The novel tells of an artist who retreats to the mountains, where he stays at a remote, almost deserted hotel. There he becomes intrigued by the mysterious hostess, O-Nami, who reminds him of the John Millais painting Ophelia.
Ostensibly looking for subjects to paint, the artist makes only a few sketches, but instead writes poetry. This poetry is inserted into a text that consists of scenes from the artist’s reclusive life and essay-like meditations on art and the artist’s position in society. In these musings, the artist quotes and mentions a variety of Japanese, Chinese and European painters, poets and novelists.