on 23 July 2012
Hauntingly beautiful and highly moving, Kawabata's 'Snow Country' is arguably his finest novel. 'Snow Country' is the story of Shimamura, a married man from Tokyo, whom travels sporadically into the Snow Country of the title, to visit Komako, a geisha he believes he loves. Kawabata's evocation of the largely unspoken, troubled love between Shimamura, who is forever a traveller, in this remote, traditional region of Japan, and the sensitive, but unpredictable alcoholic Komako, is breathtaking in its honest, complex and commendably unsentimental portrait of the apparent hopelessness for a truly happy love, between the two. Kawabata's depiction of the landscape is also one of the novel's highlights, a land he portrays with both a piercing realism, and also with an eye for its incredible, sometimes harsh, natural beauty. 'Snow Country' is a novel packed with images of the landscape which surrounds the couple, yet they compliment the quietly pained relationship of Shimamura and Komako, instead of ever getting in the way of it.
Although this is a text which focuses on tradition, Kawabata's writing techniques are often innovative and rather modern. The novel's often imperceptible shift between time frames, locations and conversations, heightens the sense of fragmentation both lovers feel, as well as Shimamura's shifts between location, and between memories - common for the traveller. There are no serious faults in 'Snow Country', which is an extremely rare thing for a novel - but if I were to have to highlight one misstep, it is fair to say that a few of the conversations between the couple are a bit too dull and repetitive; even if they do portray successfully, a kind of frustrated stagnation, in their relationship. However, to focus on this is akin to focusing on one errant brushstroke in a wonderful painting. Mesmerising, strange and yet utterly engaging, and gorgeously evoked, Kawabata's 'Snow Country' is one of the finest novels of the 20th century.
on 19 August 2006
Unless you are familiar with Japanese culture and language, you will find Snow Country different from most any novel you may have read. Read superficially the novel appears to follow a simple plot and structure. Yet, its intensity and beauty lies in the lyrical imagery of landscape and evocation of the protagonists' complex psyche and their relationships.
The novel can be compared to a Japanese brushstroke painting, economic and suggestive, where the observant eye is able to complete the picture or the story. To fully appreciate Kawabata's prose in English, newcomers are well advised to empty their minds of other, mainly western, literary experiences and expectations and open up to a different world. Snow Country has to be read at a very slow pace. Every word has importance, with sometimes more than one meaning. With these preparations and attitude of mind, Snow Country is an enriching experience that will linger on long after reading it.
Kawabata tells the story of Shimamura, a wealthy man of leisure who's visiting a hot springs mountain resort to meet the local geisha, Komako. He comes for distraction and out of boredom with his real life in Tokyo. Komako is a reluctant geisha, but has resigned herself to her role, while hoping for some other life. The contrast between what they are and what they would like to be is played out in their interactions. Shimamura is drawn to the unreal or the unlikely or impossible. He wants to remain "just friends" with Komako. Her chatty and highly emotional outbursts leave him somewhat amused and bored, yet he misses her when away from her. She does not behave like a real mountain geisha. His room is like a refuge from that life, a place where she can literally let her hair down. Shimamura's attraction for the other young girl, Yoko, a friend and rival to Komako, is as contradictory. In her shyness and reserve she is desirable. She appears to him beautiful and pure, a delicate reflection in the window against the mountain landscape.
Nature and landscape are of great importance to Kawabata and articulated through Shimamura. Nature's beauty is felt more intensely by him than anything else. When he and Komako find themselves outdoors, they have nothing to say to each other. Yet even nature provokes contradictory emotions in Shimamura. "...he looked upon mountain climbing as almost a model of wasted effort. For that very reason it pulled at him with the attraction of the unreal."
Kawabata was one of Japan's most famous writers. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. His Nobel Lecture elucidates his deep affinity to and understanding of classical haiku poetry. Haiku represents a fundamental element of Japanese culture then and now. Snow Country has been described as haiku in prose. Kawabata uses a shorthand style for his descriptions, evoking simultaneously multiple senses, like colour and temperature, stillness and motion, attraction and rejection. Nature is all encompassing with people one component of the wider picture. The novel is rich in symbolism and references to Japanese traditions and mythology. However, some are easier to identify than others. While accepting that the English language reader will miss some of the deeper meanings and connotations, Snow Country is a novel that opens a fascinating world and deservedly has an enviable place in international literature. It is difficult to comment on the quality of Seidensticker's translation. Still, as others have expressed, one wonders whether the translation could have contributed more to the novel's appreciation by the reader. [Friederike Knabe]
on 30 March 2011
In Japanese the term "Yukiguni", or "Snow Country", is used to describe those areas of western Honshu, between the mountains and the Sea of Japan, which receive large amounts of snow in winter, and it is in this area that the novel is set. The action takes place during the 1930s. Shimamura, a wealthy man from Tokyo, arrives in a remote hot spring resort in the mountains, where he engages in an affair with Komako, a local geisha.
