Snow Country (Penguin Modern Classics)Translated by Edward G Seidensticker,
As Tony, the host of January in Japan, builds up his pantheon of J-Lit Giants, he is also identifying whacking great holes in my reading experience. That pantheon now consists of 15 and, before this year’s January in Japan began, I had only read a short story by Mishima and one by Tanazaki. Time to put that to rights (or at least double the numbers) by the end of this year’s event.
Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country entered my radar as a result of reading David J Simon’s wonderful An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful this time last year, part of which takes place in hot spa in the same mountainous region of Japan. Kawabata’s novel was cited when he won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1968.
Good job I wasn’t on the jury then!
Where shall I begin? Let’s start with Culture and my anathema to Shimamura, a rich married man who leaves his wife and children at home In Tokyo to holiday at the spa and cavort with the local geisha for weeks on end before returning to wife. (The plot in a nutshell.) I use the word cavort, but it’s not as blatant as that particularly as this is not a graphically sexual novel. While he’s behaving this way, Shimamura spends his time obsessing about a third female, one he saw on the train journeying to the spa, tending to an obviously terminally-patient. This behaviour earns him no approbation and seems acceptedw as normal.
Then there’s the female lead – Komako – one of many local geishas, paid to entertain the male guests at parties with music, song and possibly/probably more. (It’s not explicit.) She’s capricious and spends most of her time drunk, perilously close to a state of emotional collapse and manically worried about her reputation, particularly if she’s found in Shimamura’s room come morning time. …
Must be a geisha-taboo – a convention not explained in the text (why would it be – Kawabata’s Japanese audience would get it). Neither is there an introductory essay in this edition, not even the one originally written by the translator. I found it odd that Penquin chose not to reprint it here.
I could have used it because there was so much flying over my head. Conversations between Shimamura and Komako full of non-sequiturs, zero character development, events that I knew were symbolic and significant, though I couldn’t tell you how. ( Not even the climactic burning house scene.) It felt very much like an episodic patchwork, which in many ways it is. An understanding of the novel’s etymology tells me all I need to know.
Any redeeming qualities? The descriptions of the snow country itself and its progression through the seasons. It was a great book to read as the belated Scottish winter arrived. Kawabata’s descriptive prowess was much in evidence and I admired many visual and psychologically astute sentences. A couple of chapters in, I was thinking of The Great Gatsby in the sense of a lean, spare analogous novel with not one word wasted, packed with hidden meaning. I’m sure the same is true of Snow Country. It’s just that I don’t have the context to decipher it.
Oh, I’m sorry this wasn’t more successful for you! I visited Japan’s Snow Country in June, and just this past month, T+L had a feature by Pico Iyer that mentioned this book, so I wanted to pick it up. I don’t think I’d like the characters much, either!
You know, I’ve never been much of a Kawabata fan. My classmates adored him (I studied Japanese), but I was more in the Mishima camp. A Thousand Cranes and the Master of Go are my favourites of his – but I am in the a minority there. The House of the Sleeping Beauties, The Sound of the Mountain, The Lake – all of these make me uncomfortable, to be honest. An aging man with a roving eye or hand, objectifying of women… I just don’t quite get it.
I enjoyed The Master of Go very much. Haven’t tackled A Thousand Cranes or Snow Country yet, but I still want to give it a try one day.
I’m sorry you didn’t like it at first. Snow Country is unusual and worth spending some time and effort. It is associated with Shinkankaku-ha or “New Sensationalist school” which is a Japanese approach to literary Modernism. With this approach
objects are representative of emotions and feelings—in some ways they provide the “characterization” you were looking for in more traditional and Western methods like dialogue, monologue and narration. Since subjective meaning is attached to objects those objects will act as leit-motifs that express those ideas or feelings. Paying close attention to the objects, their context, their description will reveal much about the characters and their relationships. It’s challenging at first but with practice is very poetic and moving. I think it may grow on you over time. I know it did for me.
Also, here is an interesting article that may give you some other ideas as well: