4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Frost, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, James Joyce

Snowbound

Robert Frost. The teacher always asked, “What do you suppose the poet intended with his mention of ‘promises to keep?’ ”
Robert Frost. The teacher always asked, “What do you suppose the poet intended with his mention of ‘promises to keep?’ ”

What I don’t like about where I live is that it doesn’t snow. The other day I saw one of those glass balls that has a snowman in it; you shake the globe up and down, and “snow” falls. It is a piece of kitschy junk. It cost $13.95. I bought it. I brought it home and put it in my bedroom. I get up in the morning and shake the globe and watch the snow drift and swirl down onto the rim of the snowman’s little black top hat. I really miss snow. And now that it’s December, I go to my bookshelves and search — in poems, novels, essays, short stories — for snowfalls, snowstorms, blizzards, icicles, sleigh rides, ice-skating.

T.S. Eliot. From "The Wasteland": "Winter kept us warm,/ covering Earth in forgetful snow,"

The poem with snow in it that we all learned in school is Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Even the title stirs memory.

Whose woods these are I think I know,

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” is one of those killer poems that stalks you for years.

It is the poem that ends with that grim quatrain to which teachers resorted to introduce us to the enigmatic element in poetry.

The woods are loverly, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Lord Byron: "Rose late — dull and drooping—the weather dripping and dense./ Snow on the ground, and sirocco above in the sky, like yesterday."

The teacher always asked, “What do you suppose the poet intended with his mention of ‘promises to keep?’ ” I didn’t care then — and don’t now — what Frost intended and am satisfied to say out loud to myself merely the title “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Those seven words start snow sifting through cold air, sticking on bare black boughs.

Frost’s poem “The Onset,” less well-known, offers a more closely observed snow that

...lets down as white

As may be in dark woods and with a song

It shall not make again all winter long

Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground

Back when I lived where snow fell every winter, a friend and I, on the occasion of the year’s first snow, would get together to recite Robert Penn Warren’s “Function of Blizzard.”

Easily as wonderful a Frost snow poem is his eight-line “Dust of Snow” whose first quatrain so quickly establishes its presence that words vanish and nothing remains but

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree.

From Anton Chekhov’s terrifying “An Attack of Nerves”: "The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vasilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows.... The cabmen, the horses, and the passersby were white."

Basho’s On Love and Barley contains three haiku, the first of which “works” much like the Frost four lines — the words disappear, the world to which the words point, remains.

Snowy morning —

one crow

after another.

Come, let’s go

snow-viewing

till we’re buried.

Snow-whisk sweeping

this path,

forgets the snow.

Leo Tolstoy. From War and Peace: "As soon as they had passed the fence, the still, snowy plain, all bathed in the radiance of the moon, sparkling like diamonds and with a bluish sheen, opened out before them...."

This bit of snow-writing is not a poem, but it’s written by a poet Why we construe from his name an adjective that describes it: object as “heroic — or, ‘mock’ heroic — and romantic” come; clear once more when we read what Lord Byron, on January 5. 1821, wrote in his journal:

Rose late — dull and drooping—the weather dripping and dense.

Snow on the ground, and sirocco above in the sky, like yesterday.

Roads up to the horse’s belly, so that riding (at least for pleasure)

is not very feasible. Read the conclusion, for the 50th time (I have

read all W. Scott’s novels at least 50 times), of the third series of

Tales of my Landlord — grand work — Scotch.

Clock strikes — going out to make love. Somewhat perilous,

but not disagreeable.

And, remember this, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”?

Winter kept us warm,

covering Earth in forgetful snow,

Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” is one of those killer poems that stalks you for years and finally one day hits you between the heart. Were I going to give the poem a title based upon the effect it has, I’d title it “Exit Wound.”

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the Pine-trees crusted with snow,

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves.

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

None of these is my favorite snow poem (although the Stevens comes close). That is reserved for Robert Penn Warren’s “Function of Blizzard.” Back when I lived where snow fell every winter, a friend and I, on the occasion of the year’s first snow, would get together to recite this poem. I guess, really, we didn’t “recite." We never learned the poem by heart, so we would take the book with us, outside, and stand on the street corner under lamplight and read the poem out loud together. Last week, standing at his window, he saw that snow was falling on the mountains. He called me and read:

God’s goose, neck neatly wrung, is being plucked.

And night is blacker for the plethora

Of white feathers except when, in an air-tower beam,

Black feathers turn white as snow. Which is what they are.

And in the blind trajectory travelers scream toward silence.

Black ruins of arson in the Bronx are whitely

Redeemed. Poverty does not necessarily

Mean unhappiness. Can't you hear the creak of bed-slats

Or ghostly echo of childish laughter?

Bless Needle plunging into pinched vein.

Bless coverings-over, forgettings.

Bless snow, and chains beating undersides of fenders.

Bless insane sirens of the Fire Department

And Christmas whirl of alarm lights. Bless even

Three infants locked in a tenement of Harlem.

God’s bosom is broad. Snow soon will cover the anguished ruin.

Bless snow! Bless God, Who must work under the hand of

Fate, who has no name. God does the best

He can, and sometimes lets snow whiten the world

As a promise — as now of mystic comfort to

The old physicist, a Jew, faith long since dead, who is getting

High-lonesome drunk by the frosted window of

The Oak Room bar in the Plaza. And bless me, even

With no glass in my hand, and far from New York, as I rise

From bed, feet bare, heart freezing, to stare out at

The whitening fields and forest, and wonder what

Item of the past I’d most like God to let

Snow fall on, keep falling on, and never

Melt, for I, like you, am only a man, after all.

It’s difficult to know, after that, which so nearly says all there is to say about man and God and love and snow, what can follow. Joseph Wood Krutch in The Twelve Seasons suggests: “The snow itself is lonely or, if you prefer, self-sufficient. There is no other time when the whole world seems composed of one thing and one thing only.”

For 20 years I’ve been reading and marking in my copy of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. Bachelard meditates upon what he calls “praiseworthy space” — the closets, corners, cellars, and garrets that attract and focus the poetic imagination. In Chapter Two, “House and Universe,” Bachelard “reads” houses and rooms “written” by writers.

