Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Kawabata's Snow Country - He spent his time watching insects in their death agonies

Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1948, although mostly published 1935-7) is a short novel about the sad, hard life of a hot springs prostitute, filtered through the point of view of one of her wealthy, useless*, over-aestheticized clients.  Kawabata’s earlier novel, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1930), is about the brutal, hard lives of big city nightlife prostitutes, mostly homeless teens.  There the filter is the Ulysses-inspired fragmentation and craziness of the literary technique.

These do not feel like social novels.  The literary techniques, fizzy and modern or calm and poetic, are up front, the thing I am reading page by page.  But I can see the social novel, the critique, hidden behind the style.  And thank goodness, because I would lose patience quickly if I thought I was supposed to sympathize with Shimamura, the tourist client.  “Some dude’s problems with a prostitute” may be my least favorite literary genre.  But here the coldness and solipsism of Shimamura, the telling of the story, is part of the critique, much like the energy and novelty and fun of Asakusa (the neighborhood and the novel) obscures its brutal side.

The novel begins with Shimamura on a night train, on his way to the hot spring.  In a long passage, he watches an attractive woman, not looking at her directly, in the train window:

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other.  The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world.  Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.  (15)

Kawabata is giving the cinematographer a challenge.  He is himself acting as cinematographer, for several pages, overlapping the woman, the landscape, condensation, various light and color effects, and the character’s own face.  My understanding is that this scene is the germ of the novel, the first part that Kawabata published, a pure demonstration of the male gaze.  Di at The little white attic has also just read Snow Country, and she picks out some bits of this passage more beautiful than the one I chose.

She also picked something from my favorite part of the novel, one of several “passages about insect deaths.”   “He spent his time watching insects in their death agonies” (109).  The fluttering dying moths have obvious symbolic counterparts in the geishas, culminating in one who falls and possibly dies with the same gesture as a dying moth.  Or I mean she appears to fall with the same gesture – this is all Shimamura’s perceptions.  And then he falls, either because he has a profound experience of aesthetic sublimity or because he has a stroke, or both.  That’s my interpretation of the obscure ending right there.

Edward Seidensticker translated Snow Country.  He emphasizes the haiku-like qualities of the novel, which would include all of the details about seasons, colors, and those poor ephemeral moths.  I wonder how much actual haiku is in the novel, and then how much – well, look:

How large the crow is, staring up from the cedar in the evening breeze – so says the poet. (92)

Or (count the syllables):

How large the crow is,

staring up from the cedar

in the evening breeze.

I do not remember another signal, a clue, as strong as “so says the poet,” so maybe this is the only case, with the translator showing off alongside the author. Maybe I have invented all this, but now I wonder.

My page numbers are from the old Berkeley Medallion paperback, which likely match up with no other edition.

* When not on a spa sex tourism vacation, he spends his time “translating Paul Valéry and Alain, and French treatises on the dance from the golden age of Russian ballet” (108) even though he has never seen a ballet.  “The book would in all likelihood contribute nothing to the Japanese dancing world.”


  1. Wait a minute, a stroke? I didn't know how to interpret the ending.

  2. Or maybe a heart attack. He's spent the whole night running around, and he's not in good shape. Good luck to me finding the bit about that.

    Or he is just struck by the abstract sublimity of it all, recovers from his cosmic experience and returns to Tokyo, leaving his girlfriend to take care of the injured woman (if Yoko is alive) or feel bad about her for the rest of her life (if Yoko is not).

    There are a lot of "if"s in that kind of ending.

  3. I missed the bit about him not being in a good shape then.
    Maybe I was too busy noticing Komako talking about wanting to wash her hair lol.

  4. I did find it, or something. Near the end, moving towards the fire. "Too plump for running himself, he was exhausted more quickly from watching her." Not that I would want to make too much of that! But I can make a little bit of it.

    The question to me is how much the ending is meant to be an apotheois for the character. Is he carried on to something new through this intense visionary experience (which might mean death)? Or is it business as usual for him, catastrophe for her?

    1. Yeah.
      At least there's a big event there right before the open ending. "The Sound of the Mountain" didn't even have that. It cuts in the middle of a scene.

    2. Do you think Kawabata wrote the last scene last? I assume there is a Japanese edition with all of the separate pieces and variants and publishing history.

    3. Seems a little fussy for Twitter. If I am ever int the right kind of library again, I hope I remember to look this up.

  5. Good observation about the haiku. I'm sure it was deliberate. I was reminded of reading Broch's Death of Virgil (in translation.) It has embedded dactylic hexameters--apparently Broch insisted on it to the translator. (They're a bit more naturalized in German than in English.)

    Shimamura's awfulness is handled with a nice subtlety. It's a while before you completely understand what a useless P.O.S. he is...

