Japan

Thousand Cranes

Thousand CranesThousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in 1952 and in English in 1958. It is the second Yasunari Kawabata novel that I have read. I disliked his main characters, however, in this novel they do seem to possess a measure of realism. I felt that the characters in Snow Country were not realistic. While this is a speedy read, one can finish it in a day, it is not really an easy story to penetrate. There is a great deal of native culture within that can keep non-Japanese readers at bay. Further, this entire novel is very much focused on human interrelationships and their responses to each other. For some readers, this could be challenging.

Wikipedia’s entry, in very forthright style, explains precisely what this book is about. This means this, that means that. And while some of that is probably true, I think there are deeper and more complex interpretations possible.

The storyline, the characters, and the other general dimensions of the novel were not anything I was particularly drawn to. It is quite a dramatic work and does not immediately appeal to any of my major interests. As I mentioned above, this work is very heavily focused on human relationships. The defect is in me, clearly, because I am usually disinterested and bored and even confused by novels like this. Autistic. Russian. I have a hard time with some aspects of stuff in this genre. All of this being said, though, I will admit wholeheartedly and very profusely that in this novel, Kawabata’s skills are on showcase. In a sense, I feel this is almost a brag novel – Kawabata knows he is that good of a writer and he is showing off. He is an excellent novelist and even if this particular storyline does not appeal to everyone – the skill with which it is written is undeniable.

Do not suppose, however, that this novel is arrogant or that it is over-the-top with writerly flourishes.  Perhaps in its minimalist oh-so-Tanizaki/Japanese manner, it is precisely what it needs to be:  no more and no less; and Kawabata deserves all the praise he gets for it.  He proves himself an acutely aware, highly sensitive, perfectly edited, writer. He is a master-writer.

Layered upon the story are tea ceremony items and elements of Japanese aesthetics, specifically pottery. This would be best understood by someone with familiarization with such topics. To some readers, the frivolous and fastidious obsession with which tea bowl to use, which vase, what tokonoma flower, may seem massively tedious. I was able to assimilate my personal cultural experiences fairly easily and completely empathize with the discussions of the tea items etc. To some people, such concerns seem “petty” or “decorative” as opposed to practical. The tea ceremony is such a THING, though, that I hardly know what to say about it. From its origins, to all of its iterations throughout history, and from the praises of it, to those who scorn it… whatever one thinks of it, it is not something to merely hand wave at.  Yet, I struggle to discuss it.  Regardless, if someone were to ask me about the tea ceremony, I do think I would recommend that they read this book. It sort of provides a situation for the whole process without directly confronting it.

Like the back of book says: “a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.” Again, this is going to be felt more by a reader who can assimilate certain cultural/religious aspects. This blurb accurately describes the novel. But I liked all the smaller points, symbolism of water, of mould, of the thousand cranes. And more than anything, the very subtle presentation of old Japan crashing with modern Japan.

The symbolism in this work is significant and excellently written. And while I dislike the main character, Kikuji Mitani, even I could not help but be caught up in some of the sensitivities Mitani faces and is caught up in.  The dispositions and inheritances (both in objects and relationships) that befall him from his deceased father are mighty and certainly not pristine “black and white” dichotomies.

This is a very good novel. I think I took it for granted as I was reading it and only afterwards was I able to process how good a work it is. I think it is a written by a master writer, but the storyline itself does not interest me at all. Three stars is a very good rating for a plot that I was uninterested in…….  Recommended for all fans of Japanese literature, students of the tea ceremony, ikebana scholars, and readers of quality literature.

3 stars

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Bullfight

bullfightBullfight is one of Yasushi Inoue’s (1907 – 1991) early works. This story won Inoue the Akutagawa Prize in 1949. It is definitely not for every reader, but there are many who will be able to appreciate it. As is expected with his writing, the plot and the story are not thrillers. In another review of another of his works, I described his stories as haunting and mundane. I think that is still true. While the storylines are not outrageous and unusual, the way in which they are written can be haunting. The setting is enveloping and the characters are very realistic.

