We had snow last week and the low mountains surrounding the village were a lovely white. Across the lake, the Alps are now boasting their beautiful winter plumage. The temperature has been hovering around zero for the past few weeks and it seemed like the perfect time to settle down with Yasunari Kawabata’s 1950s classic, Snow Country.
Snow Country is set in a mountainous region of Japan, a place of long winters and deep snows, of cold and dark living. A place of tunnels and buried buildings. This setting works to underline the novel’s emotional preoccupation – the bewildering coldness of the human heart, the inevitable decay of beauty and purity.
The novel takes place at an onsen (hot springs) resort and tells the story of an affair between a wealthy Tokyo man, Shimamura, and a geisha, Komako. Shimamura is incapable of love but drawn again and again to leave his family and visit Komako in the mountains. His rare visits and the life she must lead during his absences drain Komako of her innocence and ultimately her beauty.
Kawabata’s feel for the lonely aesthetic of the snow country is just tremendous:
The color of evening had already fallen on the mountain valley, early buried in shadows. Out of the dusk the distant mountains, still reflecting the light of the evening sun, seemed to have come much nearer.
Presently, as the mountain chasms were far and near, high and low, the shadows in them began to deepen, and the sky was red over the snowy mountains, bathed now in but a wan light.
Cedar groves stood out darkly by the river bank, at the ski ground, around the shrine.
Like a warm light, Komako poured in on the empty wretchedness that had assailed Shimamura.
I have written before about Tanizaki Junichiro’s essay, In Praise of Shadows. In it, Tanizaki lays out some of the principles of Japanese aesthetics – mainly, this idea of beauty in shadows. That art is rendered more beautiful through the darkness created at the borders of light.
Kawabata echoes this theory in Snow Country. The ultimate and inevitable failure of Shimamura and Komako’s affair is that unsettling but beautiful darkness hovering at the edge of what Kawabata chooses to illuminate: the warmth and steam from the hot springs, the crimson stain of hand-made Chijimi linen laid out on the snow and bleaching in the sun, the shimmery radiance of the Milky Way over the buried town.