Although at heart a city man, Baudelaire sensed the increased intimacy of a house when it is besieged by winter. In Les paradis artificiels (p. 280) he speaks of Thomas de Quincey’s joy when, a prisoner of winter, he reads Kant, with the help of the idealism furnished by opium. The scene takes place in a cottage in Wales. “Isn’t it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn’t winter add to the poetry of a house? The white cottage at the end of a little valley, shut in by rather high mountains; and it seemed to be swathed in shrubs.”

Reading Baudelaire’s passage, Bachelard suggests that we too are “ ‘swathed’ in the blanket of winter.”

And we feel warm because it is cold out-of-doors. Further on in this deep-winter “artificial Paradise,” Baudelaire declares that dreamers like a severe winter. “Every year they ask the sky to send down as much snow, hail and frost as it can contain. What they really need are Canadian and Russian winters. Their own nests will be all the warmer, all the downier, all the better beloved.” Like Edgar Allen Poe, a great dreamer of curtains, Baudelaire, in order to protect the winter-girt house from cold added “heavy draperies that hung down to the floor.” Behind dark curtains, snow seems to be whiter. “Indeed, everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.”

Russians, of course, dependably produce paragraph after paragraph of snow description. Chekhov’s “Heartache” opens thus:

"Evening twilight. Large flakes of wet snow are circling lazily about the street lamps which have just been lighted, settling in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, peoples’ shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the cabby, is all white like a ghost. As hunched as a living body can be, he sits on the box without stirring. If a whole snowdrift were to fall on him, even then, perhaps he would not find it necessary to shake it off. His nag, too, is white and motionless."

From Chekhov’s terrifying “An Attack of Nerves”:

"If one looked upwards into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with white, moving specks: it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vasilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes,

his eyebrows.... The cabmen, the horses, and the passersby were white."

One of the oddest snow scenes occurs in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, during a snowy Christmas season. Natasha, Sonya, and Nikolai costume themselves in clothes of the opposite gender — Natasha as a hussar, Sonya a Circassian with burnt cork eyebrows and a mustache, Nikolai as an old lady in a farthingale. Nikolai wants to go out in his troika and proposes a visit to a family who lives some four versts across the snow. Within minutes the group gathers in the troika — which is draped with harness bells — and are off.

"Nikolai, in his old lady's dress over which he had belted his hussar’s cloak, stood in the middle of the sledge, reins in hand.

"It was so light that he could see the moonlight reflected in the metal of the harness and in the eyes of the startled horses....

"Nikolai set off after the first troika; the other two noisily followed, their runners whining.... As they drove by the garden the shadows cast by the bare trees fell across the road obscuring the bright moonlight, but as soon as they had passed the fence, the still, snowy plain, all bathed in the radiance of the moon, sparkling like diamonds and with a bluish sheen, opened out before them....

"Nikolai glanced at Sonya and bent down to look more closely into her face. A quite new, sweet face with black eyebrows and moustache — so near yet so remote in the moonlight — peeped up to him from her sable furs."

One of the classic cold-weather novels is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which suggests Hans Castrop’s confinement in a tuberculosis sanitarium as analogy to Europe’s post-World War I crisis:

"[T]he winter came mildly on, at first no different from many a day they had seen in the height of summer. The wind had been two days in the south, the sun bore down, the valley seemed shrunken, the side walls at its mouth looked near and bald. Clouds came up, behind Piz Michel and Tinzenhorn, and drove north-eastwards. It rained heavily. Then the rain turned foul, a whitish-grey, mingled with snow-flakes — soon it was all snow, the valley Was full of flurry; it kept on and on, the temperature fell appreciably, so that the fallen snow could not quite melt, but lay covering the valley with a wet and threadbare white garment, against which showed black the pines on the slopes."

For seven days snow falls across Mann’s valley. And then, this:

"The world, this narrow, lofty, isolated world up here, looked now well wadded and upholstered indeed: no pillar or post but wore its whitecap; the steps up to the entrance of the Berghof had turned into an inclined plane; heavy cushions, in the drollest shapes, weighed down the branches of the Scotch firs — now and then one slid off and raised up a cloud of powdery white dust in its fall. Round about, the heights lay smothered in snow, their lower regions rugged with the evergreen growth, their upper parts, beyond the timber line, softly covered up to their many-shaped summits. The air was dark, the sun but a pallid apparition behind a veil. Yet a mild reflected brightness came from the snow, a milky gleam whose light became both landscape and human beings, even though these Utter did show red noses under their white or gaily-colored woollen caps."

American author Cynthia Ozick, in Chapter Four of The Messiah of Stockholm, places Lars Andemening at night on foot in Stockholm.

"There was a bitter wind now, lording it over the black one o’clock. The blackness went on throwing the snow into Lars’s face, and he packed his scarf over his nose and mouth — how warm his breath was in the little cave this made! ... The spiraling flakes stuttered around him like Morse code. A smell of something roasting, what was that? Chimneys....

"Under the screen of revolving flakes the steeples had the look of whirling Merlin hats."

A few years ago, I ran across Yasunan Kawabata’s Snow Country. The novel’s translator writes in an introduction to the novel:

"The west coast of the main island of Japan is probably for its latitude (roughly, from Cape Hatteras to New York, or from Spanish Morocco to Barcelona) the snowiest region in the world. From December to April or May only the railroads are open, and the snow in the mountains is sometimes as much as 15 feet deep.

"

Kawabata’s descriptions of snow are some of the most satisfying I know, and I look forward to leaning against the bookcase and reading them aloud to myself until 1 feel the cold he writes climb up on me. Yet Kawabata’s story of a man who can’t love and the woman who loves him is so irredeemably sad that I’m never sure Kawabata’s snow is worth the pain my memory of his characters’ end causes me.

The earth lay white under the night sky.

The brightness of the snow was more intense, it seemed to be burning icily.

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.

The snow on the distant mountains was soft and creamy, as if veiled in a faint smoke.

From the gray sky, framed by the window, the snow floated toward them in great flakes, like white peonies.

The cedars, under a thin coating of snow, rose sheer from the white ground to the sky, each cut off sharply from the rest.