Entitled “Bullfight” and yes, there is a bullfight (a sort of bracket tournament among actual bulls), the bullfight itself is a minor element in the story. The story focuses on newspaperman Tsugami and his efforts to stage this bullfight in post-war Osaka. The novel portrays the struggles that take place before the actual bullfight. I love this Pushkin Press edition that I read because it has a good feel to it and there is a nice black and white photo of Inoue on the first page.  The cover art is by artist Ping Zhu ( https://www.pingszoo.com ) who’s work I am discovering that I highly enjoy.

The concept of a bullfight in this context is entirely different from the more well-known Spanish bullfighting. Readers are probably more familiar with the Spanish forms wherein humans compete against bulls – matadors and picadores taunt, wound, and evade the bull.  The bullfighting in Inoue’s story is traditional to the Ryukyu Islands and is better translated a “bull wrestling” or “bull sumo.”  Bulls are pitted against other bulls and the contest is similar to sumo wrestling in which one contestant attempts to wrestle/push the other from the ring.

The true bullfight tournament in this novel may not really be between the bulls. It may be between the main character and his business partner. Or the main character and his girlfriend. Or between the Japan of what was and what could be. Or even symbolizing the concepts of Success and Greed and Failure and Resignation. Or, in the most radical interpretation, between Tsugami and his own Self. There are many ways this story, in its utter mundanity could be interpreted.

Inoue writes as if putting his scenes and characters on a microscope – and it seems he turns the knob and zooms, zooms in – until the we are focused on the character’s reactions to their daily lives. Facial expressions. The way they smoke their cigarette. Their posture. We do not get to see extraordinary characters in unusual situations. Instead, we see realistic characters in intensely portrayed realistic situations. And when it rains, we feel the raindrops. When they pour tea, we see the steam from the cup.

The supporting cast is both a reflection and a competition for Tsugami. His girlfriend Sakiko provides the only exterior view of Tsugami in the story, so she is a vital component to the novel. Mirua Yoshinosuke, president of Toyo Pharmaceuticals, provides an almost dopplegänger-like challenge to Tsugami.

He was a young man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, with long sideburns and a red necktie in a large, loose knot; he had the affected air of someone in the film world – an assistant director, perhaps – but he exhibited a certain drive as he rose, an unmistakable energy, like that of a sportsman meeting an opponent. – pg. 79

This little description has an awesome, subtle clue in it that may or may not relate to the very last page of the book, in which the result of the bullfight is mentioned. As the reader follows the various struggles that Tsugami faces in order to put on this show, each character that he is forced to deal with presents some facet of his own personality. It is interesting for the reader to consider Tsugami’s relationships with each of the other characters. Mirua’s seemingly successful status versus that of Okabe’s is the contrast that I most enjoyed.

For strong readers and for fans of Japanese literature.

3 stars

Devils in Daylight

tanizaki_devils_in_daylight coverDevils in Daylight by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965) was first written in 1918, but not published in English until 2017. I read this 2017 New Directions edition translated by J. Keith Vincent. I had previously read Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (1933) – his very important, but short, nonfiction essay. Devils in Daylight is really, from what I understand, representative of all things Tanizaki – even if it is one of his earlier pieces. It contains all the elements and themes that Tanizaki is usually associated with. The first key item to be mentioned is Tanizaki’s being impressed with all things modern and/or Western culture early in his life. This is probably one of the main reasons that this book is nearly an homage to, or a reworking of, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug (1843).

I strongly recommend having familiarized oneself with Poe’s work before reading Devils in Daylight. There are so many parallels and also allusions and references that the reader would be shortchanging their reading experience by skipping the Poe work. Tanizaki’s work is highly influenced by The Gold Bug, though I would hesitate to say “based on.” The main character in Devils in Daylight, Sonomura, is nearly exactly the character in Poe’s work, William Legrand.

I found him well educated, with unusual powers of mind, but infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy. He had with him many books, but rarely employed them. His chief amusements were gunning and fishing, or sauntering along the beach and through the myrtles, in quest of shells or entomological specimens… – The Gold Bug, E. A. Poe.

Tanizaki basically tells the reader that Poe’s work is necessary reading. Sonomura is talking to his only friend, the narrator:

He suddenly doubled over and cackled with laughter, whereupon he continued, with immense self-satisfaction, like some insufferable scholar showing off his vast learning.

“I take it you have not read Poe’s famous story ‘The Gold Bug.’ Anyone who had read it would recognize these symbols immediately.”

