Review of Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari

Snow CountrySnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful, delicate novel that addresses human frailty and futility, the impermanence of beauty and life itself, and the unbridgeable social, intellectual and emotional gaps that divide people and keep us from ever really understanding one another.

The form of the novel is frequently compared to the haiku style and for good reason: the scenes are brief and beautiful with crisp endings that resonate in the white space of line breaks between episodes, and more is suggested than explicitly stated. Also like haiku, which is celebrated for its clear, concrete imagery, the scenic descriptions are lucid and breathtaking. If you’re not familiar with the northern Japanese hot springs in the early 20th century, this is a great book to pick up for the specifics about what this region looked like at that particular time and how the people there lived.

While some readers might be annoyed by the occasional “telling” rather than “showing” style of characterization — and I think it’s important to note that this isn’t wrong, even if it’s one of those easy, frequently cited “rules” of contemporary Western literature — in becoming distracted by this, one misses the more subtle ways in which Kawabata renders his characters. Because characterization is rendered so delicately here, the characters may seem flat or opaque at first glance, due to the novel’s very removed third-person perspective, and one has to read between the lines to perceive the characters’ quirks and sensitivities. While this might be frustrating to readers who prefer literature that puts the reader very clearly inside the characters’ heads, this perspective is executed skillfully and with a purpose: the novel is about missed connections and unbridgeable distances, after all.

The dialogue is both beautiful and painfully realistic, as neither Shimamura nor Komako ever really says what they really mean; they speak more in loosely connected soliloquies than actual dialogue. One gets the feeling that they’re trying very hard to communicate, to connect, but they get in each other’s way in their desperation to do so.

I can’t recommend this novel highly enough — it’s elegantly, achingly beautiful, full of lucid, evocative descriptions and subtle shifts in mood and meaning. But it does require a reader willing to do more than coast through it, one as willing to plumb the depths as the writer himself. Still, it’s not a difficult novel and I think that some meaning can be gleaned in even a more superficial reading.

I also recommend reading Edward Seidensticker’s excellent introduction, but only after you’ve read the novel. There are some spoilers in there, but the information about the significance of the elements (the cold north, the hot springs, the cultural perception of geisha, etc.) is central to getting all you can from this novel, especially if you’re not familiar with traditional Japanese culture.

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