A few years ago I ran across Yasunari 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 fifteen 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 I 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 no win 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 I want North American snow, I turn first to books set in the Midwest and then to 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 to 1889 traveled with her family by covered wagon through Kansas, Minnesota, and Dakota Territory. A section from Wilder's The Long Winter furnished 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, which has as its landscape the author's childhood home in Nebraska.
The first snowfall came early in December. I remember how the world looked from our sitting-room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning: the low sky war 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 some 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: "Thes 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."
Mark Helprin's stories' and novels' surfaces glitter 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. Through 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 clear 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 couldn't resist a novel about the Bronx written by someone named Joe Bernardini, pointed out to me Bernardini's snow scene as an example of non-romanticized 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 is cohorts from their hiding places and send them scurrying into he 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 against 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 it 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.
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 clouds, it was lightin all the 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 floating in the middle of it were the woman's bright red cheeks.
An early scene in Banks's Affliction , a deer hunt, is another of 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 swiftly 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, mucus 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, mystery, suspense, thriller, and horror writers show a fondness for wintry settings. Offhand, these come to mind: Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Ngaio Marsh's Death and the Dancing Footman, Chesterton's The Invisible Man, Michael Innes's Appleby's End, Fire Lake, Juris Jurjevics's The Trudeau Vector, Peter Straub's Ghost Story, and closer to home, Chandler's The Lady in the Lake. Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park provides particularly vivid examples of the use of snow as a backdrop for violence. From the first pages Gorky Park provides snowy death scenes. As bits of ice glimmer in the air, a chief investigator for the People's Militia, Arkady Renko, strides through 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.
Towards Gorky Park 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 large gray dogs. 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 falling; not a flame 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 save 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-paragraph 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 rundown 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 Hemingway's writing as "baby talk." So that after I read snow paragraphs from
In 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.E. Rolvag'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 falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling 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 church yardon the hill where Michael Furey 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.