The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

With no such intention in mind, I rather fell out of the frying pan on this one. I had to get away from Yourcenar and a glance at the shelves made me think nothing could be further from Hadrian than a book about Go.

My very first Go move, and it’s a mistake. There I was, reading yet another book where the author has taken a true story and turned it into a novel. Yet another book where admiring fans talk of how real the novel is. I’m a historian, so the whole idea of the biopic, or bionovel, or novel based on, turns my stomach. You end up with a society which gets its history from Fox or Walt Disney or French women who wanted to be an Emperor. Much more interesting than reading a history book, I dare say. Scowls and shakes fist at the very idea.

But, of course there is much to distinguish between the two books. It is the endeavour of Yourcenar to write about a period of which we know very little except at a political level. Kawabata, on the other hand, is writing of something that he witnessed, something that over the short period of time between reporting on it for newspapers and turning it into a novel, became more than it was. Kawabata thus writes at the most domestic and intimate level, the very stuff of which the classical Roman period has left virtually nought. Here, then, we have a novel that is as warm as Memoirs of Hadrian is cold.

Kawabata is writing of something he knows in the most familiar of ways and don’t we feel that as the reader. I imagine Yourcenar would have paid dearly to be able to do that. Her story, however, is a purely intellectual exercise. Yourcenar writes with intellectual rigour, Kawabata with love. The cold and the warm.

The result of these different approaches is that for me Kawabata reads true – and it doesn’t matter whether the precise details are fabricated – while Yourcenar, who might have more strongly struggled to be accurate, reads less true. One might argue this is because Kawabata WAS there, Yourcenar wasn’t, and of course what he writes is going to feel more believable. But I don’t think that is the real answer as to the different reactions I find myself left with to these books.

I read both these books in translation. I imagine Hadrian being easy to translate, not only because it has no specialist nature to it, but because the translator worked in intimate proximity to the writer. For Edward Seidensticker quite the opposite was the case. When asked ‘When translating, do you put the emphasis on getting everything right word for word, or conveying sense?’ he replied:

I stay as close to the original as I can, but for me it is very important for the translation to read smoothly – in other words, to have a certain literary quality and that means very frequently in matters of small detail departing from the original. A literal translation cannot be a very literary translation. But I stay as close to the original as I can. My theory of translation is that it is imitation; it is counterfeiting. And the counterfeiter who makes George Washington on the dollar bill look handsomer than he was is not a good counterfeiter. There has to be a spiritual bond between the translation and the original work, which means the translator must like the original work. But if someone tells you your translation is better than the original, you should consider it an insult because that is not what you’re supposed to be doing. You are not supposed to be improving.

and to the question ‘Do you check with the authors when you depart from their original?’: ‘It’s useless because authors don’t like to talk about their work. At least the ones I have known best don’t like to talk about their work. I never asked Tanizaki about anything, but it was very clear: Tanizaki is a very lucid writer; there are almost no problems of comprehension. I did ask Kawabata, but he was never any help, so I stopped.’

Not only was the author further removed from the translation process, but on top of that, we have the issue of the specialist nature of the object to be translated. Did Seidensticker have any experience of Go? Not that I have been able to discover. Still, I guess a good counterfeiter can get away with this, and if I’ve made that a theory, I think it holds for this book. I never felt like the move from one language to another mattered. Is it possible that Japanese translates especially well into English? Ignorantly, but intuitively, I want to say yes, it does. I feel like I am reading something quintessentially Japanese despite it’s being translated.

I noticed this, James Cowley, writing in the New Stateman:

He understands, too, the value of silence – of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause.

Naturally, much of the subtlety of his prose-poetry – the short, intricately compressed sentences and paragraphs, the tension created by juxtaposing contrasting images – is lost in translation, especially what Roy Starrs, the author of Soundings in Time: the fictive art of Kawabata Yasunari, calls his “aesthetics of ma”. “Ma”, in broad translation, means interval or pause, and Kawabata’s best sentences in Japanese are distinguished by suspensions in the action and by pauses between clauses, the equivalent of the use of white space in Japanese ink painting, or the long pause in haiku. Perhaps it is this sense of something missing that gives his work its presiding ambiguity and vagueness.

I don’t feel this for one moment, that this sense of silence, pause and vagueness is missing in English. Well, I gather it is often said that Seidensticker is as good as translators get. He learned Japanese in a way which will be of interest to the linguists out there:

It was a revolutionary way in those days and hasn’t changed much since. The service language school assumed that it was possible for us to learn Japanese. Before the war, it had been assumed that only the Japanese could learn Japanese – a ridiculous assumption. But the Navy language school said we could, providing we had a reasonable amount of ability and intelligence. They taught what was called the natural method. We didn’t learn grammar, but learned from speaking and listening, the way a child does. I’m not sure it’s a very valid theory, but it was a good school, probably the best I’ve ever been in. By the end of 14 months, we were able to read a newspaper. Before the war, that would have been thought impossible. The Army required its language students to be soldiers, but the Navy didn’t require anything of us. Except that we study Japanese. It was complete concentration on one subject, which is not how most universities work. And we worked on it steadily without relief.

I observe that this book is typically discussed in terms of its relationship, real or imagined, to the decay of the Meiji period and the destruction of Japanese tradition taking place in this period. It isn’t that I mind the idea of this and certainly the author was deeply regretful that these changes were taking place. Nonetheless, it is a book about Go. It is a book about the nature of game-playing at the rareified level of being the best in the world. It is a book about the moral and aesthetic changes that were taking place in Go at that time, changes to be noted and mourned whatever else was also happening to mirror this in society at large. It’s a book about sportsmanship, neuroses and mistakes. The changes it observes, the struggle between the amateur ideal and the professional ethic, the pain suffered by the protagonists, the hapless hangers-on, all this rings true to anybody who has played games in an ambitious manner.

I confess, then, this is how I read this book: as a person who can’t tell the black squares from the white on a Go board or what to do with the doubling cube, but who has all too intimate a knowledge of how games at that level work. And I’m left harrowed, depleted – and enriched, of course – by this exquisitely sad tale.