“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” The famous first line of Yasunari Kawabata’s short novel Snow Country (1948) captures an experience I know well, having travelled many times through this unending passage en route to Niigata’s Naoetsu from Tokyo. I remember the first time, twenty years ago, the blinding daylight as the train reappeared, and out the windows the snow deeper than the average person is tall. In the novel, written in 1935 and later reworked for publication, Shimamura gets off at Echigo-Yuzawa Station; Yuzawa was then a small town where visitors went to enjoy onsen and respite from the capital. He’s a ballet critic (or so he says), and is married, but idles most days away and, after the tunnel, in this world of snow he escapes to, calls upon the services of geisha. To a slight extent he becomes involved in a love triangle with two women who live there, both somewhat provincial and equally mysterious to our protagonist narrator. One is Komako, a geisha who dwells in other people’s hovels and is bent on drinking herself to infirmity, and the other is Yoko, who's nursing a dying man and lives with a shamisen teacher. Just as Shimamura is idle with his time, he’s idle in the sense of doing little to support or encourage those around him. He, the narrator, comes across as almost devoid of empathy, choosing to give us an unsympathetic report on Komako’s gradual spiral and Yoko’s grief. This “snow country” for him is a fantasy world. The women, however much he needs them, are playthings that shine then fall like the diaphanous moths he describes dropping off door screens and other surfaces made to separate. What I particularly liked about the novel was how it challenges the reader. There's an uneasy contrast between Shimamura’s unfeeling nature, revealed through his own narrative, and Kawabata’s poetic prose layered therein. And I found myself trying to draw lines between the author and the protagonist. Shimamura is unlikeable in his idleness but also perceptive, and he recognizes beauty. Or is he? And does he really? Perhaps in this snow country, despite his keen sense of the true world around him, he'd rather wander blind in self-gratifying unreality.
This is one of three novels that landed Kawabata the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968—according to the Nobel website “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.” The other two are The Old Capital and Thousand Cranes.