Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

The first ‘Snow Country’ in the title refers to the 1968 Japanese Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s (川端 康成 1899-1972) seminal novel Snow Country (雪鄉); the second refers to Arti’s neck of the woods here north of the 49th parallel in mid December.

Written in the 1930’s through to the 1940’s, Snow Country was later translated into English and published in 1956.  It is probably Kawabata’s most well-known work.  Translator Edward G. Seidensticker had been credited for leading Kawabata’s work to the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1968, a first for a Japanese writer.

The haiku-like simplicity so pervasive in the book is most apt for the Season. Firstly, its meditative descriptions and imagery offer a respite in the midst of our frantic pace.  And secondly, it points to certain relevance during this Christmas time, which I find surprising.

Translator Seidensticker writes in the introduction that the haiku is a juxtaposition of incongruous terms, such as motion and stillness. Within such contradictions sparks “a sudden awareness of beauty.”  Relax in the following poetic imageries:

They came out of the cedar grove, where the quiet seemed to fall in chilly drops.

or this:

[Her voice] seemed to come back like an echo of distilled love.

or this:

The field of white flowers on red stems was quietness itself.

Or savor the interplay of light and shadow, which evokes the poignancy of decayed beauty. This could well be the summing up of the human condition in Kawabata’s novel.

The sky was clouding over.  Mountains still in the sunlight stood out against shadowed mountains.  The play of light and shade changed from moment to moment, sketching a chilly landscape.  Presently the ski grounds too were in shadow.  Below the window Shimamura could see little needles of frost like ising-glass among the withered chrysanthemums, though water was still dripping from the snow on the roof.

The protagonist Shimamura, ‘who lived a life of idleness’ from inherited wealth, would leave his wife and children in Tokyo and go alone to the snow country every year, the mountain region of central Japan, to meet Komako, a young geisha at a hot spring village.  The love affair between the two is starkly off-balanced.  Despite her work in the pleasure quarters, entertaining parties of men, Komako is deeply devoted to Shimamura. Like her meager dwelling in the shabbiness of all, her room is spotlessly clean: “I want to be as clean and neat as the place will let me…”

Sadly, Komako realizes it is but a doomed unrequited love that she has invested in.  Shimamura too is aware of his own coldness.  Even though he is drawn back to Komako by making these trips to the snow country, he feels no obligation at all:

All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her.

Of course, it could well be guilt and a sense of moral ground, albeit his loyalty to his wife and children rarely comes to mind.

Shimamura does not understand the purity Komako seeks in her love for him, and her desire not to be treated as a geisha.  And that is why his nonchalant statement hits Komako so hard. In the climatic scene of the story, he utters, though not without affection: “You are a good woman.”

Instead of taking his words as an endearment, Komako is deeply hurt. Despite having to work as a geisha due to her circumstance, thus selling herself as an outcast, she longs to be removed from her predicament and be transported to a new life. Shimamura’s repeated words “You are a good woman” fall upon her like the gavel of final judgement laden with biting sarcasm.

Kawabata’s characters cry out for redemption, to be delivered from their precarious state. Komako is seeking saving grace in Shimamura, and desperately hoping for a way out of the “indefinable air of loneliness” shrouding her.  But her search is in vain for the man is incapable of love:

He was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love; and yet the woman’s existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin.  He pitied her, and he pitied himself.

Shimamura knows deep down that he needs cleansing as much as or even more than Komako.

The snow country of Japan is also the land of the Chijimi.  It is an old folk art of weaving where a certain kind of long grass is cut and treated, finally transformed into pure white thread.  The whole process of spinning, weaving, washing and bleaching is done in the snow.  As the saying goes, “There is Chijimi linen because there is snow.”  After the linen is made into kimonos, people still send them back to the mountain regions to have the maidens who made them rebleach them each year.  And this is where the universal appeal of snow as a metaphor for purity and cleansing so powerfully depicted by Kawabata, as Shimamura ponders:

The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean.

When I came to this description towards the end of the book, a starkly similar image conjured up in my mind:

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”              —- Isaiah 1:18

And like the doomed ending of their love affair, death comes as a certainty to all, insects or humans alike.  Shimamura has observed how a moth “fell like a leaf from a tree… dragonflies bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind.”  The poetic descriptions do not make death any more appealing.  Kawabata uses insects as a metaphor for the frailty of life and the chilling finality awaiting:

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.

