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Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Snow Country (1935)

by Yasunari Kawabata

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Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
The story line is straightforward; Shimamura, a married, middle-aged Tokyo man regularly visits the hot springs west of the mountains, in the so-called snow country, to see his geisha Komako. On one of the trips back, he sees and becomes attracted to another woman, Yoko.

It’s a stark novel that is cold and lonely; there is a pervasive feeling of somber sadness here. The snow country geisha, as opposed to the city geisha, is more of a social outcast, as prostitution is more apparent in her case, so Komako’s life is one of wasted beauty with no future. Shimamura is an emotional loner who cannot connect in any real way to any of the women in his life.

There is a subtle beauty in Kawabata’s writing that many love (and indeed, helped him ultimately earn a Nobel Prize), and I don’t mind the themes explored in this novel, but they are expressed too subtlety for my taste.

“Somewhere in his heart Shimamura saw a question, as clearly as if it were standing there before him: was there something, what would happen, between the woman his hand remembered and the woman in whose eye that mountain light had glowed? Or had he not yet shaken off the spell of the evening landscape in that mirror? He wondered whether the flowing landscape was not perhaps symbolic of the passage of time.”

“The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night color. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass. The whole of the night scene came together in a clear, tranquil harmony.”

“Now that he knew Yoko was in the house, he felt strangely reluctant to call Komako. He was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komanko’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love; and yet the woman’s existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin. He pitied her, and he pitied himself.
He was sure that Yoko’s eyes, for all their innocence, could send a probing light to the heart of these matters, and he somehow felt drawn to her too.”

“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. He stood gazing at his own coldness, so to speak. He could not understand how she had so lost herself. All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snowing piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls. And he knew that he could not go on pampering himself forever.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Mar 16, 2014 |
Beautifully written. Plot is a bit like glimpsing into an open window while on a passing train - yet seeing/receiving with great depth an clarity what holds them most in that moment. Wasted effort. Reddened cheeks. The Milky Way. ( )
  Anraku | Jan 25, 2014 |
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata is set in the mountains on the west coast of the main island of Japan. This setting is important to the story. The Introduction to my copy of Snow Country describes the setting:

"In the winter, cold winds blow down from Siberia, pick up moisture over the Japan Sea, and drop it as snow when they strike the mountains of Japan. The west coast of the main island of Japan is probably for its latitude the snowiest region of the world. From December to April or May only the railroads are open, and the snow in the mountains is sometimes as much as fifteen feet deep."

The setting and descriptive passages are often stunningly beautiful. It was this that kept me reading. The setting is cold and remote. The characters follow this pattern and this makes them unreachable and, ultimately, unlikeable. A cold and remote setting has a harsh beauty, but these same characteristics in people are unflattering. Nevertheless, it was this parallel between setting and characters that helped me overlook my dislike and focus on the writing to see the beauty of the whole.

The story takes place at a hot-springs in the snow country. Shimamura is a wealthy idle man who travels to the hot springs without his wife. Komako is one of the hot-springs geisha, a near outcast. There is a sense of wasted and decaying beauty in Snow Country and this comes across in the repeated thoughts of Shimamura about wastedness and in Komako's own impulsive and self destructive behavior. An "indefinable air of loneliness" surrounds Komako, and Shimamura's life seems empty. Shimamura is fascinated with the reflected images of others in mirrors and windows and is drawn to illusion over reality.

Again though, I'm pulled away from the characters themselves by the powerful images that the author creates. Images like that of the rounded snow covered mountain tops turned red by the rising or setting sun. This parallels Komako's white powdered neck curving to her rounded shoulders of red skin that flow and disappear into the wide neck of her kimono. Images of red and white recur throughout the novel and one could write an entire post on these images and metaphor.

I'm guessing there is much I missed for lack of cultural and literary understanding. The recurring themes and images mean something. Metaphor is abundant. The entire novel is reminiscent of haiku that "seek[s] to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms … [a fusion of] motion and stillness" and a mingling of the senses. (Quote about haiku from the 1956 Introduction to the book.)

A deep vein of darkness and loneliness runs through Snow Country and this may not be to everyone's liking. Those who have an interest in Japanese literature, those who crave poetic writing, and those who love imagery or strongly visualize when they read will want to read this short novel by one of the masters of Japanese literature. ( )
  TerriB | Jan 19, 2014 |
Cold. Japanese. Impenetrable. Haunting. ( )
  gbsallery | Dec 11, 2013 |
After reading Thousand Cranes last month I wanted to read more Kawabata and this one I wish was better, just by a bit. It is quite different. A short novel that is translated from Japanese and the prose is beautiful. Really lovely imagery that hooks you on the train ride into the mountains that begins the story, a story about love or something like it. A man who seems incapable of it. The setting of the story is very interesting, but two of the main characters less so. I suppose there is partly a cultural divide between me and 1930's Japan at work here. I didn't understand why people were acting as they did. In my mind I needed more background to understand how and why these people were as they were. We are given background on the characters as the story progresses. I know my lack of knowledge of different cultural norms impeded some of my understanding. For example, I was perplexed why the man who had come to the mountains regarded the Geisha at the hot spa resort as essentially prostitutes and little more. After a small amount of research I discovered that so-called hot-spring Geisha were in fact commonly regarded that way by most Japanese. I had difficulty understanding why the man was as he was also. So this is how you learn about culture sometimes.

Edward G. Seidensticker is the translator as he was for Thousand Cranes. He writes an excellent introduction to my edition but there is a rather glaring problem. After some excellent background material for the reader, he gives away stuff he should have let the reader have the joy of experiencing fresh. The intro did really whet my appetite for the book, but I know the discussion, especially the details about the climax of the novel would bother some readers. It slightly spoiled it for me.

This was written in parts between 1935-1947, starting as a short story and reaching final form as a novel in 1947. My edition dates from 1972. I will be reading more of this author. ( )
  RBeffa | Dec 8, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
Snow Country is a work of beauty and strangeness, one of the most distinguished and moving Japanese novels to have appeared in this country.
added by GYKM | editNew York Herald Tribune

» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Yasunari Kawabataprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Durán, CésarTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gergely ÁgnesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kivimeis, YrjöTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lamberti, LucaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ouwehand, C.Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ouwehand, C.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Seidensticker, Edward G.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679761047, Paperback)

To this haunting novel of wasted love, Kawabata brings the brushstroke suggestiveness and astonishing grasp of motive that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature. As he chronicles the affair between a wealthy dilettante and the mountain geisha who gives herself to him without illusions or regrets, one of Japan's greatest writers creates a work that is dense in implication and exalting in its sadness.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:00:48 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

With the brushstroke suggestiveness and astonishing grasp of motive that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, Yasunari Kawabata tells a story of wasted love set amid the desolate beauty of western Japan, the snowiest region on earth. It is there, at an isolated mountain hotspring, that the wealthy sophisticate Shimamura meets the geisha Komako, who gives herself to him without regrets, knowing that their passion cannot last. Shimamura is a dilettante of the feelings; Komako has staked her life on them. Their affair can have only one outcome. Yet, in chronicling its doomed course, one of Japan's greatest modern writers creates a novel dense in implication and exalting in its sadness.… (more)

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