Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Where is the titular snow country of Kawabata's 1948 novel (original title: Yukiguni)? Is it the snowy western region of Japan, a haven for vacationing men on the lookout for hot springs and compliant geishas, or is it a cold, perhaps numb place somewhere within the characters in the novel?

If that seems like a rather pretentious way to start this off, I'll apologise for my ineptness, and point out that I'm trying to mimic something Kawabata does remarkably well throughout this novel - to weave together descriptions of the surroundings the main character finds himself in with descriptions of his mental state and interactions with the people around him - and to somehow make each a metaphor or complement to the other. Don't take my word for it. Read the excerpt in my previous post and see for yourself.

Small shifts in atmosphere, in emphasis, in tone of voice or choice of words, outlined against the contantly shifting backdrops afforded by the picturesque snow country resort town and its inhabitants take on great significance in this most subtle of novels.

With both grace and economy, Kawabata unfolds the story of Shimamura, a wealthy dilletante from Tokyo and his liaison with Komaka, a geisha in the hot springs resort he visits. Shimamura is taken with Komaka's innocence and simplicity; yet unwilling to fully believe that her professed love for him is real and not the pose of a geisha, or indeed that any sort of reciprocity beyond a never-defined, sporadic relationship without even the status of patron and favoured geisha is possible between them.

Both of them are, in some way, empty people, pursuing what Shimamura thinks of as wasteful effort. Shimamura, at one time a well-regarded commentator on Japanese dance and expected to soon enter into the fray himself finds his hobby getting too real and transfers his scholarly attentions to western dance, despite never having seen a ballet performance, and refusing to see ballets put up by Japanese troupes. Mountain climbing, another hobby of his, is also seen as a classic example of wasted effort - once you reach the top you have climb all the way back down again. Komako reads everything she can get her hands on, from classics to trash, and keeps a record of it all in a diary that she has been maintaining for years. She doesn't try to analyse what she reads, or impose any quality control on it - she just reads omnivourously and keeps a record of it. She teaches herself to play songs using sheet music, with no exposure to actual peformance practise, creating a naive and affecting but essentially quaint and insular art of her own.

Between them are many shadows and obstacles - Shimamura's own wife and family back in Tokyo, Yukio, a man whom Komako claims to have been engaged to, and for whose sake she has become a geisha and Yoko, a girl who bears some undefined relationship to this man, and is posessed of a beauty that increasingly haunts Shimamura.

The tension is intense, and grows with each visit Shimamura makes to the snow country resort and Komako. Things have to come to a head, something has to be resolved - but they won't as long as Shimamura and Komako stagnate in their uncomfortable relationship, afraid to take it to the next level or to make a clean break. Finally, there is a stark, haunting resolution brought about by events beyond their own control.

A very elegant book, written with great feeling for visual richness and emotional depth without exessive verbiage. Despite the differences in culture that made some of it hard to understand at first, the universal appeal of this story shines through in the end.

5 comments:

Tom Meade said...

"Shimamura is taken with Komaka's innocence and simplicity; yet unwilling to fully believe that her professed love for him is real and not the pose of a geisha, or indeed that any sort of reciprocity beyond a never-defined, sporadic relationship without even the status of patron and favoured geisha is possible between them."

Reminds me of the Honorary Consul by Grahame Greene. I suppose it's a common theme.

You've done a nice job of writing this up - I might keep an eye out for it.

JP said...

Thanks.

It's a slim book, and worth reading.

I've got The Honorary Consul lined up in my sporadic but ongoing Greene re-read campaign. I should boot it a bit higher up the TBR stack.

K said...

It's great that you are reading Japanese writers and can appreciate the same things I do (nearly) - I find the prose so fragile and lyrical and lovely, and at times so real that it is strangely beautiful. You know what I mean. It's also great that I can push up my must-read Japanese authors going by your list! Thanks to you I have decided to read that short story book with all of them in it, next. But first, I start on Murakami again. Really looking forward to it.

Hey, I am back!

JP said...

Welcome back!

I haven't read enough Japanese writers to generalise. Murakami Ryu struck me as a little too cinematic and ultraviolent. Kawabata and Oe have impressed me more, but I've only read one book each thus far; there's much more to explore.

Yasmine is reading Snow Country now.

K said...

Oh yes, there is always so much more to explore.

Snow Country seems so nicely descriptive, as if each scene is a freshly done painting, yet to dry. And this only from the excerpts I have read here. Maybe I will read my Japanese Short Stories before the Murakami. Hmm.