Book Reaction: «Snow Country» by Yasunari Kawabata

Available on The Internet Archive

It was through a thin, smooth skin that man loved. Looking out at the evening mountains, Shimamura felt a sentimental longing for the human skin.


The entire book (which I read straight through in an afternoon) is full of beautifully gossamer prose like the above quote.

The novel takes place almost exclusively in a small town in “Snow Country,” an area in the northwest of Japan’s main island _Honshu_. We follow the relationship between Shimamura, a wealthy “idler” from Tokyo, and a geisha in this town. Wealthy man falls in love with sex worker. A common storyline, but the storyline in «Snow Country» is not typical, nor is the storyline per se the focus of the novel.

Potentially because I read the novel in translation—although I do believe in translation’s ability to capture and convey human equivalents—the novel is sparse. Beautiful, but not explicit, not full of description, not even full of story; we jump from scene to scene (across four years) without acknowledgment. The result is a story that is less narrative and more experience. So it reminds me in that way of Alai’s «Red Poppies», or certain of JM Coetzee’s stories: where what is not written is as much a part of the overall design as the gaps between lace in a doily. Or, if we want to keep a slightly more geographically proximate example, the explicit and elided are as important to the overall composition as the naked and inked spaces in a painting by Xia Gui (below).

A painting of a lake by Xia Gui
River Landscape by Xia Gui (長江萬里圖 (後半卷)). Wikimedia Commons
Note: this is a Chinese painting, the novel is by a Japanese author. I am not seeking to equivocate the two, merely share that I was reminded of the Chinese “black and white” landscape paintings while reading.

It is an experience more real than felt; the striking beauty of words not written.

Love between a wealthy patron of a working-class geisha, without any obvious abuses of power. It is the lack of abuse, or commentary on it, that strikes me as notable in absence. Although I cannot say if this elision is actually hinted at, or something which my twenty-first century American ethics insists be present. Can we have the exercise of power without abuse? In circles of modern Left moralism, such a thought or suggestion seems antithetical—tantamount to making excuses for those who wield power, a painting over the abuses, implicit justification for the status quo.

So we have instead a half-related story about a half-relationship, full of allusion and traced spaces. The absence of Komako from Yamamura’s journey into the village towards the end of the novel is representative of their relationship the entire book. And although our narration style grants us access primarily to Yamamura’s thought, we can see how both of them are aware of something missing, of the asymptote between their desire and reality (wanting uncertainly, finding not-quite satisfaction).

We even have only-mentioned metafiction in the form of Komako’s diary-keeping (since she first went to Tokyo at 17), and the mentions of rather indulgent scholarly publishing that Shimamura engages in as “an idler.” Both works are referenced only in roundabout: they outline the characters, but do not drive anything.

It is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, even as I am left with a sort of vague unease. There aren’t clear moral lines in the novel, nor are there clear events between the characters (aside from a few encounters with the secondary character of Yoko, including the book’s opening scene). It leaves me feeling rather more deeply those parts of my own life which seem unfulfilled in the way which I think I want them to be. This tiptoe around wanting human connection, this need, the longing that as of late has been intensified by being caught, alone and far from home, in a small town during 2020’s “lockdown/quarantine.”

Like Yamamura and ballet, I suspect that I have a lot of desires that are not truly for the thing as much as they are for the prestige or the idea of having an interest. How true this worry is is somewhat unimportant, as it fluctuates and changes with the mood, with the weather, with the events or readings of a single afternoon.

And too, like Komako, there is a sense of being the one who is more undone by an excess (I do not believe that “Only women can truly love.” However, the denial of desiring comfort may be very masculine: rejection of vulnerability, projection of control), afraid of being too much for oneself and too much for others—about improper wanting, about how to separate loneliness and the desire for human interaction with a claim on another’s time. In “a marketplace of emotionality” as we live in, it is dangerous for anyone to need too badly, less the prices you pay grow too steep. Desperation is not useful, and I take pains to try and temper expressions of what I fear is a desperate and potentially threatening neediness.[1]

The soothing aspect of the novel comes from the blisteringly gorgeous styling, the delicate lines that Kawabata sketches for us, shifting unhurriedly through years and location do more to convey the novel as an experience rather than narrative. We learn about _chijimi_, a textile made from incredibly delicate grass fibers, bleached in the snow; and there are, in my very cursory and admittedly rose-colored reading, no cruel or detestable characters.

«Snow Country» covers four years in just under 175 (rather small) pages, a length perfectly suited to a weekend afternoon read, or train ride (Though not on an airplane. Airplanes are not very supportive of artistic mindsets: they are too noisy and confining and fast to support the senses. Trains are far superior.) that affords a few hours for quiet reading.

The book has this very interesting and dense notice in the back. I’m including it because I found it surprising. In so few sentences, it assumes I know so much about incredibly obscure typographers!

[1]: More on this in an upcoming piece. I do not believe that relationships are a marketplace, but that does not mean that we do not act as if they are in one. Exhibit A through L: Tinder.