Monday, November 5, 2012

"A waste of effort" in Kawabata's Snow Country

Snow Country, a 1937 novel by Nobel prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata, is typically described as "haunting," "suggestive," and "haiku-like." It's full of spare, stripped-down prose and Kawabata says very little directly, offering us the shadows and impressions of the characters' emotions, oblique statements of feeling or intention. The protagonist, a middle-aged wealthy man named Shimamura, wonders about the motivations of the mistress he has taken during brief vacations to a hot springs in the snowy Japanese mountains, but not too much, nor does he bother to ask. Komako, the geisha, doesn't ask after Shimamura's wife, family, or occupation in Tokyo except once to inquire if he's always been wealthy (he has; he inherited wealth and lives the life of an indolent dilettante, in one brilliant passage letting us know that he once was a student of classical Japanese dance but he grew frustrated with the modern dancers' attempts to keep the spirit of the dance but somehow make it new again, so Shimamura became a long-distance expert in Western ballet, without once having actually seen a ballet performed).

We don't know anything about Shimamura's wife, except that Shimamura feels no guilt about leaving her behind every once in a while to go off and spend a week with a geisha. Shimamura feels no guilt about breaking promises to the geisha, either. He's one of those sentimentalists who wants to have some sort of authentic experience, I think, who labels his emotions as intense and real but in truth he's just living life on the surface. I have no idea if Kawabata sees his protagonist this way, but that's how he comes across to me. Shimamura is a hollow little man who only pretends to feel, living a hollow little life where he's an expert on things he's never actually seen. All of this sounds like the makings of a good novel, but it's just a tiny handful of details in Snow Country. I am, I realize, making the book sound better than it is.

It's okay, and it's interesting because this world of a resort along a train route through the snowiest region of the world in northern Japan, where businessmen leave their families behind to sit in cold rooms and watch the sunlight change on the mountain slopes and then have carefully-made-up women dote upon them, sing and dance for them, go to bed with them and disappear at dawn while the hotel manager keeps track of the hours (all added to the room bill), is a very alien world to me. I don't much care for this alien world, I admit, and I know I'm missing a lot of the cultural referents. I know that I'm missing a lot of the meaning toward which Kawabata gives hints, so perhaps I don't understand this story at all. Mostly I'm okay with that, because I don't think direct and clear understanding of the artist's culture is a necessary part of enjoying a work of art. My trouble is primarily with the writing, I think, or maybe the translation; a lot of the prose seems to mean nothing on a grammatical/syntactical level:

"I made a mistake. I saw you as soon as I came down from the mountain, and I let myself think that all the geisha here were like you," he laughed. It occurred to him now that the thought of washing away in such short order the vigor of seven days in the mountains had perhaps first come to him when he saw the cleanness of this woman.

I have no idea what that means. I've read that paragraph half a dozen times and I simply cannot parse it. There's a lot of that sort of prose in this novel, stuff that looks like it means something but doesn't actually add up to a coherent thought. The nature writing, and the writing about music and art, and the basic story of a rich dilettante who is interested in the emotions of women as reflections of his own actions are all interesting so I keep reading, but I can't help thinking that when I've done with this book I will have not actually have read it.

"A waste of effort" is Shimamura's judgment of a great deal of human activity, especially creative pursuits done purely for pleasure and not for gain or at a professional skill level. Nothing he does is a waste of effort, but he is surrounded, it seems, with wasted effort. This might be a really cool, really insightful novel, but I'm just not able to find my way into it, which leaves me frustrated.


  1. Read this 6 months ago. I actually appreciated the apparent inscrutability of the novel. Must we understand every nuance of it? Maybe there's really no meaning; we are just provoked to be frustrated. Maybe it's all about mood.

  2. Yeah, this morning I was reading it on the bus and I thought that either these constructions I don't understand actually have meaning to a Japanese reader, or they're deliberately meant to be baffling. Or both. Either way, I realized that I was just being a lazy reader, wanting the surface of the narrative to be easier than it is.

    The dialogue is all brilliantly done, with people deliberately talking past each other.

  3. I started reading this book on Sunday and am about 3/4 of the way through it. As a lover of Kawabata, I couldn't remember Snow Country much at all, and now that I'm reading it, I don't like it nearly as much as The Lake or Thousand Cranes. (I think I like Sound of the Mountain too, but I don't remember much of that one either.)

    I think part of the problem is the translation. Some passages really make no sense, and I find that in all of the books. But the more I read Kawabata's work, the more I feel in touch with the impressions he creates and how that helps to direct the reader. His details don't necessarily work on an analytical level. Rather, I think you have to put yourself into the story and observe what he creates and ask yourself how that would make you feel. How would the lights behind the woman's reflection feel? How would the still moth feel? I think those things help us to track the emotional journey.

    Scott, as far as how Kawabata sees his protagonist, I think he's very aware of this. All of his protagonists seem pathetic to me on some level. Many of them are similar to Shimamura. What's fascinating to me is that I want to follow these people even when I don't like them at all. It gives me glimpses into the worst of me at times.

  4. And, I may be making this up completely, but part of what I like about Kawabata's writing is that I feel a sense of honesty and fearlessness in Kawabata. I feel like he admits to things that make him look bad. That helps me connect.

  5. Davin, I finished Snow Country yesterday afternoon and I really enjoyed what Kawabata did with the characters. I thought he was really raw, really naked with them, and that was the book's power. My problem was entirely with the prose, which just didn't work too often. I think either some of the images are Japanese idioms that don't translate, or that the translator just did a poor job with figurative language. When the prose actually worked, it worked really well. So I'm not ready to write Kawabata off because there's something there, very definitely. But I also admit that I'm not in a huge hurry to pick up another of his books. Right now I've just started Death With Interruptions and it's awfully cool.

  6. The key will be for one of us (meaning you) to learn Japanese and do the translation ourselves.

  7. I will get right on that, in 2025. Remind me then, okay?

    The long section about weaving/dying snow linen was great. The nonsense prose all had to do with character emotions. Which is interesting. Which might tell us about the translator.

    Also, that gives me the idea for a story about a translator who was a long-time partner of a novelist, translating all the novels into English. When the novelist dies, the translator begins work on the final novel and at some point realizes that the book is a roman a clef about him (the translator) and it's not flattering at all. So he begins to change the meaning of the language in a deliberate attempt to obscure what the novelist is saying. I won't ever write this book, probably, but it's an interesting idea that I could probably work with.

  8. I just got to the snow linen section this morning. It was gorgeous.

    I like your idea for this novel that will never be written. It seems to go along with your past explorations about memory and truth.

  9. I seem to have just two themes right now: love/relationships and memory/truth. I don't know what that's about. They're big topics, though.

  10. The sentence you cannot understand is better translated in French but is still a bit cryptic, because Kawabata doesn't like to be too explicit when he talks about sex."Vigor" is a euphemism for sexual desire accumulated over 7 days of testosterone-inducing physical effort in the mountain. The sentence means that Shimamura realizes that he has no sexual desire anymore when he meets the unpolished mountain girl-geisha and kicks her out after one hour. But then he thinks : "maybe I lost my sexual desire when I first saw Komako, who seems so clean and proper, I don't want to have quick and dirty sex with her like a prostitute".

    1. Thank you, that is very helpful indeed. It nicely reinforces Shimamura's doubts about his judgments about his own character while reinforcing his sense of pride.

      I had no idea Kawabata had been translated into French, but I shouldn't be surprised. My TBR stack has a couple more of his novels; I should get to those soon.