Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Near the end of his life, Kawabata wrote a short story called “Gleanings from Snow Country.” The tale was a miniaturization of Snow Country, the novel that brought the author his greatest acclaim and contributed to the Nobel Prize he received in 1968. Kawabata had been working on Snow Country for 14 years when it was published in 1948 (it first made its appearance as a short story in January, 1935), and the final result was a quiet and subtle book – it is poetry in the shape of prose, written with sublime sensitivity.

The elements of the novel are fairly typical for Kawabata, so there is love, longing, beauty, a certain emotional coldness, and loss. And a young woman. The author’s protégé Mishima once said that Kawabata worshiped virgins and that this was “the source of his clean lyricism”; there is no virgin in Snow Country, but there is a young woman, Komako, who is a geisha.

But she is not like the geisha (“art person”) of Tokyo or Kyoto. Komako is a hot-spring geisha on the northwestern coast of the island Honshu, and cannot hope for the long-term support of a wealthy patron. Instead she has to make herself agreeable to paying customers week after week. Her social status is low, but at the same time Komako and other geisha like her are the foundation of the economy in the region. When Komako meets Shimamura, a wealthy loner from Tokyo, the geisha falls in love with him. Shimamura, on the other hand, seems incapable of love, although he likes Komako and appreciates the affection the young woman shows him. However, the Tokyoite – who is a self-appointed expert on Western ballet – visits Komako repeatedly, and she (perhaps in an attempt to deepen his feelings for her) polishes her technique on the traditional samisen by untraditionally relying on sheet music and radio.

Quietly Snow Country grows deeper, as layer after layer is added to the story: it turns out to be a story about men and women, rich and poor, city and countryside, tradition and change, East and West, and not the least about the fleeting nature of all things.

Snow Country is in many ways intricate and elusive, but it’s also a novel that is instantly supremely rewarding. A main reason for this is Kawabata’s writing in which nature and culture merge. This is perhaps what makes Kawabata so intensely Japanese and, at the same time, what makes him universally compelling.

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