Two Novels by a Nobel Prize Winner: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata
a review by Rich Horton
Back in High School I tried (probably under the influence of my good friend Bill Sather) in Japanese literature. Not a whole lot, but I know I read Some Prefer Nettles, by Junichiro Tanazaki, and three novels by the 1968 Nobel Prize Winner, Yasunari Kawabata. Those three novels were Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Master of Go. (I remember looking at books by Yukio Mishima as well, but I didn't read any of them, so my exposure to his work is limited to seeing the movie version of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. As I was 16 at the time (it was the first R rated movie I remember sneaking into a theater to see) my main memories of that movie concern Sarah Miles, and one scene in particular.)
I liked the Kawabata novels, especially Snow Country, a great deal. And so when it recently occurred to me that I haven't covered all that many foreign language novels at this blog, I decided to revisit Snow Country. I ended up borrowing an omnibus edition of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes from the library in lieu of digging through my library for my old paperbacks. The two novels are very short -- Snow Country perhaps 35,000 words in this translation, Thousand Cranes more like 28,000 words. (The translations are by Edward G. Seidensticker.)
Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka in 1899 to a reasonably prosperous family, but he was orphaned at the age of 4 and raised by his grandparents, who died when he was still in his teens. He went to a boarding school, and then to Tokyo University, where he studied English and Japanese literature. He soon established something of a reputation with some short fiction, and he also became editor of the university's literary magazine. After graduation he worked as a journalist, as well as starting another literary magazine, and he made a name for himself in literary circles as a somewhat experimental writer. He published a series of highly regarded novels, many of them originally published in several parts over some years. He died in 1972, possibly by suicide, though many think his death was accidental. (He died of gas inhalation.) He was fairly close to the much younger Mishima, who notoriously committed hara kiri in 1970.
Snow Country has a particularly complex publication history. It was originally assembled into a book in 1937, based on seven different stories published in five separate journals beginning in 1935. A couple further stories were published in the '40s, and the final version of the novel appeared in 1947. Shortly before his death, Kawabata published a very short condensation of the novel, "Gleanings from Snow Country", as one of his "Palm-of-the-Hand" stories, very short stories of which he wrote some 140 in his career.
Snow Country concerns a wealthy and rather idle man named Shimamura, presumably some time in the early part of the 20th Century, who comes to a hot springs town in the western part of Japan -- the "snow country" -- and becomes involved with a geisha, Komako. Komako is presented as a somewhat reluctant geisha, working, at first, just as kind of overflow substitute when there are large parties. (Geisha, I have read, were not necessarily prostitutes, but there is no question in this novel that they are, though on further reading it seems that the hot springs geisha -- "Onsen Geisha" -- were often prostitutes, while those in big cities, the higher class sort, were perhaps instead more chaste entertainers -- dancers and musicians and experts in conversation.) The relationship between the two is curious -- Shimamura seems hesitant at first, and Komako somewhat insistent on entering his room, etc. At any rate, the story continues, over a couple of years, as Shimamura seems close to Komako when he visits her town, and then leaves for months, and when he returns things go on as before. It is clear that Shimamura (a married man) feels a vague sense of obligation to Komako, and enjoys her favors, but has no notion of what he can truly be for her, or indeed how to be close to anyone. Komako herself is a sad figure, aware of her shelf life, as it were, desperate, I think, for some relationship that will give her a feeling of self worth and yet not sure what that could be, not sure she is deserving. The resolution turns on another young woman, not quite a geisha, who seems connected to a man Komako may or may not have been involved with, and who Shimamura encounters a few times in a somewhat ambiguous fashion -- at the end, there is a fire, and Komako is seen at the last with the body -- alive or dead, we don't know -- of this other woman in her arms, as Shimamura looks on unable to act.
The writing, even in translation, is lovely. Shimamura and Komako are both well-depicted, very flawed people, neither really able to find a center for their lives. Shimamura's avocation -- independently wealthy, he does not need to work -- is the appreciation of dance, particularly, in his case, Western ballet -- and not as a spectator but by reading books about it. Clearly the implication is that he can get truly close to nothing. Komako drifts as well, and she drinks too much, and she rather distractedly wavers between geisha training and helping her old music teacher and a potential relationship with another man -- she is a lost character as well. It's a determinedly sad novel, in a minor key throughout, and it's hard to explain why it's so impressive, so lovely, but it really is.
Kikuji has a complicated relationship with both older women -- Mrs. Ota, the widow of his father's former business partner, he resented in the traditional fashion -- as a rival to his mother. And Chikako seems a more problematic character, quite a meddler, a liar, a troublesome person in general. After the tea ceremony, he meets Mrs. Ota again and somehow finds himself sleeping with her. This relationship continues for a short while, with some apparent shame on both sides, and then Mrs. Ota commits suicide. Meanwhile, he as meets the Inamura girl another time or two, with Chikako constantly warning him against Mrs. Ota -- "the witch" -- and urging him to marry Miss Inamura. But instead he falls into a hesitant relationship with Mrs. Ota's daughter, but this is poisoned as well by a certain curious sense of guilt on both sides, leading to a somewhat ambiguous but rather shocking conclusion.
The conceit of the novel is to present a series of tea ceremonies, each less formal, less impressive. Various tea bowls and other tea ware are also discussed, each with symbolic meaning in context, reflecting Kikuji's relationship with his father (a tea aficionado), and reflecting the post-War changes in Japanese society, the decline of tradition, the changes in women's roles. Kikuji himself is somewhat weak individual, seemingly not in control of his life or his passions. The women are likewise damaged, but perhaps more by the constrictions of society. It's another very fine novel, not to my taste as affecting as Snow Country, but well worth reading.