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Monday, March 21, 2022


“Snow Country” is a story of love and doubt set between the world wars that stands as a fully-realized and beautiful work on its own and in spite of the existential themes that it ultimately seeks to explore. (Review by Tina le Roux)

Snow Country is written by British author Sebastian Faulks and is the second novel in his Austrian trilogy. Snow Country is a story of love and doubt set between the world wars that stands as a fully-realized and beautiful work on its own and in spite of the existential themes that it ultimately seeks to explore.

Snow Country begins in 1914. It tells the story of Lena, a girl born with nothing but her own strength of character to an alcoholic mother in a small town in southern Austria in 1906 and Anton, the restless son of a bourgeois family who sets out to make his fortune in pre-First World War Vienna. 

Anton arrives in Vienna, eager to make his name as an aspiring journalist. While working part-time as a tutor, he encounters Delphine – a woman (several years his senior) who mixes startling candour with deep reserve. Anton is immediately entranced by the light of first love and considers himself blessed. When war breaks out, however, he is in Paris and Delphine is suddenly the “enemy” simply because of geography and the disparate madness of war.

Jumping forward to 1927: the story of Lena develops: We learn that she grew up in small-town Carinthia, the sixth child of a drunk and chaotic mother and the only one not to be given up at birth to the local orphanage. Lena is torn between her hunger for love and her determination to take control of her own life. She is disappointed: first by her father and is convinced that she can amount to nothing until a young idealistic lawyer (Rudolf Plischke) spirits her away to Vienna.

But the Capital proves unforgiving for her. She ultimately leaves her metropolitan dream behind to take up a menial job at the Schloss Seeblick Sanatorium, where her mother once worked as a cleaner.

Jumping forward to 1933, we catch up with Anton, who has been commissioned to write a magazine article about “where psychological medicine stands today”. He travels to the Schloss sanitorium. Here he discovers that much has changed since 1914. Both politically and economically, Austria is in turmoil.

The clinic, now run by Martha, has been forced to sell its mountain-top premises and is once again housed in the old sanatorium by the lake. The clinic’s lofty ambitions have also been brought down to earth. The carnage of the first world war has destroyed the old certainties. What Martha calls “the great age of belief” in the medicine of the mind is over: Anton dismisses the early ambitions of the clinic as a “well-intentioned but fatal overreaching; or, if you were of a religious bent, a doomed attempt to see into the mind of God”.

And yet, for all his skepticism, he finds comfort there. His wartime experiences have left him deeply scarred. The Schloss, he admits, holds out “possibilities for change”. In this place of healing, on the banks of a silvery lake, where the depths of human suffering and the chances of redemption are explored, two people see each other as if for the first time.

Snow Country, like the turbulent interwar years in which it is set, is a love story that investigates and at the same time, doubts the very nature of love itself. It is an exploration of the redemptive capacity of psychiatry. It grapples with the possibility that the self might not be real but only the “flickering wave of some electromagnetic field”.

At the Schloss, Anton finds himself increasingly preoccupied with the unsettling idea, that all human existence consists of a single consciousness, every individual so unsatisfactorily differentiated from any other that everyone is caught in “some loop of eternal return”, condemned to fail and to suffer the torments of those failings in the same way over and over again.

If this sounds bleak, it is surely Faulks’s intention. As he acknowledges in an afterword, the title Snow Country is a homage to Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s 1935 novella of the same name, published in English in 1956. Faulks even borrows Kawabata’s famous first line to describe Lena’s arrival at the Schloss: “The train came out of a long tunnel into snowfields.” And yet, while Kawabata’s desolately beautiful story about a love affair doomed from the outset seems almost to exalt in its sadness, Faulks’s Snow Country allows room for hope.

The answer, he seems to say, lies neither in grand theories of psychiatry nor indeed in the great tradition of romantic love, but in the present-tense accretion of small joys and kindnesses that make up a life.

Anton may “have a low opinion of the human creature, the male in particular”, but he is capable of deep friendship and his love for Delphine is true. The impulsive Lena has little education and, like her mother, a weakness for alcohol, but she possesses a fierce and loyal heart. Ultimately, damage and trauma cannot be undone, but it is possible to reach an approximate understanding of oneself and to find solace, even love, amid the world’s uncertainties.

It is a conclusion that offers reassurance finally.  And although bleak in places, it is a beautifully emotive and detailed novel that has inspired me to follow Sebastian Faulks as an author.

Snow Country is published by Penguin. – Tina le Roux