When 1 want North American snow, I turn first to books set in the Midwest and then to my childhood books, to the Little House books. Little House on the Prairie, Little House in the Big Woods, et al tell the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. Born in 1867 in a log cabin at the edge of the Wisconsin Big Woods, Wilder from 1870-1889 traveled with her family by covered wagon through Kansas, Minnesota, and Dakota Territory. A section from Wilder’s The Long Winter furnished me with material for what must have been my earliest childhood snow nightmares. A late fall snowstorm has hit the prairie. Cattle have taken shelter by the haystacks. Pa, concerned that the cattle will tear down the stacks, goes out to drive them off. Laura follows.

"Outdoors the sun-glitter hurt her eyes. She breathed a deep breath of the tingling cold and squinted her eyes to look around her. The sky was hugely blue and all the land was blowing white. The straight, strong wind did not lift the snow, but drove it scudding across the prairie....

"The cattle were standing in sunshine and shadow by the haystacks — red and brown and spotted cattle and one thin black one. They stood perfectly still, every head bowed down to the ground. The hairy red necks and brown necks all stretched down from bony-gaunt shoulders to monstrous, swollen white heads....

"They did not seem like real cattle. They stood so terrible still. In the whole herd there was not the least movement. Only their breathing sucked their hairy sides in between the rib bones and pushed them out again.... Their legs were braced out, stiff and still. And where their heads should be, swollen white lumps seemed fast to the ground under the blowing snow.

"On Laura’s head the hair prickled up and a horror went down her backbone.... Pa went on slowly against the wind. He walked up to the herd. Not one of the cattle moved."

Next, for midwestern winters, I like Willa Cather’s My Antonia that has as its landscape the author’s childhood home in Nebraska.

"The first snowfall came early in December. 1 remember how the world looked from our sitting-room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning: the low sky was like a sheet of metal; the blond cornfields had faded out into ghostliness at last; the little pond was frozen under its stiff willow bushes. Big white flakes were whirling over everything and disappearing in the red grass....

"The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. As Antonia said, the whole world was changed by snow; we kept looking in vain for familiar landmarks. The deep arroyo through which Squaw Creek wound was now only a cleft between snowdrifts — very blue when one looked down into it.... The cold stung, and at the same time delighted one. My horse's breath rose like steam, and whenever we stopped he smoked all over. The cornfields got back a little of their color under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crusted in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind.

Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie. ...

"In the morning when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I couldn’t see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late afternoon, when I was coming home, the town looked bleak and desolate to me. The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify — it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: 'This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.'”

For contemporary no-nonsense New England snow, nobody beats Russell Banks, whose Affliction tells the story of Wade Whitehouse, a part-time policeman in a New Hampshire mill-town who goes on a violent rampage. In Affliction and his earlier Continental Divide, Banks writes of the dirty rust-belt snow that has driven more than one New Englander to California (although Banks’s characters head for Florida).

"Wade liked the way the river looked in the new snow and milky early morning light. That is a tourist’s idea of New Hampshire, he thought, with pine trees drooping over the water and snarls of icicle-laden birches dumped at the edges of eddies and pools, with large snow-covered boulders in the middle of the stream and dark-green water churning, swirling and splashing past and over them, raising a thick white crust of ice at the crest marks.

"By the first week of October, whole long gray days passed without the temperature’s rising above freezing, while the leaves, their colors dulled by the cold, tumbled from the trees and swirled in the autumn winds, and stalks and reeds clattered in the icy clasp of the marshes and ponds, and animals drew into their caves for a six months’ sleep.

"When the snows do come, it is as natural and as inescapable and in some sense as welcome as gravity. Starting long after midnight, a dear starry sky with a sickle of moon in the southeast fills slowly with low dark gray clouds, until the sky is covered from horizon to horizon and all the light seems to have been wiped from the valley, every dot of it, every pale reflection, every memory. The first scattered flakes drift almost accidentally down, as if spilled while carted by a high wind to somewhere east of here, to the Maritimes or New Brunswick: a single hard dry flake, then several more, then a hundred, a thousand, too many to be seen as separate from one another anymore: until at last the snow is falling over the valley and the hills and lakes like a lacy soft eiderdown billowing out and settling over the entire region, covering the trees, the rocks and ridges, the old stone walls, the fields and meadows behind the houses in town and out along Route 29, the roofs of the houses, bams and trailers, the tops of cars and trucks the roads, lanes, driveways and parking lots: covering and transforming everything in the last few moments of the night, so that when at dawn the day and the month truly begin, winter too will have arrived, returned, seeming never to have left_

"The snow was coming down with fury, in white fists, and as he drove slowly through the stuff, Wade thought, I can’t stand it anymore."

Mark Helprin’s stories and novels’ surfaces glitter and shimmer and shine with snow and ice. Perhaps no living writer, in English, does as well with plays of light over snow. In the prologue to Winter's Tale, he describes snow falling on New York City.

"But the city is now obscured, as it often is, by the whitened mass in which it rests — rushing by us at unfathomable speed, crackling like wind in the mist, cold to the touch, glistening and unfolding, tumbling over itself like the steam of an engine or cotton spilling from a bale. Though the blinding white web of ceaseless sound flows past mercilessly, the curtain is breaking ... it reveals amid the clouds a lake of air as smooth and dear as a mirror, the deep round eye of a white hurricane.

"No Renaissance engine belching fire or hurtling stone could keep pace with even one white clap of a New York winter, and winter there clapped as endlessly as a paddlewheel on one of the big white boats slapping across the lake in seasons gone by. Battalions of arctic clouds droned down from the north to bomb the state with snow, to bleach it as white as young ivory, to mortar it with frost that would last from September to May."

A New York City friend who tells me she bought Singapore: a Novel of the Bronx by Joe Bernardini because she could not resist a novel about the Bronx written by someone named Joe Bernardini, pointed out to me Bernardini’s snow scene as an example of nonromanticized urban snow:

"In all fairness to the Bronx, snow is greeted with great cheers of delight. The smiles and laughter of this otherwise grim borough are few and far between, and I’d be remiss in not mentioning them when they do occur. The snowball fights we used to have in the lot constituted the happiest moments of my youth. I was deadly with a snowball. Single-handed I’d rout Leon and his cohorts from their hiding places and send them scurrying into the building. Then, anticipating their taunts from the hallway windows, my snowballs would find the enemy as soon as their startled heads appeared. I recall throwing a snowball that landed wide of the mark. It struck the window of a recluse who was forever sitting with his nose pressed against the pane. He appeared to be staring straight at me, there was no way possible for him to overlook the snowball, and yet as the snowball approached and then struck his window he didn’t budge an inch. Frightened out of my wits, I ran all the way up to Bainbridge and returned hours later when it was dark.

