Novella a Day in May 2020 #30

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata (1935-7 trans. Edward G Seidensticker 1956) 121 pages

My brother doesn’t often lend me books, in fact I can’t remember the last time he did. So when he lent me Snow Country with the warning ‘I want it back’, I thought it must be exceptionally good. Turns out my brother and the Nobel Prize committee are in agreement on this, as Snow Country was cited when Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

It begins with Shimamura, an overprivileged wastrel who doesn’t have to work, leaving Tokyo to travel to a hot spring town in the north of Japan. He is captivated by Komako, a young geisha who works there.

“The more he tried to call up a clear picture of her, the more his memory failed him, the farther she faded away, leaving him nothing to catch hold. In the midst of this uncertainty only the one hand, and in particular one forefinger, even now seemed damp from her touch, seemed to be pulling him back to her from afar.”

Shimamura has a wife and children back in Tokyo so the relationship with Komako is a commercial one, but still one in which both seem emotionally invested. I say seem, because nothing is ever spelled out in Snow Country. This is not the novella to read if you want fully rounded characterisation or plot development. What Kawabata creates is series of impressions, moments and images that layer on top of each other.

“The woman’s hair, the glass of the window, the sleeve of the kimono – everything he touched was cold in a way Shimamura had never known before.”

That’s not to say that Snow Country is an unsatisfying read. Kawabata is a beautiful, precise writer and he crafts an atmosphere expertly. The natural surroundings are stunningly described, and the people are believable and idiosyncratic, even though we know very little about them.

“there was something sad about the full flesh under that white powder. It suggested woollen cloth, and again it suggested the pelt of some animal.”

It’s also a deeply melancholy read. The two main characters will never be together and both seem trapped. Shimamura by his inability to find a meaningful way to spend his time, Komako by debt and circumstance. The sadness of it all crept up on me due to the writing style I’ve described, and it seemed all the more poignant for doing so, rather than explicitly announcing itself.

My memory is terrible, so as a reader I find what tends to stay with me is not plot or character, but more the atmosphere of a novel and the feelings it evoked. Snow Country is one of those that will stay with me a long time.

“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.”

23 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2020 #30

  1. When I was studying Japanese at university, my classmates and I were divided into two camps: the Kawabata fans (most of them) and the Mishima fans (a much smaller group, including me). However, of the Kawabata’s, I think this is my favourite. His attitude towards women is perhaps as problematic as Murakami’s, but because he leaves so much unsaid, because it is so slant, it comes across as lyrical rather than cringeworthy.

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    • I have some Mishima in the TBR bout I’ve not got to him yet – soon! (Along with everything else in the TBR 😀 )I didn’t mind the portrayal of women in this, because all the characters were underdeveloped so it all fitted in, and as you say, was lyrical. Maybe if I read more by him his attitude to women would be more to the fore and I wouldn’t get so much from his writing.

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  2. I think Marina is right about Kawabata and his attitudes towards women. There are some difficulties there, for sure – both in this and in another of his novellas, Beauty and Sadness. I think it probably comes through more strongly now, in the relatively progressive 21st century world, than it did at the time of publication. That said, there is something very alluring about this author’s books, a haunting, enigmatic quality that really gets under the skin.

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  3. I’m a Mishima woman, like Marina, although I have stacks of Kawabata unread on the shelves. Atmosphere is the word that comes to mind for me when thinking about Japanese writing, and I’ll have to give him a try. I accept that the attitudes are going to be potentially problematic, but then isn’t that the case in so many older books?

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    • I really must read Mishima, I’m sure he’s in the TBR pile somewhere! Yes, this is very atmospheric. I didn’t find this one problematic but perhaps if I saw it in the context of his other writing I would. Yes, so many older books have horrible attitudes expressed, I really enjoy GA detective novels but they can be so racist…

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  4. This is another one I’ve read. I remember being slightly angry that the man could always return to his normal life, his wife and his family, but his geisha friend had no alternative life to which she could escape.

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  5. I had been hoping to find one of his books for my Here and Elsewhere month in Kyoto but the libraries are still closed (and that’s practical and fine). Having only read one of his books, and only one of Mishima’s, I don’t really have the basis to fall into one camp or the other, but I find it interesting to hear about those kind of “divides”.

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