It is pure serendipity that I picked up this book to read at this time of the year.  The Christmas story too has also cast a vivid interplay between darkness and light.  I was reminded of this reference:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”            — Isaiah 9:2

There is reason to rejoice, for the Able Deliverer had come… He too had lived a life of paradoxes and contradictions: born to die, life through death, strength through weakness.  And beneath the surface of jollity of the Season and the superficial exchanges of good will, there lies deep and quiet, the source of joy and inner fulfillment, and Life’s ultimate triumph over death.

I heard a small voice echo as I treaded on the snowy path alone in my snow country.

It said: “For this reason I came.”

***

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Published by Vintage International, 1996. 175 pages.

This concludes my final entry to meet Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4 before the end of 2010.

My other JLC posts:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

12 thoughts on “Reading Snow Country in Snow Country”

  1. Beautiful snowy scenes within your review! For this reason I came…”to testify to the truth”.
    Have a very Merry Christmas!

    .
    Ellen,

    Thanks for stopping by in this busy time. A wonderful Christmas to you and yours!

    Arti

    Like

  2. This sounds like a beautiful book. I love haiku too so I think I must put this on my reading list. Enjoyed your snowy photos.

    .
    Stefanie,

    This is my first Kawabata, and I think I’d like to read all of his works… I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one too. Have a great Christmas and have fun with your holiday reading!

    Arti

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  3. Beautiful language, Arti, but the story sounds so bleak. That snowy bridge shot is beautiful — pristine sunlight in a wintry sky.

    .
    nikkipolani,

    Beauty and sadness coexist… yes, the helplessness of the characters point to our human condition. That is why Christmas is such a joyous celebration, for it is hope personified.

    “The Word became flesh… in Him was life.”

    Have a blessed Christmas!

    Arti

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  4. Arti, thank you for this incredibly beautiful and skillful review of Snow Country. I do not find it bleak, in these quotes and your reflections. I find it tremendously poignant and beautiful. Yes, even sadness is beautiful. When someone writes as Kawabata does (and big thanks to the translator too), the reader rises above all circumstances, while meditating on them in their essence. This is the truest ability of good writing, the best writing. I am so touched by this beauty. Those haiku-like lines are stunning.

    Your connection with the season is moving, and the verses you quote. Yes, the light and shadow is somehow the reason for the season. Without shadow, would we appreciate the light? I heard somewhere that angels envy humans for the highs and lows of emotion. Who can know if this is true? But I find it an evocative and true thought.

    Much love to you this holiday. You have done a beautiful job in this post.

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    1. Ruth,

      Thank you so much for your eloquent response. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the quotes. Kawabata is a master in crafting fusion of contradictions. Beauty and Sadness actually is the title of one of his novels. The existential struggles of life and the resilient human spirit are both poignant and admirable.

      On the other hand, there is immense beauty in grace and redemptive love. What humans cannot achieve on their own can be obtained purely through Grace. It is heart-wrenching that, I speculate, Kawabata had not known such hope and had to end his own life at age 72. Nonetheless, I’ve appreciated his artistry and his sensitivity to the human condition.

      Thank you once again, my friend, for your careful reading and kind words. To you and yours, a most blessed Christmas!

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  5. What a beautiful review. Although this book seems very meloncholy, I’m going to put it on my reading list. Perhaps Shimamura goes to snow country because it reflects his coldness and because he is free to reveal his detachment? Does the book talk much about his feelings for and behavior around his family?

    Have a blessed Christmas!

    .
    Cathy,

    Glad you ‘like’ it. ;). I must say you’re perceptive indeed, the snow country does reflect S’s coldness and allows him to escape. He has gone there three times in two years, and while there, he seems to have forgotten about his wife and children. Consider this sad quote:
    “As he picked up a dead insect to throw it out, he sometimes thought for an instant of the children he had left in Tokyo.”

    I’m thinking about your book group too… I think the book will trigger some lively discussions.

    Have yourself a Merry Christmas, and enjoy your holiday reading!

    Arti

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  6. Such a powerful review, from the sentence I loved in the beginning of your post (” its meditative descriptions and imagery offer a respite in the midst of our frantic pace”) to the verses in Isaiah, I can tell this is a Must Read for me. Thank you.