The resort in this book is not a typical family holiday resort in the sense that Westerners would understand the term. The tradition in Japan appears to have been for hot springs in the Snow Country to cater for male travellers travelling alone in search of female companionship. The geishas found in such resorts were different to the geishas found in major cities, who are primarily entertainers. Hot spring geishas were expected to "entertain" their male patrons in both senses of that verb, and, as the translator Edward Seidensticker points out in his introduction, the pretence that she was an artist and not a prostitute was often a thin one indeed. The romance (if it deserves that name) between Komako and Shimamura is therefore a doomed one; she is in love with him, but not vice-versa. He may be in love with her beauty, and her arts, but that is not the same thing. Kawabata paints Shimamura as a shallow dilettante and playboy; the most telling detail about his character is that although he claims to be an expert on Western ballet his knowledge of it is derived entirely from books. He has never actually seen a ballet in his life- a detail symbolising his distancing of himself from life.
The fact that Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968 suggests that his work has been appreciated in the West as well as in his native country, but he strikes me as being a writer who is stylistically and aesthetically quite different to most Western novelists, more different than other Japanese writers I have read such as Shusaku Endo and Haruki Murakami. (Kawabata appears to have been part of a movement which rejected Western literary influences, unlike some of his contemporaries who were greatly influenced by European Naturalism). I did, however, derive some assistance from Seidensticker's useful introduction. One point the translator makes is that Kawabata was influenced by the Japanese tradition of haiku poetry. These very brief 17-syllable poems may seem as different from the novel as it is possible for a literary form to be, but Seidensticker points out that in "Snow Country" Kawabata makes use of some of the characteristics of the haiku, such as sudden sensory impressions giving rise to an awareness of beauty.
Another Japanese cultural characteristic present in the work is what has been called "mono no aware", or "the sadness of things"- a sense of wistfulness at the transience and impermanence of all earthly things. Seidensticker describes the geisha Komako herself as "a particularly poignant symbol of wasted, decaying beauty", but many of the natural phenomena mentioned as also things noted for their fleeting, transient character, such as the autumn leaves or the snow itself.
My main difficulty with this book was that of trying to overcome my own cultural expectations and trying to enter into the author's very different world. Certainly, if one tries to read this as a Western-style novel it is likely to prove a disappointment- the plot, particularly the ending, is rather enigmatic and the characterisation is not very deep. It does, however, hold interest for a Western readership in the insights it gives us into another culture, not only though the descriptions of Japanese life contained in the text but also through its revelation of a cultural aesthetic quite different to our own.
on 20 December 2012
I loved reading this novel about the ambiguous relationship between an idle Japanese man from Tokyo and a young Geisha who lives and works at a mountain resort where people go to ski in winter and get away from the city heat in summer. Nothing much happens in terms of action but the novel is very concerned with the characters psychology and mood. One of the most remarkable features of the book is the sudden vivid images of the countryside it conjures using very few words. The sight of a Persimon tree hung with scarlet fruit against the snow fields and background of mountains,for example. It is one of the most subtly sensuous books I have ever read: heat, cold, fire,ice, white faces, red skin, descriptions of cloth, of women's hair, of hot baths, of light, of the ubiquitous snow and mountains, are some of the images which make the book such a joy to read. It is a picture of a vanished world and like The Leopard it shows how charming but also how stultifying and rigid that world was.
on 25 March 1998
This book was absolutely wonderful and very moving. I found myself thinking about the characters and setting for days after I finished the book. This book tells the story of tragic and hopeless love through a very unique and heartbreaking approach. The setting of the cold mountain area was described in such a way that brought chills down my back. This was an excellent book that went straight to my heart. Read it.
`Snow Country' is a beautiful novel from the Nobel prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata. It follows Shimamura who spends his vacation time at a isolated mountain hot spring and Komako, a geisha who works there and entertains the guests who visit to ski and soak in the springs. Kawabata's style is deceptively simple and it reminded me at times of Hemingways writing. They both write with simple, almost terse, sentences and yet they both impart a wealth of emotion and imagery that cuts to your core with minimal effort. At it's heart this story is about a doomed love affair that can never be fully realised and yet it seems to be about so much more. You are quickly drawn into the lives of the two main characters and feel their confusions along with them. The descriptions of Japanese countryside are rich and evocative and conjure up vivid images, like the snowflakes described as falling like peonies. This book has a brief introduction that puts some of the scenes into greater context for western readers and is very well translated throughout. I enjoyed this book immensely and although it is short, it is perfectly crafted and extremely beautiful. This is well worth reading at some point.
