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Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata [review]

Japan fiction, Yasunari KawabataEnigmatic, 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.

Footnotes

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.

Weekend Bookends # 2

Farewell to Nobel giants

This week saw the death of one Nobel literary award winner and the commemoration of another. Neither attracted anything like the media coverage as the death of Sue Townshend, author of the Adrian Mole series.  I’m not decrying Townshend’s popularity or her achievements, just baffled at what kind of news judgement is being exercised among members of the Fifth Estate.

Doris LessingSt Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London was the venue for a celebration on Monday of the life and work of Doris Lessing who died in November 2013 at the age of 93.  One of the speakers, the biographer and critic Hermione Lee remarked on how Lessing had throughout her work asked “ruthless questions about the way we live now”. As a young woman she rejected the brutal, racist colonial system into which she was born becoming a vociferous and life-long campaigner against apartheid and discrimination and having embraced Communism she came to question its teachings and indeed all other other codified political systems.

The event passed almost unmarked by the mainstream media however – only the Daily Telegraph seems to have shown an interest with this personal reflection by Gaby Wood. 

Gabriel Garcia MarquezOn Thursday, the death was announced of a writer considered to be one of the greatest writers to emerge from Latin America, Gabriel García Márquez.  Few other writers did as much to change the course of a region’s literature but that’s what Márquez did with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. It marked the beginning of a long association between the genre of magical realism and Latin American authors. Most of the leading publications have run obituaries and tributes in the last few days but one of the most interesting pieces I’ve come across was a 1981 interview with the great man in Paris Review in which he talked about the differences between his work as a journalist and as fiction writer and the many authors and books that influenced him in his younger days. He was almost knocked off his bed when he read the opening line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis he said, not realising until that point that it was permissible to write in that fashion. Check out the Paris Review article if you can.

Should celebs write children’s fiction?

Madonna’s done it. So have Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Ferguson (the former Duchess of York); Katie Price; Paul McCartney and Sting.  Some of the ventures by these celebs into the world of children’s fiction have been rather more successful than others. But what makes a singer or actress pick up a pen and begin writing (other than the very obvious reason that they want to keep their name in the public domain and they can trade on their celeb status to earn even more money). More to the point, should they? That’s a question tackled in a debate between Tom Lamont, the Observer newspaper’s commissioning editor and author Robert Muchamore. 

Muchamore is very pragmatic about the whole celeb thing:

…while a celebrity name might sway a few parents into buying a picture book, the kids who read them not only don’t know who the celebrity is, but usually don’t even understand what an author is.

Lamont’s point is along the lines that the celebs think writing a children’s book is easy, an attitude which is disrespectful to the skills of ‘real’ children’s authors and also to the child readers.  I couldn’t agree more — just because we were all children once doesn’t automatically give us the skills to write for them or to understand that what interested us as children will interest young people of today. There’s an art in finding the right  voice and language so that you neither patronise nor confuse, and an art in deciding what would or wouldn’t interest children.  Oh and then there’s the whole complicated issue of what topics are ‘appropriate’ for children.  Melvin Burgess and Jacqueline Wilson have shown that children’s fiction can tackle emotive subjects like adoption, drugs, divorce but they do so with a huge amount of sensitivity honed over many years of experience.

The one point I was surprised not to see discussed was the issue of funding. If publishers pay large advances to politicians and stage/screen stars who want to dabble in the children’s fiction field, doesn’t that mean less funding is available to support full-time writers?

If you want to join the debate, go to the Observer article

Inevitably the announcement that Donna Tartt is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer generated a lot of buzz this week – with many tweeters complaining a) the wrong persoon won b) the wrong Tartt novel one. TheGoldfinchpulitzer.org/awards/2014

 

 

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