Friday 9 April 2010

Something ugly and impossible to love

Reading John Nathan's biography of Yukio Mishima really put me off and so it's been a long time since I've read any of Mishima's works. Nathan's book made Mishima's spiritual flights of fancy seem rather more shabby and base than the author would probably have liked; it also effectively destroyed my pleasure in his work. I've been, as the result, both hesitant and unable to return to Mishima until recently.

I finally broke the deadlock, however, and read his 1953 novel Forbidden Colors (translated into English in 1968). This novel is rather a brave bit of literary business, telling as it does the story of what it means to be a young gay man in post-war Japan. And it's not told from any "safe" distance - the narrator reveals insights and experience with the hidden world he explores in such great detail, and with such a discomfiting mixture of revulsion and desire, that it's hard to imagine that these insights weren't directly Mishima's. Originality and an utter lack of fear have, for me, always made Mishima's works something approaching perfection.

With this novel as with all others (except maybe Thirst for Love, actually), Mishima goes places through his writing - bodily, metaphysically, intellectually - that no other writer I've encountered goes. Because of this, it was a joy to return to his unique and sometimes only half comprehensible, but always interesting, world. Reading Mishima's novels is to glimpse a world of literature that exists nowhere else, one that constantly upsets linear thinking processes; to do this with a linear narrative is both startling and what makes his work so important. Well, part of what makes it important. Perhaps if Nathan had focused more on Mishima's literary legacy and less on his personal life, I wouldn't find myself engaging so much with a merely adequately written biography of a brilliant writer instead of only with the brilliant writer.

In any case, I clearly haven't been completely able to get that Nathan-induced rot out of my brain, for even as I enjoyed large portions of Forbidden Colors, I couldn't help but feeling that the sorts of things that to used to fill me with unmitigated awe were really rather contrived. When Mishima wrote about the dry and dusty soul of one of the book's primary characters - the old and venerated author Shunsuke - I couldn't help but notice how similar were the shortcomings the narrator blamed him for to the things about Mishima himself that I used to become so happily bewildered by. It may be that I just wasn't as thoroughly impressed by Forbidden Colors as I was by the Sea of Fertility tetralogy or Confessions of a Mask, but I honestly am not certain.

I will, of course, try again - I have After the Banquet and The Sound of Waves sitting in my collection, and the latter was very difficult to find. But it may be some time before Mishima and I meet again.


Unknown said...

Don't give up on him just yet! Sometimes, reading about the author can be a little disappointing; it's often best just to enjoy the books with only the basic background bio.

I read this one last year (review in the usual place), and I liked it enough to move on to 'Spring Snow' - and the rest, as they say, is history ;)

Bookphilia said...

Tony: Oh, I won't. I really *want* to re-establish an entirely positive relationship with his stuff. I'll probably read After the Banquet next (well, next of Mishima's, not in general).