  6. Yes, Shimamura is the limited third person equivalent of an unreliable narrator.

    Good for Broch. Make the translator work. I wonder how many translators have tried to re-create Melville's blank verse.

  7. I have not read a lot of Kawabata's novels, but there does seem to be a theme running through the ones I have read about a lack of meaningful engagement with the world and the people in it. Shimamura is an excellent example, with his idea that he's an expert on ballet despite having no first-hand experience of it. He has little first-hand experience with anything, really; as I recall the novel he sort of looks at people, places, and objects as abstractions to be observed rather than as a reality that exists independent of him.

    Snow Country is a beautiful book, whatever I mean by that. There's a feeling all through it of sort of holding one's breath, a tension that something precious is about to be destroyed, maybe. Not quite what I mean. I should read this again soon.

  8. The novel has some nice writing, some beautiful stuff, although some of that beauty is ironized away. The episode at the end, the treatise about the local hand-woven collectible antique grass cloth, which has to be specially snow-bleached every year, that is a good example of something that seems purely aesthetic and beautiful that disintegrates, turns into comedy, because Shimamura is who he is.

    I suppose the tension between Shimamura's perception of the geisha as real and abstract is the main story that Kawabata is telling. Sometimes she is plenty real - a moral triumph for this guy.

  9. The irony and acidic comedy is part of the beauty, part of the aesthetic success.

  10. It makes no sense to me to use those terms as synonyms, but okay.

  11. Huh. It seems obvious to me that all of the narrative elements (prose, plot, irony, comedy, metaphor, allusions to other works, etc) contribute to or subtract from the overall aesthetic success (that is, "beauty") of a work of art. Lear holding Cordelia's body and speaking to her as if she still lives is part of the beauty of "King Lear," but that's not to say that corpses and beauty are synonymous.

  12. I have aesthetic categories that are successful but not beautiful. It seems bizarre to praise Duck Soup or Blazing Saddles or Ubu Roi for their beauty.

    The category of "the grotesque" is an example of the non-beautiful. Much satire is ugly, or grotesque, or goofy, or anyways not beautiful. "The sublime" - now that one has moved around, but it can be detached from beauty. The Lear example belongs somewhere in the sublime.

    My use of "beauty" if grounded in 18th century aesthetics, and Ruskin, but the key for me is purely selfish - as a critic I find it useful to have more categories of "aesthetic success." Calling all aesthetic success "beautiful" makes the word useless. So I don't use it that way. I mean something much narrower - order, pleasure, nature, spiritual uplift - some set of signifiers along those lines. Definitely not "anything I like."

  13. Calling all aesthetic success "beautiful" makes the word useless.

    No, it just defines "beauty" as "aesthetic success." Though you're onto something about the sublime. Still, I feel that you are restating my argument into a misstatement. Perhaps my original claim is unclear, but I don't recognize my opinions in what you're responding to. I am not saying that "irony" or "acidic comedy" are equivalent to "beauty." I will however claim that "the grotesque" can contribute to the beauty of a work of art. See plenty of Mr Ruskin's gothic cathedrals, with their grotesque figures, etc. Lear's death is a scene of terrible beauty, which you may call "the sublime," but that's still beauty. I have no real idea what this conversation is, but I think your definition of "beautiful" is too narrow. Mozart's music is beautiful as well as pretty. Your "order, pleasure, nature, spiritual uplift" is merely a list of things you like, by the way. Entirely subjective.

  14. I was just trying to say something nice about a book we both have read. I don't know why I'm so combative, sorry.

  15. I assume because in current circumstances you are starved for intellectual argument. Boy do I understand that. Argument is good.

    Yes gargoyles can contribute to the beauty of a cathedral without themselves being beautiful. This is part of why I need separate categories. I am sorting these things out. Perhaps the more a critic historicizes the more the categories are necessary.

    "Order, pleasure," etc. is not subjective. Those are characteristics of the object. I should say, not "my pleasure" but something like "means to please" as opposed to "means to shock" or whatever. These are, subjectively, often things I dislike or find boring, when I am in the mood for chaos or nonsense or dissonance.

    I'm just sticking with Burke, right? He keeps the sublime and the beautiful separate, not that they cannot overlap. But that's the framework.

    I think what tripped me up in your original statement ("a beautiful book, whatever I mean by that") is that Snow Country is in parts quite beautiful in the Burkean sense that I use. And he also in some places deliberately undermines that kind of beauty. So I thought we were both talking about the same thing.

    Or perhaps I have something else backwards. "It just defines "beauty" as "aesthetic success."" I thought you were also then defining "aesthetic success" as "beauty." But maybe your arrow was only going one direction.