraging them to fondle each other [not quite what you’re thinking], to become closer, to perform for them, for their own enjoyment and titillation. We call this kind of thing grooming, these days, and at the heart of such behaviour is a desire for power over the [apparently] powerless, and, one could also say, a need to simultaneously posses and sully something more beautiful and purer than yourself. This being a novel featuring five-star weirdos these manipulations result in murder, as I mentioned earlier, but maybe not in the way one would expect.

The author claimed that Pornografia is a refinement of, a more sophisticated version of, his debut work Ferdydurke and the themes explored within it. Now, it’s not for me to contradict a genius [well, actually, it probably is], but I disagree. Ferdydurke is concerned with the nature of immaturity, and our obsession with being seen to be mature. This novel, however, turns the tables slightly, with the focus being more on the older generation and their obsession with, and admiration for, youth. There is an interesting, subtle, difference between the two ideas, and yet both seem to have some validity, are attitudes that are simultaneously prevalent in our society. One only needs to switch on a TV to be assaulted by images of nubile youngsters, be it Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, who embody, or encapsulate both of Gombrowicz’s ideas: the young performer eager to appear mature beyond their years, and the erotic interest in them from people old enough to be their parents [don’t believe me? Those leaked Cyrus pictures weren’t blogged, and viewed, solely by 16 year olds], not to mention the way that these stars are manipulated by adults within the record industry etc.

In any case, I’ve rambled enough. In conclusion, Pornografia is impish, funny, intelligent, absurd, but suffused with an almost suffocating, bewildering, intensity. It is, let’s not kid ourselves, most certainly not a book for everyone. A little like my reviews then, I guess.