Sunday 24 August 2008
Consumed by his own brilliance
Literary biography is a genre which has generally been quite foreign to me, except in relation to my graduate work. For the most part, I don't feel the need to learn much about the authors I enjoy; however, I've found Yukio Mishima's novels and short fiction so simultaneously brilliant and insane that I decided I wanted to know more about what made him tick. His work was truly unique, in my experience.
My research into the matter indicated that John Nathan's Mishima: A Biography, written only 4 years after Mishima's sensational and lurid public suicide, is considered the definitive biography on the man. After months of searching, I finally received it on order from This Ain't the Rosedale Library.
Well, my desire to find out more about Mishima was fulfilled but honestly, I wish that it hadn't been. This was not an enjoyable book. The writing was just fine but in no way notable and Nathan's constant harping on Mishima's "latent homosexuality" as the cause of pretty much everything in the novelist's life was irritating; in fact, it made me wonder if the self-identified straight Nathan was somehow either threatened or overwhelmed by Mishima's intense sexuality (as many people seem to have been, men and women alike). The point is, Nathan's reliance on "template criticism" (i.e., come up with a thesis and make everything fit into it, comfortably or not) made me wonder if I could completely trust anything he wrote about the deceased author.
If, however, what Nathan revealed about Mishima's character was either true or close enough to true, then I think I might not be able to enjoy his fiction as much in the future as I have in the past. Based on this portrait, it seems as though Mishima was not only a self-obsessed egomaniac with zero self-esteem but was also given to coldly "researching" his work, no matter what that meant (short of killing people): apparently, the horrifying kitten-killing scene in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea was so detailed because Mishima did something similar himself - his explanation being he couldn't describe something he hadn't experienced.
The most gratifying parts of this book were the points at which Nathan quoted parts of Mishima novels that haven't so far been translated into English. I still found myself being drawn into Mishima's beautiful madness but with more and more resistance as Nathan continued to unfold the extent of Mishima's destructive and unlikable self-involvement.
In spite of my dislike both of Nathan's approach and what he said about Mishima, I'll still read the novels I haven't yet gotten to. I'll also read the Henry Scott Stokes' biography of Mishima I picked up a couple of months ago, if only to get some perspective on Nathan's biases about the man. Nonetheless, I think the love affair (purely platonic; Mishima was no David Mitchell) is probably over.