"The light from the street lamp illumined his window and I saw that a piece of cardboard had been wedged against the opening and above the cardboard I was even able to make out the man’s forehead and a few wisps of hair. He was sitting there with his nose pressed agpinst the cardboard. Do you understand? Snow was falling on the Bronx. For several hours a clean, white blanket would cover the grime. Then dogs would yellow it with their pee and boots would riddle it with holes and soot belched from the incinerators would settle on its surface and it would turn to slush, and in contrast to the few white patches that remained, the Bronx would appear even grimier than before. So snow meant nothing to him. It was still the Bronx."

For one more piece of gritty city snow, there is this from the collection of short stories Between C & D, New Writing from the Lower East Side Fiction Magazine, “The Fedora” by Catherine Texier:

"Tonight I will look at the window and from the shapes of the steps in the snow I will try to guess who has been walking on the sidewalk. Then I see him. His collar is turned up, his hat pushed down, his shoulders even more hunched than usual, his whole body contracted by bitter wind. His face is drowned in shadow, but his figure is clearly delineated against the pearl glimmer of the snow, the fedora smartly creased in the middle, it’s outline sharper and sharper as he walks towards my house.

"I quickly move from the window and wait. I think, he wouldn’t dare. But he does. Like a syncopated note I dropped against the beat my buzzer rings. Once. Twice. A long interval, then a third time. And I sit, frozen, lis-(cning to the shrill, persistent pitch of the doorbell in the cold, abstract silence."

Reading Katherine Mansfield’s journal entry for December 28, 1914, with its expanding exterior vision covered over with white, white, white, white, white heightens one’s awareness of snow’s potential as dramatic medium.

"Snow has fallen, and everything is white.... I love to close my eyes a moment and think of the land outside, white under the mingled snow and moonlight — white trees, white fields — the heaps of stones by the roadside white — snow in the furrows."

Snow passages in fiction and poetry are splendid opportunities for writers to set up dazzling pictorial contrasts. Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer offers this:

"He switched off all the lights. Because of the snow and the reflection of the city in the i clouds, it was light in all the j rooms, a nocturnal light that made the objects in the rooms all the darker."

In another example of this use of snow for effects of visual contrast there is in Kawabata’s novel a paragraph in which his emotionally frozen male character watches a geisha as she looks at herself in a mirror that reflects both her face and the snow outside the window.

"The white in the depths of the mirror was the snow, and 1 floating in the middle of it were the woman’s bright red cheeks.

An early scene in Banks' Affliction, a deer hunt, is another passage in which snow’s whiteness and purity is used as a graphic contrast medium.

"Slugs, pellets, balls made of aluminum lead, steel, rip into the body of the deer, crash through bone, penetrate and smash organs, rend muscle and sinew, Blood splashes into the air across tree bark, stone onto smooth white blankets of snow where scarlet fades quickly to pink. Black tongue lolls over blooded teeth, as if the mouth were a carnivore’s;: huge brown eyes roll back, glassed over, opaque and dry, blood trickles from carbon-black nostrils, shit spits steaming into the snow, urine, entrails, blood, mucous spill from the animal's body as heavy-booted hunters rush across the frozen snow-covered ground to claim the kill."

Perhaps precisely because snow offers such a canvas on which to draw contrasts, mysteries, suspense, thriller, and horror, writers show a fondness for wintry settings. Offhand, there come to mind: Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman, Chesterton’s "Invisible Man,” Michael Innis's Appleby’s End, Jonathan Valin's Fire Lake, Peter Straiub's Ghost Story, and closer to home Chandler’s Lady of the Lake

Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park provides particular examples of the use of backdrop for violence. From the first pages, Gorky Park snowy death scenes, ice glimmer in the air, a chief investigator for the People's Militia, Arkady Renko, strides through the snow “to the telltale humps in the center of a clearing.

"There were three bodies, ...They lay peacefully, even artfully, under their thawing crust of ice, the center one on its back, hands folded as if for a religious funeral, the other two turned, arms out under the ice like flanking emblems on embossed writing paper. They were wearing ice skates."

Toward Gorky Park's end, a corpse is found (whose corpse it is I won’t tell you in case you haven’t read the book and want to).

"Snow had settled deep on his shoulders and hat and in the cuff of his upraised hand. Stretched out dead in the snow at his feet were two lar^ge gray dnjp. Arkady noticed that what protruded in a bundle from_’s open coat were his entrails, pulled out and covered with snow. Snow obscured the two pink holes over his breasts. His face was totally white....

"Arkady noticed that no more snow was filling not a flake drifted down, not even from the over-heavy branches. There was a ceramic clarity to the scene."

In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway’s Harry, a writer, is in Africa in “a pleasant camp under big trees against a hill, with good water.” He’d gotten a scratch on his leg. He forgot to put iodine on the scratch. The leg has become gangrenous. Lying on a canvas cot at the edge of the bush, Harry looks across “the heat shimmer of the plain.” He knows he’s going to die. “Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.”

Snow was one of the things he’d saved to write, and Hemingway gives Harry a seven-para-graph riff that’s about the best snow anybody’s written. Paragraph three:

"In Schrunz, on Christmas day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the weinstube and saw every one coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hills, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran that great run down the glacier above the Madlener-haus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird.

In Nelson Algren’s Notes from a Sea Diary, or, Hemingway All the Way, Algren inveighed against critics who described Hemingways’s writing as “baby talk.” So that after I read snow paragraphs from Kilimanjaro, I am always tempted to echo the outburst Algren directed against those critics: “Call that baby talk!”

When I ask people what in literature they remember for its snow scenes, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is spoken of, and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, Peter Matthiesen’s The Snow Leopard, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, O.L Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, and always Jack London. Not a few readers are reminded of Conrad Aiken’s haunting story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in which the snow is imaginary, the vision of a young boy’s disturbed mind. But almost no one doesn’t mention the conclusion of “The Dead,” the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners.

"Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was filling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, filling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furry lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and all the dead."

