Because I apparently hadn’t gotten enough stifling interiority reading The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, I thought I would follow up with Mishima’s 1950 novel, Thirst for Love. Etsuko, a Tokyo widow who has moved to the countryside to live at her in-laws’ villa, loves a servant boy from afar as she carries on an affair with her dead husband’s father; she is thirsty for love.
Etsuko is a dark woman, rather placid on the outside but deeply and violently emotional. Before her husband died, he cheated on her regularly; eventually she tried to poison herself, and planned to attempt it again just before he fell ill. She finds strange new power in his illness and assumes a very introspective widowly existence.
Earlier she had wished to die with her husband—the death of an Indian widow. It was an occult thing, that sacrificial death she dreamed of, a suicide proffered not so much in mourning for her husband’s death as in envy of that death. What she desired was not any common, ordinary death, but a slow death, over a protracted period of time.
It’s easy to imagine Etsuko actually committing such an act. Later, in a state of desperation, she holds her hand to a bonfire long enough to cause serious burns to her palm. She is addicted to her turbulent emotions, with “a thirst that ate at her as if it were duty—a thirst like that of the drunk who, fearing that if he takes another swig he will become sick, lifts the bottle again.” By the end of the novel, her worst fear is that, after admitting her wrongdoing to her beloved gardener, rather than having to “endure his recriminations,” she would be pardoned. “And that would be the end of it all—of the pain I have anticipated, of my wild dreams, of my joyful annihilation.”
And what of this gardener, Saburo? He could hardly be more different. He speaks with Etsuko like they have no language in common, attempting to quickly decipher what she is saying and parrot back what he thinks she wants to hear. And his experience of love is light and free compared with Etsuko’s crippling load of emotion. He’s sick of her saying the word over and over again, love.
He could not think of it as representing anything more than a completely unnecessary concept.
He found no room in his life fitted out for this word as a daily necessity, as something for which he would at times place his life in the balance. It was difficult for him even to imagine it. And the stupidity that leads some owners of such a room to burn the whole house down in order to rid themselves of it was to him utterly ridiculous.
Etsuko’s actions—because she is most certainly an arsonist—may well be ridiculous, but Saburo makes a mistake of his own. Whether it’s a necessary concept for him or not, love is real enough for Etsuko to affect his life as well. His hubris at his own superiority of unemotion does not save him from the ravages of the same thirst.
I’m starting to warm up to this stuff. What do we think, Sea of Fertility trilogy on the horizon? Or something else of his? (Already read: The Sound of Waves, Spring Snow, The Sailor Who Fell… and “Patriotism.”)