Sadly, I had only read two or three of Poe’s stories.  I had heard of one with the title “The Gold Bug,” but I had no idea what it was about. – pg. 15

So much for the proofs needed for reading The Gold BugDevils in Daylight begins by Sonomura telephoning Takahashi (the narrator) in mid-morning insisting that Takahashi come over to his house immediately. Takahashi is a writer and had spent a sleepless night with his pen in his hand trying to finish a serial novel for a magazine. Sonomura says:

“Later tonight, at around one o’clock, in a certain part of Tokyo, a crime. . . a homicide will be performed. I want to get ready now and go see it happen, and I want you to go as well. . . . But I want to watch it happen, in secret, without any of those involved knowing that I am there.  And I would feel a lot better about it if you came with me.  Doesn’t that sound more enjoyable than staying home writing a novel?” – pg. 9

Straightaway Tanizaki shows his hand and gives the reader all the usual themes that he is known for.  Sonomura expresses a desire to watch a crime – in secret. And then there is the juxtaposition between writing and watching and performing that rolls through the entire novel.

The novel is rather short – only 87 pages. I do not want to quote or comment too much about what the storyline actually contains.  This sort of noir-esque novel can be spoiled easily, although the crime and mystery is not really the strong part of this novel.  The excellence of this work comes from the finely-tuned writing that describes the narrator’s experiences. Using only as much as needed, Tanizaki carefully shows the reader the entirety of the story without burdening him with too many words, concepts, and descriptions.

Throughout the novel, Takahashi remains tired and sleepless. The few hours of sleep that he manages to get is punctuated by interruptions from Sonomura and images that disturb Takahashi’s psyche.  Takahashi’s tiredness provides this neat feeling to an already noir story. It also provides Takahashi a small excuse for not thinking/judging perfectly throughout.

The element of a femme-fatale is present in this story and the reader should appreciate her mysteriousness and her effectiveness. This is a theme that Tanizaki returns to quite often in his works. In this work, the femme-fatale may or may not be a geisha – which neatly juxtaposes the Western concept of femme-fatale with the Japanese-rooted geisha archetype.  More than simply using certain symbols and elements over and over, Tanizaki utilizes these elements to demonstrate the tension he feels and observes between Western and Eastern cultures. Hopefully reviewers will forgive this possible spoiler:  it seems that in this novel Tanizaki (as well as Sonomura and Takahashi) do not view geishas as capable of being femme-fatales – a point that is an intriguing insight into Tanizaki’s understanding of Japanese culture.

The ending might aggravate some readers – particularly ones who do not appreciate certain literary chess moves. Throughout the novel it is difficult to know whether one likes or hates Sonomura. By the end, I think readers will be even more suspicious of Sonomura (and by default, William Legrand) than anything. The title of the novel, for me, made no sense originally, but then at the end, I decided who the devils were and they are, indeed, also in daylight.

I recommend this to noir-fiction fans, readers of Japanese literature, and also Poe fanatics. I enjoyed this work and definitely will be reading more Tanizaki.  He has a reputation of writing some unsavory topics, so I will still attempt to be selective with what I read by him.

4 stars

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the DunesThe Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1924 – 1993) was first published in 1962.  I read the Vintage International edition from 1991. The novel won the Yomiuri Prize. In 1964, a Japanese film by the famous Hiroshi Teshigahara was released – author Kobo Abe wrote the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to the Italian film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Vittorio De Sica.

This is probably Kobo Abe’s most famous novel. I have not read any of his other works, but I do own The Ark Sakura. I am open to reading other works by this author, but he does not interest me at the same level as some of the other super-famous authors of mid-20th Century Japanese authors. Sometimes his works are classified as absurdist/surreal literature, which is a genre I can sometimes devour and at other times am disinterested in.

The man intended to collect insects that lived in the dunes. – pg. 10

I enjoyed this book, and I really do appreciate what the author has shown us via sand. However, I cannot help but subtract a few points from my estimation of its rating due to a few sections of the novel.

There are dozens of ways to interpret this novel, but the erosion of the main character’s opinions via the Sisyphus-lifestyle is the overwhelming concept. The sand claims all – eventually. Survival alongside the eroding powers of the sand drives the story. The way the sand affects everything is really well done. The author very gradually traps the main character within the pit in the dunes. This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the writing; the character being trapped is done so subtly and simply.

