‘Snow Country’ by Yasunari Kawabata

Snow Country

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 121 pages; 2011. Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker.

Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, the first Japanese novelist to do so. His best known work is probably A Thousand Cranes, published in 1952. Snow Country came later — in 1956.  It tells the story of a doomed love affair between a city man and a rural geisha, and is widely regarded as a classic of Japanese literature.

Annual holiday in the “snow country”

Shimamura is a married man who travels to the remote mountain hot springs of western Japan every year to relax away from his family. It is here that he meets Komako, a young geisha with whom he thinks he has fallen in love.

But their relationship is not straight forward: they come from two different backgrounds. Shimamura is wealthy and cultured; Komako is uneducated and provincial.

It doesn’t help that Shimamura is often distracted by his fascination with Yoko, a young woman he spotted on the train, whom Komako knows. He also lacks commitment and sometimes struggles to cope with Komako’s volatile behaviour.

Komako is a troubled character. As a rural geisha she lacks the social status and the training of her city counterparts. She’s prone to emotional outbursts and spends a lot of time getting drunk.

Right from the outset, it’s clear that their relationship is doomed to failure, but even the ending of this quietly understated novella is more shocking than one might expect.

Evocative and beautiful prose

Written in crisp, clear prose, Snow Country has moments of great lyricism and grace, conveying not only the beauty of the setting but the complex, quietly pained, relationship between these two deeply flawed people.

Occasionally it feels predictable and some of the dialogue is repetitive, but I suspect Kawabata simply wanted to convey the stagnation of the romance, that the couple had become trapped — by circumstance, prejudice and an unwillingness to compromise — and couldn’t find a way forward.

As a result Snow Country evokes a sad, melancholy air, with an undercurrent of foreboding throughout, but on the whole this is a deeply moving story that showcases Japanese traditions and culture against a starkly beautiful landscape — the snow country of the title.

This is my first book for #20booksofsummer. I have no memory of buying this book, but it’s been sitting in my pile of Penguin Modern Classics for several years, hence my decision to read it now.

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15 thoughts on “‘Snow Country’ by Yasunari Kawabata

  1. This is a favorite of mine, too, for all the reasons you describe above. I spoke with a scholar from Japan a couple of years ago who is also a fan. She told me Kawabata is considered very old fashioned today, but he still has many readers in Japan. The same is largely true for Shasuko Endo how is also very good. If you liked this one, you might give Endo a try some time.

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    • Interesting to hear that he’s regarded as old fashioned… his prose and the structure of the book seemed remarkably contemporary to me. Not read any Endo, but you are not the first to recommend him to me. I also want to read more Yukio Mishima — I really loved Spring Snow when I read it a few months back.

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    • Thanks for the link, Karen. I knew I had read a review of this on a blog somewhere but couldn’t remember which one. I agree the characters are rather enigmatic; you never get fully in their heads so have to assume / figure out their motivations.

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  2. I think you’ve captured the mood of this book to a T. Sad and melancholy with an undercurrent of foreboding throughout – there is always a feeling that something devastating could happen at any minute…

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    • I want to read a Thousand Cranes now…mind you, I do struggle with the idea that married men can just pop off on holiday to have sex with geishas. I wonder if anyone has written a Japanese novel from the wife’s perspective…?

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  3. This sounds very intriguing – I do like Japanese literature, with its understatement and seeming simplicity hiding a huge range of meanings and emotions.

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  4. Pingback: 20 books of summer recap – Reading Matters

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