Yukiguni is one of the most famous Japanese novels, known in Japan and worldwide, translated into many languages. Soon after it has been published in 1937 Yukiguni became a classic. As many of his books are artistic and brillant, Kawabata Yasunari was given the Nobel Prize in 1968 as the first Japanese author. He is still admired today.
A young man named Shimamura goes on a travel to a village in the mountains far away from Tokyo. It is winter. On his way on a train he watches a beautiful woman caring for an ill man. He observes and admires her beauty and the gentle behavior towards the man. Later he gets to know her as Yoko.
At the end of a long tunnel the train reaches the Snow Country. The train stops. Shimamura arrives at his destination. A young girl named Komako is waiting for him at the station.
Her life story as a geisha will be narrated along the storyline of their love story throughout the book. Yoko, known from the trainride is also a geisha and introduced as a close friend of Komako.
Shimamura is described as an idle character and aesthete. The story is centered around the development of a to and fro relationship between him and Komako and some sideline stories. The protagonists meet each other only in intervening periods. Eventually Shimamura is not willing to leave Snow Country, although it is an artificial world here, only short-lived and transient.
The novel is an artistic masterpiece of its time. Kawabata describes the atmosphere and the inner feelings of the main character, Shimamura and Komako. There is not much happening, but tension between the woman and him. High expectations and low actions build up an area of conflict. There are scenes, when nothing seems to happen. The slow motion is not easy to endure. Time is going by very slow in Snow Country.
Yukiguni consists of seven stories which were serialized in magazines from 1935 to 1937. The seven scenes where later formed into a novel. Until 1948 Kawabata rewrote the novel several times. Therefore there is no consistent story, but it is developed out of fragments.
Kawabata shows his talents in experimenting with a new literary style. He invented a theory of expression published in the literary magazine bungei jidai in 1925. Apart from Kawabata Yasunari many other Japanese authors were recipients of the German Expressionism.
The story itself resembles strongly the Three-Cornered World of Natsume Sôseki. The atmospheric literary character of the novel can be also compared to Rainer Maria Rilke’s book The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, one of most famous German expressionistic novel of the 20th century.
Kawabata uses style elements as free association and is breaking rules of semantic style and syntax, he is using inner dialogue, contrasting colors, intuitive narration and fragmentation of the storyline.
Next to his experimental style Kawabata uses mythological motives and classical themes of Nô-theatre and the Genji monogatari.
I strongly recommend to read Yukiguni as a real Japanese classic and a work of world literature.
川端 康成: 雪国, 1937. Kwabata Yasunari: Snow Country. 1937.