In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded in recognition of novels he published from 1925 to 1965, which had been brought to the attention of the West by his translator, Edward G. Seidensticker. Chief among Kawabata’s works are Izu no odoriko (1926; The Izu Dancer, 1955), Meijin (1942-1954, serial; 1954, book; The Master of Go, 1972), Nemureru bijo (1960-1961, serial; 1961, book; The House of the Sleeping Beauties, 1969), and his universally acknowledged masterpiece, Snow Country.
In evocative prose that calls upon traditional Japanese culture and motifs but also incorporates elements of modernist imagism and symbolism, Snow Country tells the story of the relationships between the urbane Tokyo aesthete and dilettante Shimamura and the mountain hot-spring geisha Komako. Told over a period of less than two years, the short novel follows Shimamura’s three visits to the hot-spring inn, told exclusively from Shimamura’s point of view.
The novel opens with one of Kawabata’s most celebrated scenes, the train ride bringing Shimamura to snow country. Shimamura observes a girl and an ill man sitting across the aisle. As he watches the image of the girl reflected in the window, her face becomes disembodied and floats across the passing snow-covered landscape and the night sky like a transparent mask, ultimately appearing as an abstracted eye fused with the landscape. In microcosm, this scene, conveyed in Kawabata’s poetic, visionary prose, anticipates many of his images and themes.
Shimamura’s stance as an observer in this scene reinforces his distance from human events. He sees the girl at second hand in the window,...
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