Saturday, January 17, 2015

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

Source: Goodreads
Snow Country
Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972)
Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (from Japanese)
Originally 1956, I read Vintage International 1996
175 pages, romance, meditation, character study

A wealthy man with too much time on his hands comes to a hot spring resort in Western Japan - known as the Snow Country because of its long, frozen winters - to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and relax in the company of the rural geishas.

He meets a young woman with some geisha training; she speaks so plainly that at first he just wants to be friends. Later they enter into a relationship of sorts, sustained over the years as he occasionally returns to the village.

But their relationship is always unstable, and he is always leaving. During their visits, he sees her station and condition change as she futilely tries to make sense out of her life and gradually becomes more and more insane.

Read a sample or buy from Amazon: 

Snow Country

People have written about the beautiful style of this book ad nauseum. Since I have nothing more to add from that perspective, I will talk about the book as an ethnographic text and then express my confusion about the psychological motivation of the characters. 

As an Ethnographic text

In his simple, direct style, Kawabata provides details about the culture of the Snow Country and its natural environment. While some of this is left to the reader to infer from the characters' actions - such as norms for interaction between men and women - other cultural details are treated to beautiful thick description.

For example, the young women of the Snow Country used to spend the long winter months weaving a light linen, perfect for wearing in the hot summer months. The humidity and temperature of the snow provided the best environment for working with the thin threads, and the sunlight on the snow provided the traditional method to bleach the finished cloth. Besides being labors of love and boredom throughout the snowbound months, the fine cloth was considered a way for unmarried girls to demonstrate their skill to prospective husbands.

Similarly, this novel is full of descriptions of the clothing, houses, and other cultural artifacts of the region. To keep warm, the locals wear clothes made from a distinctive striped, heavy material. Houses are built with very deep eaves so that people can still travel around the village when there is eight feet of snow on the ground. They heat rooms with a charcoal brazier fitted with a quilt, and people snuggle into this quilt to keep warm in the cold nights.

These cultural details are not superfluous aspects of the setting, but intimately associated with the main plot of the novel. In a sense, Kawabata has written a novel that is both set in and about the Snow Country.

As a psychological text

I was most confused about the psychological aspects of this book. I understood the main character fairly well; he is a philanderer with money and time on his hands, but one who is interested in beauty and notices details that many people would not. For him, these travels into the Snow Country are a dreamlike diversion from everyday life; he is on a constant vacation, and nothing seems truly real.

However, I was very confused about the motivations of the two main female characters, Komako and Yoko. Kawabata leaves their relationship unclear, and each of them accuse the other of being crazy while simultaneously protecting them. Komako's relationship with the main character is similarly unclear; she is both ready and unwilling to leave. It doesn't help that most of Komako's appearances in the book involve her being thoroughly drunk and unable to express what she wants to say.

Komako seems to have had a hard life. She appears to barely be holding herself together. But what is her relationship to Yoko, and why will neither of them talk about it? I suppose it makes sense that they would not explain things to the visitor who occasionally passes through. And that is probably the point - they are all dreams to him, and he doesn't really need to know. The main character doesn't have any real relationship with these people, so why would they tell him anything? In fact, why would they tell the reader anything either?

Where I found it: Half Price Books, Hamilton, OH, USA

Further Reading by Yasunari Kawabata: 

"The Pomegranate" (1945) short story translated by Seidensticker 
Yasunari Kawabata's Nobel Lecture

Color photographs of Geishas from the 1800s (from Buzzfeed) 

1 comment:

  1. I found it puzzling too - but you've made more sense of it than I did!