(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)
There are many books by Yasunari Kawabata floating around in discussions of “best books” over the last few decades but I would suggest that this, probably his best-known work, is the most stellar example of contemporary self-exploratory fiction out there. I will actually begin with the plot for this one because, much like the type of books I read for enjoyment, there isn’t much of one and that’s quite significant. The story is about a man from the city who escapes his life from time to time by heading into the mountains of the north and enjoying the services of entertaining women (no, in this case that doesn’t necessarily mean prostitutes). He gradually reveals a character that simply wants to be removed from experience of the everyday world. He loves dance but becomes an expert in traditional forms and when people start to interact with him about it, he shifts his focus to western dance so he can be in touch with it without ever having to be present. His life is a reflection of that same target. He escapes his real life in the city by visiting a world locked in the past in the mountains but when he starts to experience more depth of feeling for a woman and gets closer and closer to her there, he tries various tactics to remove himself from his own life, most of which obviously fail. There’s drinking and singing and even a fire but the point is that the plot is somewhat insignificant compared to the internal investigation. There’s also a beautiful scene on a train that I’m not going to describe here because only the poetic language of self-reflection and looking through other people’s transparent eyes does it justice.
Now we get to my three criteria for books on this list, the three lessons. I have already aluded to the first, the language. This book is not quite prose and definitely not poetry but the poetic language floats in and out as we are taken through the protagonist’s thoughts (his name is Shimamura but that’s rather irrelevant to anything). The opening scene is mesmerizing and that kind of self-reflective quality is present throughout this book (and, you may find, in most of Kawabata’s others). I would suggest that this is the first work of fiction that takes this middle ground between self-examination and self-detachment and turns that into the whole definition of the character. But it goes beyond that and makes detachment and poetic reflection the whole style of the narration and I think that’s absolutely beautiful both as an idea and in its application here. The second lesson is actually in two pieces. There’s an ethical lesson about using people and a moral lesson about escape (and likely one about division and separation, too). The first, the ethical lesson, comes from a simple question. Is he using the services of a woman who has devoted her life to performance and pleasure or is she using him as a conduit out of that life, into one perhaps of marriage and family or even just to get to the city and fulfill other dreams? The question has various ambiuous answers that get explored through the work and the fact that there’s no simple one — especially not one that can be discovered by either of them or the bystanders in the town — is a definite nod to the complexity of the ethical dilemma they both face and gradually realize is there.
The moral issue of escape is probably the dominant theme. He is leaving his “city family” and feels like it’s his right but there’s no perspective from outside his mind on how the city life he’s leaving behind reflects on whether they need him, want him, rely on him or anything else. It’s left to the reader to wonder and decide what his frequent escapes from a life that he’s obviously chosen to build for himself mean for everyone around him. Then he looks to escape from himself, from the town in the mountain, from his responsibilities and then to escape from the pleasure and connection that he feels to everything he experiences. It’s not simply a book about escapism. It’s an investigation of the nature of escaping from escapism and whether that means returning to real life (hint, it’s not but he feels like trying it anyway).
There’s a moral dimension that explores the nature of separation, too. Does distance make the heart grow fonder or is that just obsession? Are we separate from our actions or their consequences? Can we truly ever escape ourselves and is there anything else worth running from? These are all explored in some depth but the real issue of separation is one of presence of mind compared to presence of body. He’s always present in mind, obsessively so, compulsively repeating the same things over, over and over again. His patterns are unchanging and he tries to escape them and falls into the same patterns with different people, returning to the problems he was running away from in the first place but pretending not to understand it’s a Sisyphian dilemma. Is he separate from himself or his past? Is she? Is the town? Does the past even exist if we forget it and does that matter, since we can’t ever forget the past, especially when it is staring us in the face with every ritualized repetitive action we undertake and pretend is a choice?
The third criteria for me is a lesson about the world. Where this book shines is in making the assumption that we already know what’s going on even if we are far outside the culture. We are immersed in the very ritualized and specific actions of a small town in the north where traditions have been sculpted over centuries and there is a history to everything. We’re not explicitly educated about it but we are given a demonstration of how daily life (and visiting life) works in such a society, not judgmentally or from an orientalist perspective but simply and matter-of-factly. We’re given a gimpse into the art of the geisha outside the pleasure quarters of major cities, the nature of complex relationships in a place where secrecy isn’t even pretended to exist and how tenuous survival is in a place where the world has mostly passed by but comes to visit sometimes.
So it’s a simple story with beautiful poetic language but the depth of character exploration and the nature of questions about escape and separation and relationships make this a revolutionary combination of styles and an unmatched work of self-reflective fiction.
[Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata on Amazon]