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

The battle of the sexes hits the water

Anglerettes versus Fishermen
Next Article

Daily News Cafe: looks like a breakfast-all-day

In our search for new variations, we sometimes forget how good the originals are.
Robert Frost. The teacher always asked, “What do you suppose the poet intended with his mention of ‘promises to keep?’ ”
Robert Frost. The teacher always asked, “What do you suppose the poet intended with his mention of ‘promises to keep?’ ”

What I don’t like about where I live is that it doesn’t snow. The other day I saw one of those glass balls that has a snowman in it; you shake the globe up and down, and “snow” falls. It is a piece of kitschy junk. It cost $13.95. I bought it. I brought it home and put it in my bedroom. I get up in the morning and shake the globe and watch the snow drift and swirl down onto the rim of the snowman’s little black top hat. I really miss snow. And now that it’s December, I go to my bookshelves and search — in poems, novels, essays, short stories — for snowfalls, snowstorms, blizzards, icicles, sleigh rides, ice-skating.

T.S. Eliot. From "The Wasteland": "Winter kept us warm,/ covering Earth in forgetful snow,"

The poem with snow in it that we all learned in school is Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Even the title stirs memory.

Whose woods these are I think I know,

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” is one of those killer poems that stalks you for years.

It is the poem that ends with that grim quatrain to which teachers resorted to introduce us to the enigmatic element in poetry.

The woods are loverly, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Lord Byron: "Rose late — dull and drooping—the weather dripping and dense./ Snow on the ground, and sirocco above in the sky, like yesterday."

The teacher always asked, “What do you suppose the poet intended with his mention of ‘promises to keep?’ ” I didn’t care then — and don’t now — what Frost intended and am satisfied to say out loud to myself merely the title “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Those seven words start snow sifting through cold air, sticking on bare black boughs.

Frost’s poem “The Onset,” less well-known, offers a more closely observed snow that

...lets down as white

As may be in dark woods and with a song

It shall not make again all winter long

Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground

Back when I lived where snow fell every winter, a friend and I, on the occasion of the year’s first snow, would get together to recite Robert Penn Warren’s “Function of Blizzard.”

Easily as wonderful a Frost snow poem is his eight-line “Dust of Snow” whose first quatrain so quickly establishes its presence that words vanish and nothing remains but

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree.

From Anton Chekhov’s terrifying “An Attack of Nerves”: "The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vasilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows.... The cabmen, the horses, and the passersby were white."

Basho’s On Love and Barley contains three haiku, the first of which “works” much like the Frost four lines — the words disappear, the world to which the words point, remains.

Snowy morning —

one crow

after another.

Come, let’s go

snow-viewing

till we’re buried.

Snow-whisk sweeping

this path,

forgets the snow.

Leo Tolstoy. From War and Peace: "As soon as they had passed the fence, the still, snowy plain, all bathed in the radiance of the moon, sparkling like diamonds and with a bluish sheen, opened out before them...."

This bit of snow-writing is not a poem, but it’s written by a poet Why we construe from his name an adjective that describes it: object as “heroic — or, ‘mock’ heroic — and romantic” come; clear once more when we read what Lord Byron, on January 5. 1821, wrote in his journal:

Rose late — dull and drooping—the weather dripping and dense.

Snow on the ground, and sirocco above in the sky, like yesterday.

Roads up to the horse’s belly, so that riding (at least for pleasure)

is not very feasible. Read the conclusion, for the 50th time (I have

read all W. Scott’s novels at least 50 times), of the third series of

Tales of my Landlord — grand work — Scotch.

Clock strikes — going out to make love. Somewhat perilous,

but not disagreeable.

And, remember this, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”?

Winter kept us warm,

covering Earth in forgetful snow,

Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” is one of those killer poems that stalks you for years and finally one day hits you between the heart. Were I going to give the poem a title based upon the effect it has, I’d title it “Exit Wound.”

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the Pine-trees crusted with snow,

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves.

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

None of these is my favorite snow poem (although the Stevens comes close). That is reserved for Robert Penn Warren’s “Function of Blizzard.” Back when I lived where snow fell every winter, a friend and I, on the occasion of the year’s first snow, would get together to recite this poem. I guess, really, we didn’t “recite." We never learned the poem by heart, so we would take the book with us, outside, and stand on the street corner under lamplight and read the poem out loud together. Last week, standing at his window, he saw that snow was falling on the mountains. He called me and read:

God’s goose, neck neatly wrung, is being plucked.

And night is blacker for the plethora

Of white feathers except when, in an air-tower beam,

Black feathers turn white as snow. Which is what they are.

And in the blind trajectory travelers scream toward silence.

Black ruins of arson in the Bronx are whitely

Redeemed. Poverty does not necessarily

Mean unhappiness. Can't you hear the creak of bed-slats

Or ghostly echo of childish laughter?

Bless Needle plunging into pinched vein.

Bless coverings-over, forgettings.

Bless snow, and chains beating undersides of fenders.

Bless insane sirens of the Fire Department

And Christmas whirl of alarm lights. Bless even

Three infants locked in a tenement of Harlem.

God’s bosom is broad. Snow soon will cover the anguished ruin.

Bless snow! Bless God, Who must work under the hand of

Fate, who has no name. God does the best

He can, and sometimes lets snow whiten the world

As a promise — as now of mystic comfort to

The old physicist, a Jew, faith long since dead, who is getting

High-lonesome drunk by the frosted window of

The Oak Room bar in the Plaza. And bless me, even

With no glass in my hand, and far from New York, as I rise

From bed, feet bare, heart freezing, to stare out at

The whitening fields and forest, and wonder what

Item of the past I’d most like God to let

Snow fall on, keep falling on, and never

Melt, for I, like you, am only a man, after all.

It’s difficult to know, after that, which so nearly says all there is to say about man and God and love and snow, what can follow. Joseph Wood Krutch in The Twelve Seasons suggests: “The snow itself is lonely or, if you prefer, self-sufficient. There is no other time when the whole world seems composed of one thing and one thing only.”

For 20 years I’ve been reading and marking in my copy of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. Bachelard meditates upon what he calls “praiseworthy space” — the closets, corners, cellars, and garrets that attract and focus the poetic imagination. In Chapter Two, “House and Universe,” Bachelard “reads” houses and rooms “written” by writers.