I really enjoyed the early chapters because the early interactions between the man and the woman are so very well written. In translation, the woman’s sentences are often open-ended, with ellipses or simple statements that only seem innocent:

“But somebody just said ‘for the other one.'”

“Hmm. Well, they’re referring to you.”

“To me? Why mention me in connection with a shovel . . . ?”

“Never mind. Don’t pay any attention. Really they’re so nosy!” – pg. 30

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how the woman clearly knows what is going on and yet, is able to seem innocent. Though she knows what is happening to the man, she may or may not be powerless to stop/change it. Like the man, the reader will probably consider, in turns, the woman to be mentally challenged, an entrapping vixen, or a resigned, but dedicated villager.

The author really puts the main character through some suffering, but he also inflicts some on the reader. Readers will constantly want “justice” or “to know the reason” or “someone to accuse” through the novel. And Kobo Abe just doesn’t provide a clear and direct target for all of that. Frustrating? Maybe. Engaging? Definitely. (Probably the reason for Kafka comparisons.)

Stop looking so stupid! He was angry; he wanted to make her admit her guilt even if he had to force it out of her. – pg. 90

The subtle horror of being trapped/imprisoned for, seemingly, no reason is the key that makes this novel so vibrantly emotional. Even if I disliked parts of the novel, I have to credit the author with the ability of being able to tap into that fundamental chord in my being that I assume every human possesses, which rebels against such a circumstance. It seems it is easier to accept a prison sentence if there is a reason. But without reason or cause, without an authority or a captor to blame, without a purpose or goal – such an imprisonment is a magnitude of horror well beyond a reasonable incarceration.

For some time he concentrated on digging.  The sand was exceedingly tractable, and his work appeared to be progressing.  The sound of the shovel as it bit into the sand, and his own breathing, ticked away the time. However, at last his arms began to grow weary. He thought he had worked for a considerable time, but his digging had apparently had no results at all. Only a little bit of sand had fallen from right above where he was digging. – pg. 68

The man’s psychological state is what one might expect. He is outraged, indignant, and frustrated. He calms himself by convincing himself a rational and thoughtful method will rescue him. He dips into the violent and the desperate. He only very gradually comes to realize an outcome, which, perhaps, the woman knew from the start. The woman’s reaction to the man’s arrival, when you think about it in retrospect, contains all of the pensive understanding of what she knows he and, by connection, herself will have to undergo. Her early timidity is probably because she knows what emotional turmoil will occur – and she has to resign herself to going through the turbulence as well.  In a way, this also means that nothing the man does truly surprises her.

And what of the man’s mental state? At points he forces himself to be relatively rational. Bargaining and reasoning with his supposed captors. He also attempts “scientific” escapes and schemes. But he is also clearly disturbed because he has mental conversations with himself – or the Mobius man.  Kobo Abe even suggests, subtly, that there is an element of schizophrenia at play. Late in the novel, the man has a mental conversation with an imagined judge:

-Your Honor, I request to be told the substance of the prosecution. I request to be told the reason for my sentence.

-I am telling you that in Japan schizophrenia occurs at the rate of one out of every hundred persons. – pg. 217

And this fascinating little segment with the man conversing with himself continues to an amusing conclusion:

-Well, listen to me calmly.  Acrophobes, heroin addicts, hysterics, homicidal maniacs, syphilitics, morons – suppose there were one per cent of each of these, the total would be twenty per cent. If you could enumerate eighty more abnormalities at this rate – and of course you could – there would be statistical proof that humanity is a hundred per cent abnormal. – pg. 218

I disliked, though, the chunk at the end where the main character is told the “deal” how the villagers will let him see beyond the pit. This was weird/vulgar and destroyed a lot of good faith I had in the author. This part was the “too far” point in the writing.

Excellent in concept and writing, although the 1960s-Freudian-focus is a bit too prominent in the whole thing. Definitely for an adult readership. I appreciate the “horror” of the novel, but dislike some of the episodes. In any case, this is an excellent novel for book clubs, I think, because there is a lot to discuss about all of the various interpretations available.

