The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata

The LakeThe Lake is the second book of Nobel laureate Kawabata that I have read. Unlike the House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, which I thought to be a remarkable text particularly the title story, The Lake came across as a frustrating work in terms of style.

Briefly, it is the story of a homeless stalker, Gimpei, who follows certain women that he finds posses a certain quality of beauty. What we know of Gimpei is that he was a former school teacher until he stalked one of his students, and that he had committed some ambiguous crime in the past.

Captivated by Details

The first few pages engaged me fully with the bathhouse scene where Gimpei is describing the beauty of the bath girl attending him:

When he got out of the bath, the woman washed him all over. Squatting down at his feet she even washed in between his tows with her girlish fingers. He looked down at her head. Her hair was cut to a little below the nape of the neck and hung straight and loose, in the intimate way women left their hair after washing it.

This level of detail and attention to the minute is what I loved about House of the Sleeping Beauties. In this novel, such descriptive attention is spread throughout the novel, especially with the introduction of each of the women Gimpei obsesses over. This snippet is of his latest ‘victim’ who preoccupies him from the middle to the end of the novel:

She wore her jeans a little short, and her fair skin peeped out above her canvas shoes. Her hair was tied back loosely in a ponytail, revealing the long, delicate  curve of her neck. Her shoulders were pulled forward by the dog tugging at the rope.

Free Association and Fragmentation

Descriptive prowess aside, the style of this novel is free association. It is in this technique that my interest waned. There is a consistent shift in time between the present and the past where Gimpei himself is experiencing episodes of free association and I, the reader, am taken along with these threads of thought. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, stylistically. If anything, it is certainly a hard technique to execute with accomplishment as does Kawabata here.

Kawabata sets up each present scene vividly, with attention to detail and a tantalizing description of a woman. My disappointment lies in having these scenes fractured by jumping back to an association Gimpei connects randomly with. Thus jarring me out of the seductive prose with a new path to follow.

Take, for example, the bathhouse scene, where between the present – Gimpei being attended by the bath house girl – Kawabata uses the word slap to evoke a memory in Gimpei from the past that will describe a parallel event:

While massaging his chest, she pushed her breasts forward and he closed his eyes, not knowing where to put his hands. If he stretched his arms along his body he might touch her. He thought he would be slapped on the face if so much as a fingertip brushed against her. And he could actually feel the shock of being slapped. In sudden terror he tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids refused to move. They had been hit very hard. He thought he might cry, but no tears came, and his eyes ached as though they had been pricked with a hot needle.

It was not the girl’s palm but a blue leather handbag that hit Gimpei’s face. He hadn’t known at the time it was a handbag, but after feeling the blow he found a bag lying at his feet.

Still, a Talent

My criticism aside, I do praise Kawabata for capturing a character’s thought processes so well. After all, free association is a natural process most of us engage in unconsciously. Kawabata captures the subtleness brilliantly as you can see in the last example above, it took several lines of describing Gimpei’s emotional state after the first occurrence of the word slap before his thoughts drifted to the memory evoked by it.

I do think rereading The Lake will offer more pleasure. I can then focus on the details and the prose, since I now know the story.



5 thoughts on “The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata

  1. Although free association happens to everyone, I think it falls to the author to keep the reader from feeling jarred and breaking the fictional “spell”—unless that is exactly the author’s intent. Whatever device an author uses, I think the most important thing is whether they are doing something by design. To me, that is the true measure of skill. Similar to random point of view shifts that are often the realm of an inexperienced writer. When done with skill and purpose, point of view shifts seem natural and a necessary choice. Sounds like an interesting book!

    1. Great comments, Jilanne. I don’t think Kawabata’s intention was to jar the reader, which is why I was somewhat disappointed with the style here. I didn’t want to keep stopping and thinking ‘oh yeah, this was that character from before, ok so now we’re talking about someone else again, so we’re now witnessing another memory…’ – the ‘spell’ of the present moment was often ruined. Yet, it’s well written and engaging. Yes, it’s certainly an interesting book.

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