Posts Tagged ‘geisha’

Summer Reading Part 2: Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country.

August 22, 2010

I normally don’t read two books of the same author in a row, so in order to get all the Murakami books out of the way, I had to intersperse them with something else. The first one was by another Japanese writer.
Yasunari Kawabata – or Kawabata Yasunari, if you want to stick to the Japanese way of presenting names – was the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1968. Whereas Murakami is a Japanese writer very much influenced by the west, and particularly USA, Kawabata’s style and subject matters are Japanese through and through. (At least as far as I can see. I am by no means an expert in Japanese literature, and can base my impression only on a few works). I think Murakami’s western sensibilities, to put it perhaps euphemistically, goes a long way to explain his quite singular success in translated form. Apart from a certain inherent Japanese quirkiness, he often reminds me quite a bit of Paul Auster when Auster still seemed interesting.

Kawabata, on the other hand, is no easy sell abroad, I suspect. At least not these days. While his style can at times have a certain exotic attraction by its very Japaneseness, the at times strong modernist traits won’t ingratiate him with the casual reader. Of course, this is by no means a goal in itself. The only thing Kawabata has in common with Murakami (apart from both being Japanese authors), is that neither of them seem to find the endings particularly important. Snow Country was begun in 1934 and finished in 1947, after having been published piecemeal in various instalments. The ending almost being an afterthought as he revisited the book after several years…
Snow Country is by many considered his finest book, and it opens fantastically:
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.”
Note the rhythm here and the haiku-like sparseness of the prose, like some oriental Hemingway. I had to read these lines several times, allowing myself to bask in their perfection. The Haiku is perhaps influential in Kawabata’s way of using very short scenes to stand in for a much larger story; we are never given more than fleeting glimpses into the actual actions and lives of the characters. The opening description of watching a woman’s translucent face halfmirrored in the window of the train during its nightly ascent to the Snow Country, is among the sublime  passages of the book. Here Kawabata suggests not only the protagonist’s way of looking at his world and at life, but  even sums up the novel for us, almost telling us how we should expect to read it.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, albeit not told straightforwardly. The young well off protagonist of the piece, is a dilettante with enough money not to have to worry about sordid matters such as actual work. As a consequence, he is busying himself by writing a monograph about the occidental ballet, an art form he has never actually seen. He is married, but returns to the hot springs of the Snow Country to meet again a young geisha who has fascinated him. Another girl there also draws his attention. A sense of resignation infuses their conversations and interaction. There is a love affair.

I am pretty sure that Snow Country is a very good book. It might even be a masterpiece. However, there were so many elements I didn’t understand, and I came to believe that I had no means to understand them. I didn’t have any problems with the modernist style of going back and forth in time, without clear indications of how much time passes or who is speaking at any given time. Thus spake Faulkner. Neither did I find the language particularly complicated, and I am convinced that the translation by Edward G. Seidensticker is impeccable. So, I concluded that the reason for reason evading me must be at least in part cultural.  Or I might be a bit more on the stupid side than I hitherto feared.

The translator adds some valuable foot notes trying to explain the more esoteric aspects, for example which cloth is typically used for which kimonos, and what would be the kimono’s purpose and significance in a given situation. However, it seems also the colour of the kimonos, to continue this example, would be pregnant with meaning in a given exchange, signifying not only social status but also symbolic relations. Whether a person is standing to the left or the right of the oldest person in a room could be extremely important for all I know, but – I just don’t know. The translator himself notes in his foreword that he doesn’t know of any other novel in which a slight change in tone signifies so much. Thus, no matter how good a job the translator does, it is pretty impossible to catch all or even most of the nuances of the novel. As a result, I never felt that I managed to inhabit Snow Country in the way the book probably deserves. There are beautiful phrases here, conversations rendered clear and cold as ice. There are psychological insights in the novel that even I could appreciate, told in a spare, distant style, with any melancholy left to the reader, not in the text itself. This will have to be enough for me, and perhaps revisiting the novel in thirty years’ time, I will have learnt more of the culture and know enough of Japanese literature to appreciate Snow Country properly.

By the way. While the foreword is a valuable tool in order to understand what is going on and why, try not to read it before you have been through the book at least once. Seidensticker chooses for some reason to retell the entire plot, including the very last line, even giving his interpretation of the books climactic moment(s).

And by the way again: I just love the painting on the cover of my edition of Snow Country: Ando Hiroshige, or rather, Hiroshige Utagawa’s Night Snow at Kambara (from his 53 Tokaido Stages/Stations) (It’s the first picture at the top of this post). I know of no other painter who portrays snow nearer to my ideal of snow, as if his pictures are communicating to a half forgotten childhood, and there is a faint answer there. I get a warm, excited feeling every time I see one of his snow scenes. (That sounded wrong, didn’t it?) I have a nice framed print of Hiroshige’s Man Crossing a Bridge in the Snowy Landscape, from his 100 (Famous) Views Of Edo. It was begun the year he withdrew from the world to become a Buddhist Monk and would be very fitting of this novel as well. I would decorate our entire apartment with his pictures if it was up to me…

In closing this part, I recommend the book to anyone seriously or half-seriously interested in literature, and it can’t hurt if you also have some interest in Japanese culture. I liked Snow Country a lot, I just didn’t love it. For this, I suspect, I can only blame myself.