Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

My Vintage International edition was translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

How do you review a book that is just so… nothing? I just wasn’t moved by it whatsoever. It elicited no emotional response from me. I trudged on because I desperately wanted to get it, to feel something for Snow Country. But I shut the final page deflated and dissatisfied.

Snow Country relays the affair between Tokyo dilettante Shimamura and lowly hot spring geisha Komako. I’ve seen others describe Snow Country as a love story of sorts. I can’t bring myself to label Shimamura and Komako’s entanglement as such.

Shimamura is such… I have no words. Wealth is wasted on him. His life is all fantasy and no substance. He thrives on transience and ephemera. He has no profession. His main occupation is writing about ballet despite never seeing it performed.

A ballet he had never seen was an art in another world. It was an unrivaled armchair reverie, a lyric from some paradise. He called his work research, but it was actually free, uncontrolled fantasy. He preferred not to savor the ballet in the flesh; rather he savored the phantasms of his own dancing imagination, called up by Western books and pictures. It was like being in love with someone he had never seen (25).

To Shimamura, everything is a “wasted effort” – he explicitly called at least (by my personal count) three different actions, habits, or hobbies a “wasted effort” in Snow Country.” It’s fine if he wants to live like that alone but why does he have to drag other people into it? Poor Komako. Poor Shimamura’s wife and children.

Other than irritation towards Shimamura, however, I found reading Snow Country an empty enterprise. Reading good fiction transports me to another world and shakes my emotions. Reading a scholarly paper adds knowledge to my head. Now, imagine getting neither – none of the benefits of reading. I was just turning the pages for the sake of finishing. I thought, ‘Right. Let’s just get on with this.’

It’s a shame, really – Snow Country is an accomplished little novel from a technical perspective. The writing is clear. Subtle and restrained, never showy. I personally like my prose to be more lyrical but I really can’t fault Kawabata’s style.

Snow Country really embodies the “show, don’t tell” rule. There’s little backstory, little exposition. Many things are left mysterious. Reading Snow Country somehow reminded me of Hemingway’s signature style. There are a lot of things on the surface, you have dig and interpret the details yourself. Snow Country is very dialogue-laden. Komako and Shimamura say a lot of things, 90% of them mundane, confusing, and inexplicable – yet if you look deeper, you glean things. Shimamura is incapable of committing, Komako is full of incommunicable passion.

Finally, there’s the gorgeous imagery. Gorgeous, despite the simplicity of Kawabata’s writing style. I particularly enjoyed this description of a tree:

From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and, their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends taut, to make a terrible weapon for some god (30).

“A terrible weapon for some god” – isn’t that a lovely phrase?

I racked my brain to figure out why Snow Country isn’t for me. Ultimately, I think it’s simply personal taste. Snow Country’s connection to Hemingway in my brain is unfortunate, as I was equally apathetic about Hemingway. I felt nothing – all the characters could catapult themselves from a cliff and I wouldn’t care less. I don’t mind figuring things out and interpreting things for myself, but I’m growing to realize that, as a reader, I like fiction that does both show and tell. I like knowing the characters’ backstory. I like fiction that explores a full, rich life. Snow Country feels like it was painstakingly rendered through small, single strokes when I prefer a complete picture.

A more complimentary review of Snow Country is included here, if you want another perspective. In addition, japaneselit’s review incorporates information surrounding Japan, Snow Country’s publication and Yasunari Kawabata’s Nobel win.

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9 thoughts on “Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

  1. I try not to let my enjoyment of a book be determined by my emotional reactions to it and instead I aim to judge a book objectively. But I fail every time! I am an emotional human after all and I read for fun. If I’m having no fun or gain nothing from reading a book then I feel like I’m wasting my time.

    Its unfortunate you didn’t like this one. I’m looking for more Japanese book recommendations, but I guess I should look elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The funny thing is, there was a suspended part of my brain that objectively listed Snow Country’s merits when I was reading: prose, check. Imagery, check. Subtlety, check.

      Yet ultimately, I gave it a low rating purely because of my lack of enjoyment. You’re right: we are human and fiction is more often than not an emotional need.

      I recommended The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki to a lady a while back and she really enjoyed it. The Makioka Sisters is very richly detailed (most of the novel is detail). Do you have any thematic preferences? The Makioka Sisters is essentially about the declining Japanese upper class pre-World War II.

      Like

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