Although at heart a city man, Baudelaire sensed the increased intimacy of a house when it is besieged by winter. In Les paradis artificiels (p. 280) he speaks of Thomas de Quincey’s joy when, a prisoner of winter, he reads Kant, with the help of the idealism furnished by opium. The scene takes place in a cottage in Wales. “Isn’t it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn’t winter add to the poetry of a house? The white cottage at the end of a little valley, shut in by rather high mountains; and it seemed to be swathed in shrubs.”

Reading Baudelaire’s passage, Bachelard suggests that we too are “ ‘swathed’ in the blanket of winter.”

And we feel warm because it is cold out-of-doors. Further on in this deep-winter “artificial Paradise,” Baudelaire declares that dreamers like a severe winter. “Every year they ask the sky to send down as much snow, hail and frost as it can contain. What they really need are Canadian and Russian winters. Their own nests will be all the warmer, all the downier, all the better beloved.” Like Edgar Allen Poe, a great dreamer of curtains, Baudelaire, in order to protect the winter-girt house from cold added “heavy draperies that hung down to the floor.” Behind dark curtains, snow seems to be whiter. “Indeed, everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.”

Russians, of course, dependably produce paragraph after paragraph of snow description. Chekhov’s “Heartache” opens thus:

"Evening twilight. Large flakes of wet snow are circling lazily about the street lamps which have just been lighted, settling in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, peoples’ shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the cabby, is all white like a ghost. As hunched as a living body can be, he sits on the box without stirring. If a whole snowdrift were to fall on him, even then, perhaps he would not find it necessary to shake it off. His nag, too, is white and motionless."

From Chekhov’s terrifying “An Attack of Nerves”:

"If one looked upwards into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with white, moving specks: it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vasilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes,

his eyebrows.... The cabmen, the horses, and the passersby were white."

One of the oddest snow scenes occurs in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, during a snowy Christmas season. Natasha, Sonya, and Nikolai costume themselves in clothes of the opposite gender — Natasha as a hussar, Sonya a Circassian with burnt cork eyebrows and a mustache, Nikolai as an old lady in a farthingale. Nikolai wants to go out in his troika and proposes a visit to a family who lives some four versts across the snow. Within minutes the group gathers in the troika — which is draped with harness bells — and are off.

"Nikolai, in his old lady's dress over which he had belted his hussar’s cloak, stood in the middle of the sledge, reins in hand.

"It was so light that he could see the moonlight reflected in the metal of the harness and in the eyes of the startled horses....

"Nikolai set off after the first troika; the other two noisily followed, their runners whining.... As they drove by the garden the shadows cast by the bare trees fell across the road obscuring the bright moonlight, but as soon as they had passed the fence, the still, snowy plain, all bathed in the radiance of the moon, sparkling like diamonds and with a bluish sheen, opened out before them....

"Nikolai glanced at Sonya and bent down to look more closely into her face. A quite new, sweet face with black eyebrows and moustache — so near yet so remote in the moonlight — peeped up to him from her sable furs."

One of the classic cold-weather novels is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which suggests Hans Castrop’s confinement in a tuberculosis sanitarium as analogy to Europe’s post-World War I crisis:

"[T]he winter came mildly on, at first no different from many a day they had seen in the height of summer. The wind had been two days in the south, the sun bore down, the valley seemed shrunken, the side walls at its mouth looked near and bald. Clouds came up, behind Piz Michel and Tinzenhorn, and drove north-eastwards. It rained heavily. Then the rain turned foul, a whitish-grey, mingled with snow-flakes — soon it was all snow, the valley Was full of flurry; it kept on and on, the temperature fell appreciably, so that the fallen snow could not quite melt, but lay covering the valley with a wet and threadbare white garment, against which showed black the pines on the slopes."

For seven days snow falls across Mann’s valley. And then, this:

"The world, this narrow, lofty, isolated world up here, looked now well wadded and upholstered indeed: no pillar or post but wore its whitecap; the steps up to the entrance of the Berghof had turned into an inclined plane; heavy cushions, in the drollest shapes, weighed down the branches of the Scotch firs — now and then one slid off and raised up a cloud of powdery white dust in its fall. Round about, the heights lay smothered in snow, their lower regions rugged with the evergreen growth, their upper parts, beyond the timber line, softly covered up to their many-shaped summits. The air was dark, the sun but a pallid apparition behind a veil. Yet a mild reflected brightness came from the snow, a milky gleam whose light became both landscape and human beings, even though these Utter did show red noses under their white or gaily-colored woollen caps."

American author Cynthia Ozick, in Chapter Four of The Messiah of Stockholm, places Lars Andemening at night on foot in Stockholm.

"There was a bitter wind now, lording it over the black one o’clock. The blackness went on throwing the snow into Lars’s face, and he packed his scarf over his nose and mouth — how warm his breath was in the little cave this made! ... The spiraling flakes stuttered around him like Morse code. A smell of something roasting, what was that? Chimneys....

"Under the screen of revolving flakes the steeples had the look of whirling Merlin hats."

A few years ago, I ran across Yasunan Kawabata’s Snow Country. The novel’s translator writes in an introduction to the novel:

"The west coast of the main island of Japan is probably for its latitude (roughly, from Cape Hatteras to New York, or from Spanish Morocco to Barcelona) the snowiest region in the world. From December to April or May only the railroads are open, and the snow in the mountains is sometimes as much as 15 feet deep.

"

Kawabata’s descriptions of snow are some of the most satisfying I know, and I look forward to leaning against the bookcase and reading them aloud to myself until 1 feel the cold he writes climb up on me. Yet Kawabata’s story of a man who can’t love and the woman who loves him is so irredeemably sad that I’m never sure Kawabata’s snow is worth the pain my memory of his characters’ end causes me.

The earth lay white under the night sky.

The brightness of the snow was more intense, it seemed to be burning icily.

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.

The snow on the distant mountains was soft and creamy, as if veiled in a faint smoke.

From the gray sky, framed by the window, the snow floated toward them in great flakes, like white peonies.

The cedars, under a thin coating of snow, rose sheer from the white ground to the sky, each cut off sharply from the rest.

When 1 want North American snow, I turn first to books set in the Midwest and then to my childhood books, to the Little House books. Little House on the Prairie, Little House in the Big Woods, et al tell the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. Born in 1867 in a log cabin at the edge of the Wisconsin Big Woods, Wilder from 1870-1889 traveled with her family by covered wagon through Kansas, Minnesota, and Dakota Territory. A section from Wilder’s The Long Winter furnished me with material for what must have been my earliest childhood snow nightmares. A late fall snowstorm has hit the prairie. Cattle have taken shelter by the haystacks. Pa, concerned that the cattle will tear down the stacks, goes out to drive them off. Laura follows.

