Book: House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories
Author: Yasunari Kawabata
Why I Consider This Book Odd: I knew it was going to be a helluva ride when I recognized the name of the man who wrote the introduction to the book. The writer Yukio Mishima in 1970, failed to inspire a revolt in the Japanese military and attempted to commit seppuku, a form of ritual suicide via disemboweling. He was then given the coup de gras and was decapitated by a friend who took part in the attempted rebellion. When such a man gives the introduction to a book dealing mainly with thanatos, with a little eros thrown in, you’re dealing with a very odd book. This may be the most deeply odd and disturbing work ever written by a Nobel Laureate, though heaven knows I find more and more incredibly odd works written by unlikely writers.
Type of Work: Fiction
Availability: Originally published in 1961, the copy I read was reissued in 2004 and is still in print. You can get a copy here:
Comments: I finished this book weeks ago but the spectre of writing a review completely stalled me. I kept telling myself to get over here and write but I could not do it. I don’t know exactly why but I suspect it is because I found this book enthralling and repellent. Amazing and disgusting. I consumed it rapidly and wanted then to vomit it back up. Seldom has a book so engrossed me while leaving me so unhappy.
This book consists of a novella, “House of the Sleeping Beauties,” and two short stories, “One Arm” and “Of Birds and Beasts.” Each work is horrific, beautiful, sickening and compelling in its own right.
“House of the Sleeping Beauties”: Again, I find myself at war with other people’s descriptions of what comprises literary eros. Evidently, eros means soulless sex involving eggs, as discovered in Story of the Eye, or it means a misogynistic look at a boring old man’s past encounters with women. How can a book be an example of eros and thanatos when it is all death and no passion? How can it be eros when there is no love, when there is no sex, when there is nothing but the limited emotional range of the protagonist, an aging man who seems to hate all women? How can it be eros when the protagonist has no emotional depth or even revelation in sensation from a sex act? These are rhetorical questions, as I understand why, in a sense, this book falls into the eros and thantos category, but my mind rebels against what many modern critics consider eros. (And perhaps the most important question is why did I read this book so raptly, and I am unable to explain that either, but I did and I suspect most readers find themselves similarly engrossed.)
The tale’s protagonist, Eguchi, is 67-years-old and visits the House of the Sleeping Beauties, a sort of brothel wherein the girls, all very young, are drugged insensate at night so that old men can sleep with them. The word sleep here is literal, because the old men do not have sex with the sleeping girls as they are impotent due to old age. Eguchi hides what he says is his ability to sustain an erection from the Madam in order to be permitted to sleep with the girls (it may all be in Eguchi’s head – one is never sure if Eguchi is really still virile or if it is wishful thinking on his part).
Indeed, the Madam is not concerned at all with Eguchi’s member when she chides him not to do anything disgusting with the girls. “He was not to put his finger into the mouth of of the sleeping girl…” That line haunts me for some reason, but it is clear the proprietress of the House of the Sleeping Beauties does not think Eguchi is capable of any greater outrage against the sleeping girls. And yeah, Eguchi sticks his finger into the mouth of one of the girls. Of course he does. That should almost go without saying. That finger was the only penetration in the story.
Those who visit the house and go to bed with the drugged girls are themselves eventually drugged, but get to spend time with the sleeping girls while they themselves are completely conscious. Though Eguchi tells himself that he could, theoretically, do whatever he wants to any of the sleeping girls without detection, tellingly, he never does. Eguchi’s wants to lay next to a virginal, sleeping girl, because actual sex with conscious women causes him to be exposed to their messy, nasty lives, something he cannot bear.
Another verbose review.
The novella consists of Eguchi’s five encounters with six sleeping girls (he gets a sleeping girl threesome one evening because a new, very young girl could only be comforted by the thought of being rendered unconscious if she had a friend in the bed with her) and his endless thoughts as he lays next to the warm bodies of the girls he claims he can have sex with if he wants but doesn’t. He takes pride in his supposed virility compared to the other old men who frequent the house as he manipulates the girls’ bodies, revels in their breath, their very smell, while thinking his sad, confined, loveless thoughts.
As he moves the arms and legs of the sleeping girls, he thinks of a mistress he had once, of his wife who seems only the bearer of children and not a lover, and in the passage most disturbing to me, he thinks a lot about his youngest daughter and how she slept with two men before marrying. His thoughts are consumed by women, but never love, though he seems to have a great amount of affection for his youngest daughter and for a mistress. At times, I almost had hope for Eguchi as laying with one girl took him back to a time when he was a child, the girl reminding him of his mother, her breasts of suckling mother’s milk. His regression into a childlike state almost redeemed the purpose of sleeping with unconscious girls, if it allowed men to become innocent again, but this reaction does not last and is overtaken by his relentless misogyny. I am not a scholar of Japan or Japanese literature, but this book is almost 50-years-old and the social customs it portrays will be at odds with most contemporary views of men, women, and what it means to grow old. Yet knowing this did not help me understand Eguchi.
Part of this lack of understanding comes from the cultural and temporal divide mentioned above, but part of it is that Eguchi’s voyage is intensely personal. The likelihood of a reader being like Eguchi enough to feel any resonance from his experiences is slim. Yet his story, with remembrances of travel, the surprise of his love for his youngest daughter, his fascination with flowers, is still absorbing.
