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on July 10, 2011
This, the first book of author Mishima's Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, is a very curious one to read or to attempt to review. Most of the other reviewers here focus on Mishima's life and even more notorious - or perhaps, marvellous, depending on how one views it - death and the author's social/political beliefs which are rather blatant in this book, or so it seemed to me; otherwise, they turn completely to the "love story" here. All point to what a great novelist Mishima is and what a profound novel he has penned here.
Sorry, I just don't see it. The problem is that there is no real "story". Indeed, a ponderous stasis hangs over the work and the protagonist's, Kiyoaki's, love life and all life in general. What the book IS then is a philosophical treatise presented as a sort of puppet show in which the characters, particularly Kiyoaki, come to represent certain viewpoints on life which end up being, mutatis mutandis, the same perspective. Kiyoaki's world is his dream world, which he regards, to the end of the book, as the most important part of his life to which everything in the physical realm pales in comparison. Consistent with this perspective, he keeps a dream diary rather than a diary, though as is maddeningly commonplace in novels of this sort (Laurence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is the most absurd example of this contrived lacuna), we readers are never given a glance into it. Rather, what we are given in Chapter 6 of this novel/treatise is the primary thesis:
"For everything sacred has the substance of dreams and memories, and so we experience the memory of what is separated from us by time or distance suddenly being made tangible. Dreams, memories, the sacred - they are all alike in that they are all beyond our grasp. Once we are even marginally separated from what we can touch, the object is sanctified; it acquires the beauty of the unattainable, the quality of the miraculous. Everything, really, has this quality of sacredness, but we can desecrate it at a touch. How strange man is! His touch defiles and yet he contains the source of miracles."
This citation is on p.43 of my edition, and it comes as no surprise on p.267, after Kiyoaki's earthly adoration of Satoko has fallen apart, to hear Honda astutely diagnosing his friend's predicament:
"From the very beginning you've been bewitched by an IMPOSSIBILITY - something which is outside the scope of authority and money. You were drawn in because the whole thing was impossible. Am I wrong? And if it became possible for you now, would it have any value for you?"
And, it is also completely consistent and comes as no surprise that Kiyoaki's ultimate reflection on his love is:
"He was only concerned with when the two of them could meet without anxiety, as freely as they liked, regardless of anyone else. And he feared that by now it could only happen in some place beyond this world, and only when this world had been destroyed."
This is the logical conclusion of the Romantic Weltanschauung, as others have pointed out as regards Mishima and this book, one with which I deeply sympathise and which has led to some of the greatest English poetry (q.v. Shelley) and even novels (q.v. Wuthering Heights) ever written. But it doesn't lead to it here, simply because, as stated earlier, the book simply doesn't possess the architectonics of a novel, with engrossing characters, vivid descriptions which imprint themselves on the reader, lively language, the element of surprise or even haunting scenes.
Chapter after chapter even unto the tragic end leave one sighing to oneself, "Yes, this is all rather to be expected." It seems that many readers have convinced themselves that the one prerequisite for great literature is that it be languid and boring, as this novel is, whilst the opposite is the case: Great literature is writing which utterly transforms your world in the most exciting manner imaginable, as Proust, to whom Mishima is often - for some reason - compared, does.
Interesting philosophy. Boring novel.