3 stars

The Counterfeiter and Other Stories

CounterfeiterThe Counterfeiter and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) that contains three stories. The Counterfeiter was published in 1951, Obasute was published in 1956, and The Full Moon was published in 1958.  Although the three stories are different from one another, I think they do give a good sample of the author’s style and tone. I really enjoyed The Counterfeiter and I also enjoyed The Full Moon, but Obasute was not very likeable. I think that to enjoy Obasute one needs to have a lot more understanding of Japanese culture and history – particularly Izu Peninsula – than I have.

I knew right as I finished The Counterfeiter that many readers would dislike these stories. I think the concept of what a novel is and should be, what a story ought to contain, what a narrative’s purpose is, is very different from the Japanese perspective than the typical post-Enlightenment Western conception of literary works.  I do not claim to be any sort of literary expert whatsoever, but I can speak for some of the non-Japanese mindset.

Western Europeans and Americans are educated in literature since they begin school with the idea that a literary work has a point and purpose.  Small schoolchildren begin writing book reports wherein they are drilled in the exercise of figuring out the main point or the resolution or the purpose of the book. In fact, I know that many schoolchildren are told to summarize their readings.  This serves to really cement in the mind the idea that literature has a beginning, a middle, and an end and can be summarized in terms of writer’s intent, character development, and climactic action.  Reading more Japanese literature, I am discovering that this sort of mindset will struggle when encountering some authors like Yasushi Inoue.

Inoue, more than others, seems to have a skill in bringing to life a vivid story, with excellent wordsmithing, about a mundane matter.  The fullness with which Inoue tells us a story about what in reality is a very everyday sort of “story” is very interesting.  This is the sort of author who can tell you about the day he had, which may have consisted of mundane work, a couple of meals, and watching the trees outside, but yet you listen so intently because he makes this narrative into a story.

In The Counterfeiter, there is a strong sense of autobiographical writing. The narrator is a journalist who is commissioned to write a text on the artist Keigaku Onuki.  We learn that the narrator is a bit disinterested in the project.  Boredom or laziness or disinterest cause this text to have taken far longer than it should have.  The narrator tells us this is because he cannot form a definitive chronology of the artist since no one alive is able to accurately detail out Onuki’s years. And in searching for data, the narrator becomes more interested in Hosen Hara than in Onuki, who really fades from the narrative altogether.  The last chapter, which is merely two pages, explains the narrator’s feelings on his biographical research. To discuss that here would be to ruin the reader’s experience.

I can see myself making a pseudo-archetype out of Hosen Hara. I will probably use him as an example in the future. These are all such unique stories that the characters in them stand up among the multitude of characters in fiction.  And one of the other feelings I have about this story is how realistic it is. If I handed this “story” to someone who knew nothing about this, I could convince them it was an excerpt from a non-fiction biography. The realism is so strong that I suspect we could start a silly quest (a la Foucault’s Pendulum and “The Bee Book” by Kit Williams) to find Hara’s paintings.

Obasute was a tougher piece to penetrate because I am lacking some of the cultural data that probably makes the story far more potent. I did, however, appreciate the narrator’s efforts to examine other members of his family in light of his thoughts on his mother’s Mount Obasute request. Still, the family relationships element also fell weakly on me. At the end, I felt I wanted more from the story – either regarding the mother or regarding the sister.

The Full Moon was actually just as good, if not better, than The Counterfeiter. Against the backdrop of the harvest moon festivals, the rise and fall of executive businessmen is portrayed. If there is cynicism regarding the business world involved in Inoue’s writing, it is hidden.  The rise and fall of the businessmen sometimes has a destiny/karmic feel to it. Ambition and sycophancy are highlighted, but so are the choices of the quite melancholic main character, Kagebayashi. Although not full of action and excitement, this story is haunting in its everydayness .  The truth factor question of Jiro Kaibara’s stories about Kagebayashi plays with how such a random event can influence so much, whether or not that event is true or false. Just like in The Counterfeiter, the story is subtle and melancholic. Just like in real life, there is a sense of lack of closure and resolution. These are not tidy, manufactured stories.

Well, I recommend these stories for advanced readers who have some interest in Japanese literature. I can see some readers being frustrated by these subtle stories. I think words like haunting and mundane suit this collection well. I intend to read more Inoue.

