Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

I may have just missed the #JanuaryinJapan tag with this review, although I read the novella in Jan, but the Japanese Literature Challenge 17 hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza runs through to the end of February – so sorted!

Kawabata, who died of an assumed suicide in 1972, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. The committee cited his 1934-7 novella Snow Country as one of his key early works, written while he was in his thirties. It was translated intro English by Seidensticker in 1956, and it is this translation that endures in the Penguin Modern Classics edition.

This novella is a love story, of sorts. It is complicated by neither of the erstwhile lovers speaking what they really mean most of the time, there is so much unspoken in addition to them circling the subject. Shimamura is a man who doesn’t need to work, devoting himself to becoming an autodidact on ballet, I can imagine him boring the pants off people with his dilettantism. Anyway as the novel opens, he is escaping the confines of the city and his wife, to travel to the hot springs in the snow country of the mountains to the west, where he hopes to meet up with a young woman, Komoko, he had met on a previous visit, and had been reminiscing about during his journey. It’s not long after he is installed at the inn at the onsen, that he sees the object of his affection.

He started back as soon as he saw the long skirts – had she finally become a geisha? She did not come towards him, she did not bend in the slightest moment of recognition. From the distance he caught something intent and serious in the still form. He hurried up to her, but they said nothing even when he was beside her. She started to smile through the thick, white geisha’s powder. Instead she melted into tears, and the two of them walked off silently toward his room.

So romantic? He goes on to confess he’d not written or made any contact with her in the intervening period, yet he can tell she still loves him, and that anything he says would lessen him in her eyes.

We turn the page, and with a simple ‘Then‘: Kawabata takes us back to their first meeting, when Shimamura had first come to the hot springs, and asked the inn for a geisha. There being none available, the innkeeper tells him about a girl who helps out at large parties, but isn’t a contracted geisha; that is Komoko.

She said she was nineteen. Shimamura had taken her to be twenty-one or twenty-two, and, since he assumed that she was not lying, the knowledge that she had aged beyond her years gave him for the first time a little of the ease he expected to feel with a geisha.

Yet their relationship at this stage remains chaste, he asks her to call one of the proper geishas, and the seventeen year old mountain girl she summons for him negates his need for a woman. Komoko takes to calling in on him after going to parties, often drunk, needing comfort and sleep. She is mercurial, spiky, quick to argue, but quick to give in, and although she knows that a geisha mustn’t fall in love with a customer, she does. Shimamura does love her back in his way, but it’s at a different level, more physical, even though any sexual antics are implied rather than described in Kawabata’s text. She knows that he must return to the city, and goes to see him off at the station, when she should have been saying her goodbyes to the son of the house where she lives who is ill and dying.

The second part of the novel tells of his return at the end of autumn, following on from the novel’s beginning. Komoko is now contracted as a geisha for four years. Yet still she comes to him. This time, circumstances allow Shimamura to slink away at the end of his stay, with fond memories though.

Kawabata’s descriptions of the snow, blossoms and mountains are lovely and there is a strong sense of place. By contrast, I found the contradictions in the relationship between Shimamura and Komoko very irritating, and of course, more than a little off, given that Shimamura does pay for her time. I strongly wished that a different and better life could have beckoned for Komoko than having to start her adulthood as a paid-for companion. Actually, I’m still angry with the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, in which a slightly older man has an affair with a young woman still in her teens and then obsesses about her his whole life. Should I compare Shimamura to Kemal? It’s the Lolita age difference thing, I think, although Kawabata never gives Shimamura’s age, he just feels older. Komoko though was also hard to love being so spiky then little girl submissive.

I’m afraid this wasn’t a book for me. You would assume the page count would mean a quick read too, but I found it hard to engage with to read in one go, so it took a few days. I could be persuaded to read his later masterpiece, Thousand Cranes (1949-1951) which centres around the Japanese tea ceremony, but I have plenty other Japanese titles on my shelves to read before searching that one out.

Source: Own copy. Penguin Modern Classics paperback, 121 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

12 thoughts on “Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It wasn’t bad, just of its time and not for me. I prefer contemporary Japanese literature I think.

  1. Calmgrove says:

    What a shame, Annabel. In my admittedly very limited view of Japanese fiction I’ve found that the narratives don’t always match up to my Westernised view of how stories should generally progress, but I still do find it difficult to adjust my mental faculties to authors’ intentions. That’s not to say that they can’t ever be lacklustre or even directionless!

  2. janakay says:

    I actually liked the novel quite a bit, although I think you were very astute in pointing out its troubling aspects. When I read it (quite some time ago) I was very focused on the sense of “place,” of the cold, the snow and the remoteness, which were quite lyrically (IMO at least) described. If I ever read it again, I might react quite differently!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I liked those same aspects in the sense of place etc. But I found the two protagonists both irksome!

  3. kimbofo says:

    I enjoyed this one, but I do find that older / classic Japanese fiction really objectifies women and any female characters are either passive or troublesome.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      You hit the nail on the head! I’ve just realised that a lot of the contemporary Japanese fiction I enjoy is written by women too.

  4. thecontentreader says:

    I have never heard about him, and he even got the Nobel Prize. However, the laureates of this prize are often difficult to read I find. I would maybe try it nevertheless, since I want to read more Japanese literature. But, as you say, it might be better to start with more contemporary ones.

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