"Outdoors the sun-glitter hurt her eyes. She breathed a deep breath of the tingling cold and squinted her eyes to look around her. The sky was hugely blue and all the land was blowing white. The straight, strong wind did not lift the snow, but drove it scudding across the prairie....

"The cattle were standing in sunshine and shadow by the haystacks — red and brown and spotted cattle and one thin black one. They stood perfectly still, every head bowed down to the ground. The hairy red necks and brown necks all stretched down from bony-gaunt shoulders to monstrous, swollen white heads....

"They did not seem like real cattle. They stood so terrible still. In the whole herd there was not the least movement. Only their breathing sucked their hairy sides in between the rib bones and pushed them out again.... Their legs were braced out, stiff and still. And where their heads should be, swollen white lumps seemed fast to the ground under the blowing snow.

"On Laura’s head the hair prickled up and a horror went down her backbone.... Pa went on slowly against the wind. He walked up to the herd. Not one of the cattle moved."

Next, for midwestern winters, I like Willa Cather’s My Antonia that has as its landscape the author’s childhood home in Nebraska.

"The first snowfall came early in December. 1 remember how the world looked from our sitting-room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning: the low sky was like a sheet of metal; the blond cornfields had faded out into ghostliness at last; the little pond was frozen under its stiff willow bushes. Big white flakes were whirling over everything and disappearing in the red grass....

"The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. As Antonia said, the whole world was changed by snow; we kept looking in vain for familiar landmarks. The deep arroyo through which Squaw Creek wound was now only a cleft between snowdrifts — very blue when one looked down into it.... The cold stung, and at the same time delighted one. My horse's breath rose like steam, and whenever we stopped he smoked all over. The cornfields got back a little of their color under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crusted in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind.

Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie. ...

"In the morning when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I couldn’t see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late afternoon, when I was coming home, the town looked bleak and desolate to me. The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify — it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: 'This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.'”

For contemporary no-nonsense New England snow, nobody beats Russell Banks, whose Affliction tells the story of Wade Whitehouse, a part-time policeman in a New Hampshire mill-town who goes on a violent rampage. In Affliction and his earlier Continental Divide, Banks writes of the dirty rust-belt snow that has driven more than one New Englander to California (although Banks’s characters head for Florida).

"Wade liked the way the river looked in the new snow and milky early morning light. That is a tourist’s idea of New Hampshire, he thought, with pine trees drooping over the water and snarls of icicle-laden birches dumped at the edges of eddies and pools, with large snow-covered boulders in the middle of the stream and dark-green water churning, swirling and splashing past and over them, raising a thick white crust of ice at the crest marks.

"By the first week of October, whole long gray days passed without the temperature’s rising above freezing, while the leaves, their colors dulled by the cold, tumbled from the trees and swirled in the autumn winds, and stalks and reeds clattered in the icy clasp of the marshes and ponds, and animals drew into their caves for a six months’ sleep.

"When the snows do come, it is as natural and as inescapable and in some sense as welcome as gravity. Starting long after midnight, a dear starry sky with a sickle of moon in the southeast fills slowly with low dark gray clouds, until the sky is covered from horizon to horizon and all the light seems to have been wiped from the valley, every dot of it, every pale reflection, every memory. The first scattered flakes drift almost accidentally down, as if spilled while carted by a high wind to somewhere east of here, to the Maritimes or New Brunswick: a single hard dry flake, then several more, then a hundred, a thousand, too many to be seen as separate from one another anymore: until at last the snow is falling over the valley and the hills and lakes like a lacy soft eiderdown billowing out and settling over the entire region, covering the trees, the rocks and ridges, the old stone walls, the fields and meadows behind the houses in town and out along Route 29, the roofs of the houses, bams and trailers, the tops of cars and trucks the roads, lanes, driveways and parking lots: covering and transforming everything in the last few moments of the night, so that when at dawn the day and the month truly begin, winter too will have arrived, returned, seeming never to have left_

"The snow was coming down with fury, in white fists, and as he drove slowly through the stuff, Wade thought, I can’t stand it anymore."

Mark Helprin’s stories and novels’ surfaces glitter and shimmer and shine with snow and ice. Perhaps no living writer, in English, does as well with plays of light over snow. In the prologue to Winter's Tale, he describes snow falling on New York City.

"But the city is now obscured, as it often is, by the whitened mass in which it rests — rushing by us at unfathomable speed, crackling like wind in the mist, cold to the touch, glistening and unfolding, tumbling over itself like the steam of an engine or cotton spilling from a bale. Though the blinding white web of ceaseless sound flows past mercilessly, the curtain is breaking ... it reveals amid the clouds a lake of air as smooth and dear as a mirror, the deep round eye of a white hurricane.

"No Renaissance engine belching fire or hurtling stone could keep pace with even one white clap of a New York winter, and winter there clapped as endlessly as a paddlewheel on one of the big white boats slapping across the lake in seasons gone by. Battalions of arctic clouds droned down from the north to bomb the state with snow, to bleach it as white as young ivory, to mortar it with frost that would last from September to May."

A New York City friend who tells me she bought Singapore: a Novel of the Bronx by Joe Bernardini because she could not resist a novel about the Bronx written by someone named Joe Bernardini, pointed out to me Bernardini’s snow scene as an example of nonromanticized urban snow:

"In all fairness to the Bronx, snow is greeted with great cheers of delight. The smiles and laughter of this otherwise grim borough are few and far between, and I’d be remiss in not mentioning them when they do occur. The snowball fights we used to have in the lot constituted the happiest moments of my youth. I was deadly with a snowball. Single-handed I’d rout Leon and his cohorts from their hiding places and send them scurrying into the building. Then, anticipating their taunts from the hallway windows, my snowballs would find the enemy as soon as their startled heads appeared. I recall throwing a snowball that landed wide of the mark. It struck the window of a recluse who was forever sitting with his nose pressed against the pane. He appeared to be staring straight at me, there was no way possible for him to overlook the snowball, and yet as the snowball approached and then struck his window he didn’t budge an inch. Frightened out of my wits, I ran all the way up to Bainbridge and returned hours later when it was dark.