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While I was reading this 120-page novel I felt as if I were cocooned in deceptively warm and white drifts of cotton-wool snow, so pervasively does the winter snow cover all in this oblique, poetic tale by the late Japanese Nobel laureate.
Shimamura, a rather sketchily drawn figure, is a Tokyo-based husband and father who once a year enjoys the hospitality and geishas of the country district of the title, and gradually falls in love (one presumes) with Komako, a young and volatile geisha who falls for him too, though their impossible love brings them little happiness, as the final explosive, though enigmatic, pages imply.
This is all written in allusive, not to mention elusive, poetic prose, with much left to the reader's imagination. Often it is not obvious who is even speaking, which at times lends the narrative a suitably dislocated quality.
Shimamura arrives at the train station in snow, and the story ends with a fire. A woman named Yoko is another shadowy presence throughout, and other characters flit in and out of the novel as unpredictably as Komako's sudden appearances in the man's room. (Frequently a character will be referred to simply as 'the woman' or 'the man'.)
Some fellow reviewers have questioned the translator's clarity, but I can imagine how hard it must be not only to translate such a culturally specific novel, but to find English equivalents for both its words and phrases, and also its intangible, evasive way of storytelling. I'd be interested to read a different translation, if only to compare the two.
The tale Snow Country tells is on the surface a simple one, but Kawabata creates a world - of snow, tears, love, drunkenness, formality, fire, anger, hopelessness, and much else - that lives in the memory long after you close the book.
on 19 July 2012
This is an incredibly beautiful novel written by the Laureate in literature Yasunari Kawabata. It depicts the relation between Shimamura, a wealthy man and the geisha, Komako.
In the beginning of the story, Shimamura leaves his real life in Tokyo in order to meet his mistress in the hot spring town of Yuzawa.
The relationship is however not a satisfying one. Shimamura is bored by Komako's highly emotional outbursts and longs for what is impossible and unreal. He is therefore attracted by the shy and reserved Yoko whom he saw in the train. It was mostly her delicate, beautiful and almost surrealistic reflection in the window against the mountain landscape which moved him.
This is how Kawabata describes this appearance:
"Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl's face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it."
The novel is rich in images and metaphors and opens a fascinating poetical world about relations which will linger for a long time in the reader's mind.
Joyce Akesson, author of The Invitation,Love's Thrilling Dimensions and Majnun Leyla: Poems about Passion.
on 5 January 2006
This is a book that is beautiful in its simplicity. The issues put forward are very subtly portrait in the relationship of a self-indulgent Japanese man that doesn't know what he wants from life and a hot spring geisha. The love that develops between the two is destructive and strong, but it is distorted by the main character's obsession with another woman. The end is somewhat vague and leaves the reader with the impression that the book is unfinished.
When reading the book you don't feel that anything has been lost in the process of translation. I would highly recommend this book for all romantics, and advise that it is read with no expectations, that way the impression it leaves on the reader is of a beautiful country, and the life and love of its people.
on 1 November 1997
It has often been said Yasanuri Kawabata's books read like beautiful poems. In reading "Snow Country", it was easy to see why Kawabata's writing has earned this reputation. Kawabata uses beautiful images to illustrate simple truths about love, loneliness and the fragility of our existence. This theme seems to resonate in one of his opening scenes. Shimamure, one of the main characters looks at the reflection of a lovely woman's face on the window of a train traveling through the icy landscape of the "Snow County". Her reflection, floating above images of the passing, white, snow covered mountains reminds the reader of the fragility of beauty and the truth of life's fleeting nature. Kawabata's poignant images and his subtle character studies are pure genius.
The winter snow of the countryside seems to be a metaphor for Shinamura - the city gentleman - cold and sterile. Shinamura's hollow relationship with Komako - an "innocent" country geisha - is a modern tragedy. Komako willingness to freely offer her affections to the distant Shinamura is touching. However, Shinamura seems no more able to feel for Komako than he does for the "kotatsu" which warms his room. This bittersweet story about the relationship between the cold Shimura and the simple mountain geisha, komako is truly timeless. It is no wonder this author earned himself a Nobel Prize.