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.