"The light from the street lamp illumined his window and I saw that a piece of cardboard had been wedged against the opening and above the cardboard I was even able to make out the man’s forehead and a few wisps of hair. He was sitting there with his nose pressed agpinst the cardboard. Do you understand? Snow was falling on the Bronx. For several hours a clean, white blanket would cover the grime. Then dogs would yellow it with their pee and boots would riddle it with holes and soot belched from the incinerators would settle on its surface and it would turn to slush, and in contrast to the few white patches that remained, the Bronx would appear even grimier than before. So snow meant nothing to him. It was still the Bronx."

For one more piece of gritty city snow, there is this from the collection of short stories Between C & D, New Writing from the Lower East Side Fiction Magazine, “The Fedora” by Catherine Texier:

"Tonight I will look at the window and from the shapes of the steps in the snow I will try to guess who has been walking on the sidewalk. Then I see him. His collar is turned up, his hat pushed down, his shoulders even more hunched than usual, his whole body contracted by bitter wind. His face is drowned in shadow, but his figure is clearly delineated against the pearl glimmer of the snow, the fedora smartly creased in the middle, it’s outline sharper and sharper as he walks towards my house.

"I quickly move from the window and wait. I think, he wouldn’t dare. But he does. Like a syncopated note I dropped against the beat my buzzer rings. Once. Twice. A long interval, then a third time. And I sit, frozen, lis-(cning to the shrill, persistent pitch of the doorbell in the cold, abstract silence."

Reading Katherine Mansfield’s journal entry for December 28, 1914, with its expanding exterior vision covered over with white, white, white, white, white heightens one’s awareness of snow’s potential as dramatic medium.

"Snow has fallen, and everything is white.... I love to close my eyes a moment and think of the land outside, white under the mingled snow and moonlight — white trees, white fields — the heaps of stones by the roadside white — snow in the furrows."

Snow passages in fiction and poetry are splendid opportunities for writers to set up dazzling pictorial contrasts. Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer offers this:

"He switched off all the lights. Because of the snow and the reflection of the city in the i clouds, it was light in all the j rooms, a nocturnal light that made the objects in the rooms all the darker."

In another example of this use of snow for effects of visual contrast there is in Kawabata’s novel a paragraph in which his emotionally frozen male character watches a geisha as she looks at herself in a mirror that reflects both her face and the snow outside the window.

"The white in the depths of the mirror was the snow, and 1 floating in the middle of it were the woman’s bright red cheeks.

An early scene in Banks' Affliction, a deer hunt, is another passage in which snow’s whiteness and purity is used as a graphic contrast medium.

"Slugs, pellets, balls made of aluminum lead, steel, rip into the body of the deer, crash through bone, penetrate and smash organs, rend muscle and sinew, Blood splashes into the air across tree bark, stone onto smooth white blankets of snow where scarlet fades quickly to pink. Black tongue lolls over blooded teeth, as if the mouth were a carnivore’s;: huge brown eyes roll back, glassed over, opaque and dry, blood trickles from carbon-black nostrils, shit spits steaming into the snow, urine, entrails, blood, mucous spill from the animal's body as heavy-booted hunters rush across the frozen snow-covered ground to claim the kill."

Perhaps precisely because snow offers such a canvas on which to draw contrasts, mysteries, suspense, thriller, and horror, writers show a fondness for wintry settings. Offhand, there come to mind: Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman, Chesterton’s "Invisible Man,” Michael Innis's Appleby’s End, Jonathan Valin's Fire Lake, Peter Straiub's Ghost Story, and closer to home Chandler’s Lady of the Lake

Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park provides particular examples of the use of backdrop for violence. From the first pages, Gorky Park snowy death scenes, ice glimmer in the air, a chief investigator for the People's Militia, Arkady Renko, strides through the snow “to the telltale humps in the center of a clearing.

"There were three bodies, ...They lay peacefully, even artfully, under their thawing crust of ice, the center one on its back, hands folded as if for a religious funeral, the other two turned, arms out under the ice like flanking emblems on embossed writing paper. They were wearing ice skates."

Toward Gorky Park's end, a corpse is found (whose corpse it is I won’t tell you in case you haven’t read the book and want to).

"Snow had settled deep on his shoulders and hat and in the cuff of his upraised hand. Stretched out dead in the snow at his feet were two lar^ge gray dnjp. Arkady noticed that what protruded in a bundle from_’s open coat were his entrails, pulled out and covered with snow. Snow obscured the two pink holes over his breasts. His face was totally white....

"Arkady noticed that no more snow was filling not a flake drifted down, not even from the over-heavy branches. There was a ceramic clarity to the scene."

In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway’s Harry, a writer, is in Africa in “a pleasant camp under big trees against a hill, with good water.” He’d gotten a scratch on his leg. He forgot to put iodine on the scratch. The leg has become gangrenous. Lying on a canvas cot at the edge of the bush, Harry looks across “the heat shimmer of the plain.” He knows he’s going to die. “Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.”

Snow was one of the things he’d saved to write, and Hemingway gives Harry a seven-para-graph riff that’s about the best snow anybody’s written. Paragraph three:

"In Schrunz, on Christmas day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the weinstube and saw every one coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hills, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran that great run down the glacier above the Madlener-haus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird.

In Nelson Algren’s Notes from a Sea Diary, or, Hemingway All the Way, Algren inveighed against critics who described Hemingways’s writing as “baby talk.” So that after I read snow paragraphs from Kilimanjaro, I am always tempted to echo the outburst Algren directed against those critics: “Call that baby talk!”

When I ask people what in literature they remember for its snow scenes, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is spoken of, and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, Peter Matthiesen’s The Snow Leopard, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, O.L Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, and always Jack London. Not a few readers are reminded of Conrad Aiken’s haunting story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in which the snow is imaginary, the vision of a young boy’s disturbed mind. But almost no one doesn’t mention the conclusion of “The Dead,” the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners.

"Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was filling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, filling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furry lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and all the dead."

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

San Diego Asian Film Festival 2021 sampler

Reviews of Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, Inside the Red Brick Wall, and Islands
Next Article

The dine-in ghost kitchens of Barrio Food Hub

Dozens of virtual brands operate in a single building, and it has a parklet
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close