Eguchi at times is restless with the girls, moving them around, thinking maniacally, because proximity to young flesh he cannot possess shows him how old and close to death he is. But even as he grapples with his own mortality, he becomes intensely focused on and distracted by the youth and virginity of the girls he sleeps with. He hates the darker nipples of fecund women, larger breasts that imply childbirth, and pictures dirty, stained lips removing lipstick as he examines the mouth of an unconscious girl a third his age, if not younger. The girls seem to provide him with little comfort. No matter how much he attempts to distract himself by focusing on minutia and harking back to his soulless encounters with women, deep inside he knows he is approaching death, because as he says to the proprietress, “To die on a night like this, with a young girl’s skin to warm him – that would be paradise for an old man.” Yet Eguchi seems inconsolable when he sleeps next to the girls, always thinking his unpleasant thoughts.
At times, I wondered if I was reading too much into Eguchi, trying to read around his misogyny and his utter nastiness. As he hyperanalyzed the girls, I hyperanalyzed him. Ultimately, I wonder if that was not Kawabata’s point, that there really was no more to Eguchi than presented, a sad, lonely, old man with no greater depth. At one point, after listening to Eguchi ramble about the girls he slept with – should he speak to them if he saw them on the street, when would she wake up – the proprietress of the house says to him, “Just take sleeping girls as sleeping girls.” Perhaps it is best to take shallow old men as shallow old men. But it is impossible to overlook the very real idea that at the end of his life, Eguchi wants to spend lots of time in the presence of girls who can only be seen and not heard and be left alone with his endless, meandering thoughts about women. He does not want to speak and interact with them, only look at them and experience their warmth as it suits him. There is no discovery, no epiphany.
“One Arm”: This tale uses magical realism to tell the story of the nameless protagonist and the girl who gives him her arm for the evening. As much as Eguchi in the previous tale allowed his mind to ramble on about the women he sort of loved, the protagonist in “One Arm” lives in a realm of paranoia, spending much of the story worrying about what anyone would think if they saw him with an arm. He ruminates on the girl’s motivations in giving him her arm instead of just accepting the gift. He seems to fall in love with the arm, having a conversation with it (and since this is magical realism, the arm speaks back) and attaching it to his body in the place of one of his own arm. He sleeps like this, and awakens in emotional terror when he finds his own arm has reattached itself.
It is hard not to see this as a tale of self-hatred with a masturbatory overtone. The protagonist cannot stand his own touch and is greatly upset when the arm touching him in the morning is his own. When he rediscovers the girl’s arm in the morning, it is no longer lively, talking to him, pink and healthy, but quiet and pale. This shatters him, clearly, as the last line in the book shows that the protagonist wishes that the essence of women (their “dew”) could come from their fingertips. Had the protagonist felt that way when he awoke to real, entire, living bodies of women in his bed? Did a feminine arm to perform sexual chores give him a new sexual lease that was wrenched away when he awoke with his own arm again? It is hard to say, as the bulk of the story is the protagonist thinking about and talking to the arm, even sharing Bible verse with it. Again, one leaves the tale with the image of a lonely, shallow man with no real release, who knows little more about himself at the end than he did at the beginning.
“Of Birds and Beast”: Easily the most disturbing tale for me, an animal lover, and another tale of twisted eros, but this time the twisting is violent and cruel. Another unnamed protagonist, the former lover of a dancer who marries and loses her youthful step and body, tells himself that he loves animals more than humans. He surrounds himself with dogs and birds but has no deeper affection for them than the buffer they provide for him, keeping people at arm’s length, and for the prestige they can bring him.
One disturbing section deals with a purebred dog he took in after its master had beaten it trying to get it to miscarry after it bred with a mongrel. The dog gives birth to stillborn puppies and is found eating them. A vet explains that dog ate them because they were born dead and instead of contemplate the abuse the dog suffered, his reaction is disgust because mongrels had been born in his house. He then permits another dog to breed, a dog too young for it. He claims he loves puppies but throws into the garbage a new-born puppy he is not sure is dead and permits the young dog to kill the rest with her inexperience. He thinks of his dancing lover as he thinks of the dog prancing atop her puppies, the same woman who married someone else, who was clearly once a prostitute. She is happy she can get pregnant despite her former life. He wonders why he did not marry her when the answer is clear to the reader. She mismated like his dogs, and therefore was less precious to him, though he still desired her, as he desires the animals who always disappoint him.
His relationship with birds will sicken most readers. He loves birds but allows children to torture to death a young bird that is not a fancy bird that will bring glory to him for saving. He refers to the small skylark as a “piece of garbage.” He mixes up mated pairs of birds, introducing a new female to a mated pair, and waits to see which one dies in the end. Kawabata uses language of extreme anguish very casually to describe the sufferings of the birds the protagonist destroys. He washes them and leaves them too close to the fire and destroys their feet. He then washes a second pair and leaves them too wet and they die sodden at the bottom of the cage. He delights in the birds eating from his hands and so allows them to overfeed to death. He loves most an owl who hates him, a beast that refuses to give into his twisted will. Perversely, it is the owl who rejects his will that provides him with the most comfort.
In retrospect, the entire sum of the story can be summed up in this one line: “There was… a certain sad purity in making playthings of the lives and the habits of animals, and, deciding upon an ideal form, breeding toward it in a manner artificial and distorted: there was in it a godlike newness.” Each new animal offers a chance to be a new god, determining its fate, and destroying it if it does not accept the artificial and distorted fate he offers it. It is clear these feelings extend to human beings, as well. When his former lover becomes pregnant by her husband and rejects his sexual advances, one feels as if she narrowly avoided a similar fate as the mated pair of birds ripped asunder and the dogs whose puppies were fated to die because of human violence and disinterest.
All three stories were unsettling and often quite upsetting, especially the third. But all three were impossible to stop reading once I began reading them. Kawabata’s style is engrossing and transfixing, even as it appalls. In many ways, this odd book is odd only because it is so very disturbing.