Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. Snow Country was one of the works cited by the Committee. It’s a spare novel about a doomed relationship between a geisha at a snowbound spa and a hollow, wealthy dilettante. Kawabata employs some of the most beautiful and lyrical prose I’ve encountered. At the same time, it’s not going to become a favorite. Reading Snow Country is like admiring a painting. You see the art and the beauty and the craft of the brushstrokes but don’t really come to care about the subjects.
The novel opens as Shimamura travels by train to visit Komako, the geisha with whom he’s been engaged in a long affair. Shimamura inhabits a dream world. He processes sensual images but cannot connect with humanity. He styles himself an expert in Western ballet but has never attended one. He views life in a mirror, and that image reappears constantly. On the train, he encounters Yoko, a helper at the spa, traveling with a sick companion. He first views her through a reflection in the train window. “A woman’s eye floated up before him. He almost cried out in astonishment. But he had been dreaming, and when he came to himself he saw that it was only the reflection in the window of the girl opposite.”
Shimamura reunites with Komako, whom he regards as “clean.” “With her skin like white porcelain coated over a faint pink, and her throat still girlish, not filled out, the impression she gave above all was one of cleanliness, not quite one of real beauty.” However, Shimamura’s comparison of Komako’s mouth to a “beautiful little circle of leeches” foreshadows the eventual demise of their affair.
When Shimamura returns to snow country the following year, the images of decay intensify: a dead moth on the window, musty, stale cakes, a filthy Russian peddler. Shimamura stares at “insects smaller than moths gathered on the white powder at” Komako’s neck. “Some of them died there as Shimamura watched.” So, too, the flesh at Komako’s neck and shoulders “was richer than it had been the year before.” Komako tells Shimamura about the death of her music teacher and the terrible accommodations she has had to accept. Needy and desperate, Komako condemns Shimamura’s emptiness. “You have plenty of money, and you’re not much of a person,” she says. Komako detects Shimamura’s decision to leave her when he describes her as a woman instead of a girl, the type of indirect expression that suffuses the novel.
Snow Country ends with a fire in a crowded auditorium, flames contrasting against the snow. A woman falls from a balcony. It turns out to be Yoko. Shimamura reacts with characteristic detachment: “He saw the figure as a phantasm from an unreal world. That stiff figure, flung out into the air, became soft and pliant. With a doll-like passiveness, and the freedom of the lifeless, it seemed to hold both life and death in abeyance. If Shimamura felt even a flicker of uneasiness, it was lest the head drop, or a knee or hip bend to disturb that perfectly horizontal line. Something of the sort must surely happen, but the body was still horizontal when it struck the ground.”
As Shimamura ponders symmetry, Komako screams, and Yoko’s leg spasms. The interruption of his reverie chills Shimamura and fills him with anguish.It’s Komako who braves the flames and carries Yoko from the fire as Shimamura passively distills images from the three’s past. He’s pushed aside by the men who come to Komako’s aid. “As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.”
Snow Country is a book that should be read. It’s not fun or inspiring. It doesn’t deepen understanding or cause the reader to become invested in its characters. It’s a literary mise-en-scene. For Kawabata, like his hero, image is everything. But, oh, those images.