Sunday, 13 September 2020

Snow Country

I’ve just got a kobo, and just finished the first book on it: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, again translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. 
Snow Country was first serialised between 1935 and 1937, but Kawabata revised it several times afterwards and the novel reached its final form in 1948. For comparison, The Sound of the Mountain was serialised between 1949 and 1954. 

1/ Here is Seidensticker explaining the title and the location: 
“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 (roughly, from Cape Hatteras to New York, or from Spanish Morocco to Barcelona) the snowiest region in 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 expression “snow country,” then, does not mean simply country where snow falls. It means very specifically the part of the main island that lies west of the central mountain range. It suggests long, gray winters, tunnels under the snow, dark houses with rafters black from the smoke of winter fires—and perhaps chilblains, or, to the more imaginative, life divorced from time through the long snowbound months.” (introduction) 
The attractions of this region are the hot springs (onsen) with their geisha and masseuses—it’s a place for unaccompanied men. The novel is about one such man, Shimamura, with a geisha named Komako. Kawabata writes about the sad fate of the hot spring geisha, who may fall in love with a visitor who might never come back. 

2/ There are more scenery descriptions in Snow Country than in The Sound of the Mountain
“The mountain sky still carried traces of evening red. Individual shapes were clear far into the distance, but the monotonous mountain landscape, undistinguished for mile after mile, seemed all the more undistinguished for having lost its last traces of color. There was nothing in it to catch the eye, and it seemed to flow along in a wide, unformed emotion. That was of course because the girl’s face was floating over it. Cut off by the face, the evening landscape moved steadily by around its outlines.” (P.1) 
An interesting image. That is the landscape as seen by Shimamura through the train window, reflecting Yoko’s face, who is sitting diagonally across from him. 
This is a good passage: 
“It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of the 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.” (ibid.) 
Or this one: 
“The color of the evening had already fallen on the mountain valley, early buried in the shadows. Out of the dusk the distant mountains, still reflecting the light of the evening sun, seemed to have come much nearer. 
Presently, as the mountain chasms were far and near, high and low, the shadows in them began to deepen, and the sky was red over the snowy mountains, bathed now in but a wan light.” (ibid.)
I like that. Snow Country is full of poetic passages. The location helps, perhaps. 

3/ This is the music teacher’s house, where Komako lives: 
“The walls had been industriously pasted over with rice paper, so that the effect was rather like the inside of an old-fashioned paper box; but overhead was only the bare roof sloping down toward the window, as if a dark loneliness had settled itself over the room. Wondering what might be on the other side of the wall, Shimamura had the uneasy feeling that he was suspended in a void…” (ibid.)

4/ A sense of melancholy and stagnation permeates Snow Country. Shimamura as a character isn’t very interesting, but Komako is—as a hot spring geisha in the north-country, she is trapped, and she knows that her love for Shimamura would lead nowhere. She is intriguing, as she is seen by Shimamura—Kawabata makes us wonder about her, and want to know more about her. 
As a writer, Kawabata creates more questions than answers, and leaves out a lot. We know Shimamura is an idler who inherits his money, and a dilettante who reads and writes about Western ballet but has never seen it, but we don’t know much more about him. We know he has a wife and some children that he sometimes leaves in Tokyo to visit Komako at the hot springs, but know nothing about them. Thus there are 3 women in his life—his wife, Komako, and Yoko, another woman in snow country, but the wife never appears, Yoko is mostly kept at distance and there is little information about her and her relationship with Komako or with the music teacher’s son, and Komako, whom we see most clearly in the novel, is seen through Shimamura’s eyes, thus there is also a lot we don’t know about her life and her inner world. 
Compared to Shingo in The Sound of the Mountain, Shimamura is portrayed less sympathetically—he is colder, incapable of love, and more sensitive to the beauty of nature than to human feelings. But both are passive and impotent. In both books, the women are more interesting. 
I’m starting to think that perhaps there’s something in what Edwin McClellan says about the impressionistic tendency in (some) modern Japanese writers, and the lack of individuality and force in characterisation. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I read more. So far I’ve read Kokoro by Soseki, Some Prefer Nettles by Tanizaki, The Sound of the Mountain and now Snow Country by Kawabata, and these writers all have different styles, but I’ve noticed that in all of them, especially in Kawabata and Tanizaki, the characters are distinct enough, but they don’t have the same kind of vividness, the same kind of depth and complexity and force as characters in Western novels (specifically British, Russian, American, and French—the ones I know). They’re partly hidden by some kind of mist. Just compare Snow Country or Some Prefer Nettles to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, for example, which was published in 1940. 
I’m not saying that this makes Japanese novels inferior to novels of the West—it’s an observation, a comment on the differences. It’s about aesthetics, or perhaps the way of seeing the world. 
Snow Country focuses more on the region, and on the general mood—the sadness and stagnation and gloom. At this, I think it does better than The Sound of the Mountain

5/ Even better than the poetic passages about the landscape are these passages about insect deaths: 
“Each day, as the autumn grew colder, insects died on the floor of his room. Stiff-winged insects fell on their backs and were unable to get to their feet again. A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed. It was a quiet death that came with the change of seasons. Looking closely, however, Shimamura could see that the legs and feelers were trembling in the struggle to live. For such a tiny death, the empty eight-mat room seemed enormous.” (P.2) 
Shimamura picks up a dead insect and for an instant thinks of the children he left in Tokyo. 
“A moth on the screen was still for a very long time. It too was dead, and it fell to the earth like a dead leaf. Occasionally a moth fell from the wall. Taking it up in his hand, Shimamura would wonder how to account for such beauty. 
The screens were removed, and the singing of the insects was more subdued and lonely day by day.” (ibid.)  
What’s a better way to convey the transience of life? 
That passage echoes another moth’s death earlier in part 2 of the novel: 
“A moth so still that it might have been glued there clung to one of the screens. Its feelers stood out like delicate wool, the color of cedar bark, and its wings, the length of a woman’s finger, were a pale, almost diaphanous green. […] That one spot of pale green stuck him oddly like the color of death. The fore and after wings overlapped to make a deeper green, and the wings fluttered like thin pieces of paper in the autumn wind. 
Wondering if the moth was alive, Shimamura went over to the window and rubbed his finger over the inside of the screen. The moth did not move. He struck at it with his fist, and it fell like a leaf from a tree, floating lightly up midway to the ground.” (ibid.) 
Does anyone else write about insects like that? That’s a great passage. 
Right after that, Kawabata contrasts the image of death with an image of life: 
“In front of the cedar opposite, dragonflies were bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind.” (ibid.) 

6/ Why did I not expect a human’s fall later on in the novel? 
The fire, with the image of the Milky Way, is an excellent scene.  


  1. I know one other writer who fills his novels with moths and butterflies and tricky over-aestheticized point-of-view characters who have trouble seeing the hard lives of the women around them.

    You picked big quotes from my two favorite scenes. The train window scene is remarkable, and remarkably long, a big chunk of the total book.

    You will see that I eventually figured out something to do with Shimimura.

    1. Haha I know who you mean!
      Good to know we like the same stuff. I'll read your blog post now.


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