Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 07 Jan 2019

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

When I reviewed Junichirō Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows for Letterpress I was rather hoping it would spur me to make more of an effort to read – and better understand – Japanese fiction. Over the years I have tried a handful of the Japanese greats – the two Nobel laureates, Kenzaburō Ōe and Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, and the contemporary Haruki Murakami – but they have always left me feeling defeated and unengaged. The thoughtful and insightful review of Yasunari Kawabata’s story collection, House of the Sleeping Beauties on Letterpress provided additional motivation to try again.

And so I returned to Kawabata, choosing one of his slender and highly acclaimed masterpieces, Snow Country. (Virtually all of Kawabata’s novels are now published in paperback – and very beautifully – by Penguin.)

First published in 1956, Snow Country tells the story of an idle and apparently rather aimless intellectual, Shimamura, who has left his wife and children in Tokyo while he travels by train to a hot springs resort in the mountains – the snow country of the title. He is hoping that while there he will again meet a geisha, Komako, whom he believes himself to be in love with. ‘The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country’ – this short declarative sentence opens the novel and characterises Kawabata’s deceptively simple haiku-like prose.

While on the train Shimamura sees a beautiful young woman whose brother is working at the mountain railway station. She is calling out of the train window to a guard she knows – he is muffled in a heavy coat thrown on over his kimono, wrapped to the ears in a thick scarf, a lantern barely lighting his way. Here as throughout the novel, the incidental imagery is as subtlely detailed and precise as a Japanese woodcut, as impressionistic as a swift, ink-and-brush picture. The descriptions of the dilapidated cabins and houses, the winding trails and black-green cedars bent with snow, and the rituals of the bath-house are wonderfully evocative and atmospheric, and anyone interested in Japanese culture in the first half of the twentieth century will also find this aspect of the novel genuinely informative too. It is a window on a lost time.

This much I enjoyed enormously and felt at home with. Where I find myself coming adrift – looking in vain for points of recognition, handholds, the familiar – is in the characterisation and to some degree the action of the novel. For here, I find that Kawabata has a disorientating, alien strangeness that I struggle to understand. Reviewing House of the Sleeping Beauties, Terry Potter described Kawabata’s stories as “loaded with layers of meaning” that make them “airless and disturbing”. Yes, I see that and I think the same is true of Snow Country. But what I don’t understand is whether the strangely inert characters and the febrile almost hysterical action of the novel – which contrast so markedly with the haiku-like prose – are deliberate and part of its intention and design, or whether I am simply reading a poor example of Japanese literary fiction. It is probably because of this lack of familiarity – this feeling of not being tethered, of not quite understanding what I am reading – that I find Japanese fiction such hard going.

I won’t spoil the plot of Snow Country for you but suffice it to say that it turns out that both the girl from the train, Yoko, and the geisha, Komako, are connected, and the strange, startling tragedy at the book’s end seems to suggest that Shimamura’s desires, fixed as they have been on the geisha Komako, are misplaced, perhaps even a sexual delusion, and that the simple, tender ‘unprofessional’ elegance of Yoko is what truly moved him.

And yet I found it impossible to have any sympathy for Shimamura. He is a self-centred dilettante, albeit with a sort of mocking self-awareness. For example, he writes on Western classical ballet – but merely for his own satisfaction: he has no publisher and acknowledges that any audience that might exist for the subject is in any case miniscule. But this activity gives him purpose; it speaks to his refinement, his self-image as a scholarly intellectual. But there is scarcely a mention of the wife and children he has left behind in Tokyo, nor any indication of when he might choose to return to them.  

I know enough about Kawabata to understand that he was consciously extending the boundaries of the Japanese novel. He and other writers like him were exploring new and in some respects shocking even ‘sensationalist’ subjects – ageing, sexual delusion, eroticism, transgressive relationships – as a reaction against both Japanese naturalism and the influences of socialist and ‘proletarian’ literature which were gaining ground in Imperial Japan during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.

And I like the fact that Kawabata collides these new subjects with age-old traditions of Japanese culture – the hot spring baths, geishas, Go, the tea ceremony. I find the concept – the underlying purpose, if you like – fascinating. But I really have to work at it to see this level of intention in the fiction itself. I’m afraid that Snow Country left me feeling that a beautifully imagined descriptive novel (the very naturalism Kawabata rejected) was struggling to free itself from the clutches of melodrama. The considerable expending of effort seemed out of all proportion to the rather thin subject matter.

But I’ll keep trying. I feel sure that at some point the door to Japanese literature will open and I’ll walk in – and it will be as ordered and as austere and as logical as the interior of Kawabata’s house.


Alun  Severn

January 2019