First Snow on Fuji

Author:Yasunari Kawabata

Yasunari Kawabata's short-story collection First Snow on Fuji debuted in 1958, a decade before Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now Michael Emmerich's English translation communicates the quiet force of the original.

Kawabata begins simply—many of the stories open with characters discussing some detail of the natural world—and, without shifting into a higher register, he impels the movement into delicate consideration of humanity with the compact philosophical balance of haiku. Couples during infidelity and after breakup are of particular interest to Kawabata. His eye for psychological and physical subtleties is striking. The ease and understatement of each story reveal a gifted writer working overtime to make it appear effortless.

A Row of Trees is framed around a husband asking his family, “Have you noticed that half the ginko trees are bare?” The tale expands to touch upon growth and departure, memory and inheritance. Like all of Kawabata's work, it concludes on a poignant, open-ended note: “Even on the bare trees at the bottom a few leaves remained, scattered here and there, few enough to count. Soeda noticed that those yellow leaves were trembling, as if butterflies had come to rest on the branches.”

The collection's finest story is “Silence.” In it, a young writer visits Akifusa, an elderly author who has been partially paralyzed by a stroke. The visitor struggles through an awkward, uncomfortable monologue. Akifusa has refused all communicative gestures and stepped inside the seed of silence like the young woman's ghost that haunts a tunnel near Akifusa's home. “If she's really there,” questions the young writer to his taxi driver, “what do you think, shall I say something to her?” “D-Don't even joke like that. You get cursed if you speak to a ghost.”