Library Corner review: The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata

Let me declare an interest, well at least two.The Sound of the Mountain (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 6 Jan 2011 by Yasunari Kawabata (Author), Edward G. Seidensticker (Translator)

On the one hand, I’m a sucker for anything Japanese. On the other, there’s little that makes me run faster in the opposite direction than the words “lyrical” and “ageing.”

So, when a good friend lent me her copy of The Sound of the Mountain by Nobel prizewinner Yasunari Kawabata, and I saw the blurb (“lyrical and precise”, “the changing roles of love” and “the truth we facing in ageing”) you’ll understand my feelings were mixed.

The Sound of the Mountain

Published initially as a serial between 1948 and 1954, The Sound of the Mountain (山の音 – Yama no Oto) centres on elderly businessman Shingo. Closing in on retirement, contemplating his dysfunctional family, Shingo worries that he’s to blame for his children’s problems.

His son is having an on-off affair with a mistress. His daughter keeps leaving her husband, bringing her two young daughters.

To complicate matters yet further, Shingo is becoming attracted to his wronged daughter-in-law, Kikuko…

He has erotic dreams of his long-dead sister-in-law, who he feels he should have married instead of his wife…

He finds his wife, herself, increasingly unattractive…

And in addition to his disturbing dreams, he starts to hear a deep rumbling from the mountain that stands behind their house.

This he takes to be a sign of impending death.

From these threads, Kawabata spins a delicate plot of hints and suggestions. In a very Japanese manner, his cool, detached style betrays depths of sexual desire, marital betrayal, family distrust and mortality.

Strands from Kawabata’s life

Born in 1899, early in his career, Kawabata helped found a movement in Japan based on the philosophy of Shinkankakuha – sometimes translated as “new perceptions.” Upholding “art for art’s sake”, Shinkankakuha stood against the two Japanese schools of naturalism, on the one hand, and political/socialist engagement, on the other.

His short stories and novels often found great success. Kawabata was the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1968).  Four years later he was dead, in a possible suicide.

A number of strands in his life came together in The Sound of the Mountain. 

It’s difficult not to see a connection between the cool, detached style and his isolated childhood: an orphan from the age of four, he lost all his remaining close relatives by the age of fifteen.

Shortly afterwards came two disastrous love affairs. These seem to find strong echoes in Shingo’s confused longings for two unattainable women. One dead and one married to his philandering son.

Then, there was the Second World War. Kawabata himself had said that after the war he could only write “elegies.” And memories of the war and its aftermath run through this short, undeniably elegiac book.


A reader needs to be patient. While the issues are profound, Shingo’s slow-burning anxieties – along with his failing memory – take time to grow on you.

Almost every review I’ve seen of the book has found it impossible to resist comparing it to haiku. I too have tried to avoid the h-word – and failed.

At times, the effect can indeed become very haiku-like in its visual approach and Zen-like compression.

Almost more pictorial than literary.

Indeed, in his Nobel Prize lecture Kawabata referred to the way Zen finds beauty in simplicity. “The heart of the ink painting is in space, abbreviation, what is left undrawn.”

Even the chapter headings read like the titles of poems or paintings – “A Blaze of Clouds”, “The Chestnuts”, “The Snake’s Egg”…

The Japanese character names also demand careful attention – some of the women’s and girls’ names seem very similar. Indeed, the translator – Edward G Seidensticker – admits he had to change one to avoid confusion among Westerners.

But this novel is well worth staying with. Not only for the limpid clarity of the translation – Seidensticker is generally regarded as one of the greats among translators of Japanese.

Not only for its humanity and compassion.

But even more for its deep exploration of what it is to be a family.

And – yes – its lyrical portrayal of ageing.


Life of Kawabata

Kawabata’s Nobel Prize Lecture – Japan, the Beautiful and Myself

The Sound of the Mountain