    .
    Bellezza,

    Thank you for hosting all the Japanese Literature Challenges, giving us the chance to read great works. A wonderful Christmas to you and yours, and many more JLC in the coming years!

    Arti

    Like

  7. I confess I have never read any Japanese literature – it’s a gaping hole in my reading and one I must rectify next year. Thank you for a lovely review and an enticement to try this author.

    .
    litlove,

    Thanks to Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Lit Challenge, or else I wouldn’t dwell into JL. And I’m surprised to find there are so many contemporary Japanese novels in translation, and that’s not including modern classics like Kawabata’s. Give them a try. I sure like to read your take on them as compared to Western lit.

    Have a wonderful Christmas and enjoy your holiday reading!

    Arti

    Like

  8. I thought I read this one a long time ago, but I remember it as stories, not a novel. Maybe I’m remembering wrong! Anyway, it sounds beautiful, and worth revisiting.

    .
    Dorothy,

    You’re probably thinking of the short story, Izu Dancer, published in 1927, English translation 1955. It’s Kawabata’s debut work. Snow Country is not long though, just under 180 pages. He is also famous for his Palm-of-the-hand Stories. Snow Country is definitely worth rereading. Thanks for stopping by in this busy Season. Have a blessed Christmas!

    Arti

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  9. I’ve been back several times to read, and realized tonight, at last, that it isn’t the snow which is most meaningful to me, but the struggle to live.

    First we are told of Komako, whose “existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin.” Later, Kawabata tells us, “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.”

    It seems to me it isn’t only the snow which is important, but the changing season in Komako’s heart. The coldness of Shimamura leaves her in a condition perfectly analogous to the poor bees – dying of the coming cold.

    I think these images affect me so strongly because I see the bees every year, on my boats. There aren’t a lot, but their struggle is perfectly portrayed here. Watching them, I hate the feeling of utter helplessness – wanting to save them and knowing I can’t. I wonder if Shimamura might not have felt some of that same helplessness, watching Komako and knowing there is nothing he can do to help her. In the end, it is his own coldness that leaves her trembling toward death.

    In any event, your review left me so emotional I’m not at all sure I’d be ready to tackle the book. Perhaps I should wait for warmer weather, when the bees are happy and flying about again!

    I smiled to think of another way the Christmas season brings a promise to the snow country – to the experience of “bleakness”. I’ve always found the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” one of the warmest, most comforting carols in the whole of the Christmas repertoire. There is that wonderful line – “snow on snow on snow” – which describes yet another kind of “snow country” perfectly.

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    1. Linda,

      Thank you for sharing your insight in the beautiful comment. Yes, other than the snow, the insects, moths and bees alike, make up a crucial metaphor. Kawabata has explicitly pointed out that it is the struggle to live that is so poignant. As I was reading, I could think of another title for the book: Of Moths and Men… oops, that has been used already, ah… that makes Snow Country so unique then.

      I wonder if there’s a difference in reading this book in various seasons. Reading it while the bees are alive and buzzing, mmm, you might not get the same effects as Kawabata might have intended. 😉 But it’s interesting though how language and imagery can affect our mood, and, how our mood can change our reception of the former.

      And lastly, thank you for pointing out the beautiful words in the carol “In The Bleak Midwinter”. I went on YouTube and listened to it again, and found some of the lyrics sing like haikus! The very poetic phrase: “snow on snow on snow” conjures up the notion: “from faith to faith.”

      A Merry Christmas to you and yours!

      Like

  10. Arti, thank you so much for this beautiful and insightful review. I read Snow Country several years ago, and what I remember most are the train scenes: Shimamura’s quiet excitement and anticipation when arriving; the cold silence of his departure. Motion and stillness, as you point out, permeate this novel (Shimamura’s motion; Kumako’s stillness). How can we find true peace if we are constantly moving? Beautiful and sad, as Ruth says.
    I love the poetry in the quotes you cited. Yet another reason to return to this one. Again, thank you!

    .
    ds,

    Yes of course, thanks for pointing out the trains… after all, the story starts with a train ride. And you’re spot on in comparing Shimamura’s motion with Kumako’s stillness. If I could choose, I’d like to have Ozu to make a film of this book. Passing trains is one motif in his films, signifying the transience of life. I’ve also borrowed a Chinese translation of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes. Just like to explore how the different translations compare. Have you read any other works by Kawabata?

    Arti

    Like

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