3 stars

Ten Nights Dreaming and The Cat’s Grave

ten niths dreamingThis is the second work by Natsume Soseki that I have read.  I read the Dover Publications edition, which collects both Ten Nights of Dreams and the small piece The Cat’s Grave together even though they are unrelated. The Ten Nights of Dreams were serialized in July and August of 1908.  They are titled “First Night,” and “Second Night” and so on. It would be incorrect to call these pieces short stories since most of them are just barely two pages. There is not a lot room for development or background – just a few paragraphs that glimpse some aspect of human experience that Soseki found of interest.

The group of writings is called Ten Nights Dreaming (or similar translation) so, one expects the contents to be dream-like. However, if the book was titled anything else, maybe “Ten Musings” or “Ten Moments” it would work just as well.  Readers accept these pieces as “dreams” because that is what they are titled. Most of the dreams are melancholic or disturbing. But as dreams/dreamlike, one naturally finds the surrealism disturbing. In some of the pieces the surrealism is subtle and quiet (e.g. The Ninth Night) and in others it is brutal (e.g. The Tenth Night).

In all of the stories, I think the key element within them is their twist on the passage of time. Time, and how we experience it, plays a rôle in each of the works. In fact, as I began reading through these, I noticed this reference to time right away and was looking for it in each story.

Readers and commentators have frequently interpreted these pieces in a metaphorical sense.  There are plenty of discussions that suggest certain dreams are metaphors for Soseki’s childhood, for Japan as a nation, for Soseki’s comments on Zen or Taoism, etc.  I think some can be read in this way, certainly, but to take a strict hardline position on these interpretations would be foolish.

My favorites were nights Five, Six, and Seven.  My least favorite was Ten. Now, the Eighth Night left me really not sure what to think. I wanted to love this story – in other words, I wanted it to knock the ball out of the park. This one had the potential to tie all of the pieces together and be ridiculously profound and haunting. The fact that it failed to live up to my (totally uncalled for) expectations really annoyed me. But that error should lie mainly with me; shame on me for putting undue expectations on a foreign language story written over a hundred years ago.

Nevertheless, I’m unsatisfied. I want to turn the Eighth Night into what I wanted it to be. So, do I even attempt a rewrite of it? What would it look like/sound like? Should an imitation/response be attempted or would that undo the whole Ten Nights?  I cannot help but keep thinking, long after I read this book, how this one story could have been so great.

Because the stories are so short, it is harmful to readers who have never read them for me to discuss any structure or details whatsoever of them.  However, I can explain that the reasons I liked the three stories mentioned above is because they contained a strong wit. In the Fifth Night, there is a heart-crushing wit. In the Sixth Night, we find a wry and agile wit.  In the Seventh Night, the wit changes more into wisdom and advice. All of these stories have application to contemporary readers. They are very accessible, unlike, perhaps, Tenth Night.  It is this keen intelligence hidden in these spare stories that really demonstrates Soseki as a sharp-minded writer.

This is a short read, though there is no need to race through it. The dreams are an excellent concept, which Soseki more or less succeeds in presenting. I had a hard time considering the work as a whole and found it much easier to look at the parts separately. Readers who enjoy the a light-touch of the surreal would probably enjoy this. After all, its such a small book, it would not be a heavy lift for anyone.

4 stars

Snow Country

Snow CountrySnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in its finalized form in 1948. I read the Vintage International edition translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. This is the first Kawabata novel that I have read, though I own several. Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, which made mention of Snow Country and two other of his works. His Nobel Lecture was entitled Japan, The Beautiful and Myself and I do want to take a look at that. There is an annual prize in Japan awarded to the year’s most accomplished work of short fiction. The Kawabata Yasunari Prize for literature was established in 1973 by the Kawabata Yasunari Memorial Association to honor Japan’s first Nobel Prize–winning novelist. The winner receives a certificate, a commemorative gift, and a cash award of one million yen.

So much has been said/written about this novel that I doubt I can add much value to the overall volume of commentary. I did not love the novel, but please, do not assume I am a lazy or stupid reader. I really wanted the novel, with it’s poetic and spare writing, to grab my heart by it’s beating valves and drag me around the mountains of snow country.

Disappointingly, that did not occur. Broadly, because I deeply disliked both main characters. The writing is quite good and scenic; it envelopes the reader. But the sloth and decadence of Shimamura and the annoying voice of Komako killed the wonderment of the writing. I don’t forgive them for that.

