Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata [review]
Enigmatic, frustrating, lyrical is how I can best describe Snow Country, a novel considered a classic of Japanese literature and one that was an influential factor in the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature for the author Yasunari Kawabata.
Snow Country is a short, rather bleak tale of a love affair between Shimamura, a wealthy intellectual from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha. They meet in a remote hot spring town which men visit individually or in groups and pay for female companionship. Shimamura, who considers himself an expert on Western ballet though he has never actually seen a performance, leaves his wife and children behind in the city to travel to the mountainside town in the depths of winter. He is looking for a reunion with Komako whom he met the previous year but when you see them together you know deep down this is a love affair that cannot possibly result in happiness.
Shimamura is a strangely detached character. It doesn’t seem to concern him that he has left family behind while he takes a holiday and forms a relationship with someone much younger than himself. Though he is clearly enamoured with the girl he is also rather distant from her. He watches her constantly, noting her change of colouring whenever she comes to him drunk on the sake she is required to drink at parties and noting what she wears, how she sits etc. He acts more like a distant observer than an ardent lover. What does he really feel for Komako? We seldom get inside his head to find out the truth. The closest we get is in a passage towards the end of the novel:
He had stayed so long that one might wonder whether he had forgotten his wife and children. He stayed not because he could not leave Komako nor because he did not want to. He had simply fallen into the habit of waiting for those frequent visits. And the more continuous the assault became, the more he began to wonder what was lacking in him, what kept him from living as completely…All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls. And he knew he could not go on pampering himself forever.
If he is frustrating, she is even more so.
Beautiful and innocent Komako is constrained by the conventions surrounding the role of a geisha but with a passionate nature that refuses to be subsumed. It breaks out in behaviour that changes direction every few minutes. She cannot be apart from him for long, climbing through his window, hiding in the closet to avoid the hotel staff to be with him. Yet when she is with him she constantly talks about the need for her to go home. She’s had relationships before yet is curiously not touched by them – one lover who wanted to marry her dies during Shimamura’s visit but Komako cannot bring herself to visit his grave. Another, much older man, wants to marry her but she’s unsure how she feels about this. In short she’s the kind of woman who would drive you crazy with her vacillations yet drive you crazy with desire.
She seems a strange match for Shimamura. When they do spend time together there is little conversation of any depth since she lacks the intellectual rigour that sustains him. She talks extensively about novels and magazines but he notes that she “was quite indiscriminate and had little understanding of literature. … Her manner was as though she were talking of a distant foreign language. There was sometime said in it. something rather suggested a beggar who has lost all desire.” And yet Komako is not without intelligence and fierce determination, she has taught herself to play the samisen (a three-stringed, Japanese musical instrument) and memorising the tune.
Kawabata is an impressionistic writer, a master at conveying imagery and mood. He makes Shimamura his window on the world, noting the effect of snow on the trees and mountainside and how a woman’s face is reflected in the train window. Despite the detail, the world described feels more mythical than real, symbolised by the train journey Shimamura takes to reach the town and the tunnel he must pass through in order to reach the mountain town. The novel consequently takes on a dream like quality:
In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world.
An odd novel then, not one which easily lends itself to description but nevertheless quite mesmeric to read.
The Book: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata was published in 1956.
The Author: Kawabata started writing short stories and contributing them to magazines while he was still in university. He began to to achieve recognition with a number of short stories shortly after he graduated. It was Snow Country, his third novel, that cemented his reputation as the writer of spare, lyrical and subtle prose. Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, the first Japanese person to receive the honour. He died in 1972 apparently by his own hand but the reason for this action is unclear since he left no note.
My edition: Published by Penguin as part of their modern classics series. It has just 121 pages. Translation is by Edward G Seidensticker.
Why I read this: I was hoping to read more for the Japanese literature week but never got around to doing more than just buying a few books by authors I had not read previously. This was one of them. I read it now as part of my participation in the Chutes and Ladders ‘challenge’ being run by The Readers Room – click this link for more details.