However, I cannot say that I disliked this novel.

Kawabata’s Nobel Prize was awarded “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.”  This sort of statement sometimes makes me grumpy. The thing is the definite description there in the phrase; the “the” that causes issue.  At once we are to recognize The Other and embrace diversity – therefore keeping the independence of The Other, but yet we are also expected to support and enjoy the fullness of the universal human experience.  So, what is this “Japanese mind”?  Even if we assume that in 1968 they did not choose their words so nicely, is there a “Japanese mind”? A mind so in tune and vital that it is quite simply separate and distinct from all other human minds? Or is “Japanese mind” merely a euphemism for “experience produced within Japanese culture”?

This little messy babbling of mine is important because I think this specific novel by this specific author is affected by these questions/answers. Snow Country is allegedly his most famous and well-enjoyed novels – by Japanese readers and non-Japanese readers alike. Is it because the non-Japanese readers love the insight gained through glimpses into the “exotic” Japanese world via this prose? Or is it because there is something universal in the writing that appeals and is readily accessible by all readers?

I felt that the writing was very good for most of the novel. I mean, there are places where I was less impressed. But throughout, the actual writing – and it has been likened to haiku and poetry many times – was very good. Its a spare prose with a pseudo-poetic feel. Again, some of the greatness may be reduced because of translation.

Above all of that, I could synthesize with the feelings in the story. It is hard to choose the correct words here, so let me keep trying. I do not mean simply that I sympathized/empathized with the characters, but rather that I feel that I have also experienced those feelings. Feelings, though, is also the incorrect word. I mean, something deeper – something like the relationship to the milieu. Or, more like the ennui of the whole scenario. Or, perhaps better, the Russian term тоска́/toska. Observe what happened here – I was unable to find the English word and had to dip into different languages.

Is this a love story? No, I do not think so. Allegedly, Komako falls foolishly in love with Shimamura. I must have missed that part. Please do not tell me it is “between the lines” or that the reader has to supply this. I missed that part because it was not there and it could not happen. Shimamura is thoroughly unlikeable and I doubt the young geisha could see anything of value in him. His heavy ennui drips down every page of the novel and he is truly a shameful character. Not because of his morality, per se, but because he is so wretchedly slothlike. Much has been commented about Shimamura’s dilettanism, yet I don’t think this is his defining characteristic. I see him as sluggish and oozing his upper-class ennui.

When Shimamura goes for a massage, the woman says: (pg. 59)

“. . . you must not have to work. Feel how nice and soft you are.”

“No stiff muscles on me.” Shimamura replies.

I find Shimamura repugnant. His conversation is also lazy and slothful. He repeats phrases and seems constantly hazy on the conversation. Komako is just as frustrating. Her conversation is immature and ridiculous. Much of this is because most of the time she is drunk (she is a geisha and must attend “parties”) or because she is acting as her age dictates. Still, I find her to be annoying, at best.

This novel, for me, was about distance. The remote hot-spring inn is far from Shimamura’s home in Tokyo. The mountains and snow make the setting isolated and Kawabata writes them so that you feel the silence of heavy, hard-packing snow. Snow deadens sound like nothing else; I have experienced this at length. There is distance, too, between Shimamura and his family. There is distance between Komako and Yukio. There is distance between Komako’s hopes and dreams and her reality. Of course there is the distance between Shimamura and Komako. Finally, as if this were not enough distance, there is the distance between the characters and their selves. The Self. Themselves. This seems repetitive when it is written out, but in Kawabata’s novel it is omnipresent and sturdy, not nearly as redundant as my listing it makes it feel.

For example, often Shimamura is depicted looking out at the mountains and trees. He vaguely ponders the autumn leaves or the skiers. He has lazy daydreams about the grasses and snows. In fact, several times he wanders listlessly, but yet cannot seem to really ever become “one with nature.” There is always the distance as he stands in the inn, by the screens looking out at the scenery. Basically, this is a metaphor for all of Shimamura’s distances.

Overall, if you can stand a novel filled with ennui and distance, this is a perfect representation of that. I mentioned above that this is not a bad novel, I did not dislike it. But I was not convinced all of the time. What I was drawn in by was that heavy-headed fuzziness that sloth and bad schedules and long winters come with. And that is not a feeling I have ever relished.

3 stars