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.”)
Consider the subtitle of this post: “Attempting to understand Mishima, part IV of ?”
If you thought the last thing I read by him was, oh, I don’t know, creepy, violent, weird, unpleasant, crazy, unsettling…The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is probably even more so. Fusako is a youngish widow who runs a fancy men’s clothing store in Yokohama. She lives with her young teenage son Noboru, who spends much of his free time with a group of boys his own age with a very particular life philosophy who enjoy killing and dissecting cats. Noboru is also very interested in ships, and when Fusako arranges to take him on a tour of one docked in the harbor she meets its second mate, Ryuji, and the two begin dating.
The novel opens with Noboru being locked in his room for the night, a precaution Fusako has taken ever since he was caught sneaking out (probably to kill and dissect another cat). But Noboru has found a secret: a peephole that allows him, if he pulls the drawers out of a built-in dresser and crawls into it, to watch his mother undressing in her room. It also allows him to watch his mother together with Ryuji the first night she brings him home, and all the ones following.
Noboru climbing into the womb of his chest of drawers to peer through a tiny hole at his mother’s sexuality; his Lord of the Flies-like club of friends; his beginning sense of wonder at Ryuji, effectively the first “real man” Noboru believes he has known; these are things I can understand, “get into” literarily. And one of Mishima’s themes is an old favorite: misunderstandings between men and women (and between adults and children, of course).
Ryuji, the first night he goes out walking with Fusako, is preoccupied with serious thoughts. “He hadn’t been able to explain his ideas of glory and death, or the longing and the melancholy pent up in his chest, or the other dark passions choking in the ocean’s swell.” Ryuji is not satisfied with a normal life; he disdains his fellow officers with families at home, who “have thrown opportunity away—there’s no hope for them any more.” Ryuji, by contrast, has
never done much, but I’ve lived my whole life thinking of myself as the only real man. And if I’m right, then a limpid, lonely horn is going to trumpet through the dawn someday, and a turgid cloud laced with light will sweep down, and the poignant voice of glory will call for me from the distance—and I’ll have to jump out of bed and set out alone. That’s why I’ve never married. I’ve waited, and waited, and here I am past thirty.
Will the reader be swept away by these delusions of grandeur, or share Fusako’s impression of the same evening, when he wasn’t articulate enough to explain those delusions fully?
And what a simple man he was! Their conversation in the park the night before was proof of that. First he had misled her with his pensive look into expecting profound observations or even a passionate declaration, and then he had begun a monologue on shreds of green leaf, and prattled about his personal history, and finally, horribly entangled in his own story, burst into the refrain of a popular song!
Noboru, though, senses about the glory and death. But when Ryuji decides to marry his mother, Noboru cannot forgive this crime against the glory of man. He and his friends decide the sailor is now irredeemable, or rather, can be redeemed in only one way. I’ll let you guess how, based on their pre-serial-killer behavior thus far.
On the fateful afternoon, Ryuji visits with the teenage clan. Noboru has invited him to tell them stories of the sea, and he does. But he becomes melancholy as he realizes what he’s done—you see, ultimately he agrees with Noboru.
Whenever he dreamed of them, glory and death and woman were consubstantial. Yet when the woman had been attained, the other two withdrew beyond the offing and ceased their mournful wailing of his name. The things he had rejected were now rejecting him.
Ah, glory and death and woman, Mishima all over. Is this just a cry of despair? I can understand cries of despair, and get behind them. And I suppose it only makes sense for an artist to concern himself in his art with something that concerned him in life, but again, I must be careful to guard against thinking too much of the man behind the curtain.
And despite my misgivings I do believe I will be reading more of him. His writing is beautiful. Here, my favorite passage from John Nathan’s translation, describes Ryuji’s ship as it leaves Yokohama harbor.
The Rakuyo was transformed into an illusory phantom as angles altered from one instant to the next. Gradually, as the stern was towed farther out into the harbor, the long ship folded like a paneled screen while the superstructure on deck overlapped, piled into impacted tiers, and, trapping sunlight in every pocket and dent, soared skyward like a shining pagoda of steel. But the effect was only momentary. Now the tug began to circle back in order to face the prow toward open sea, and the storied tower thrusting up from the deck was dismantled; each object in order from prow to stern resumed its proper shape until finally the stern itself reappeared and a matchstick figure just recognizable as Ryuji swung back into the splendor of the setting sun.
What does Yukio Mishima think patriotism is? Well, if you know anything about his history, you can probably guess.
Knowing that, I have to say, detracted from the reading experience. It’s clear from chapter one what will happen, and I had made a pretty good guess just from the title. Scene by scene, all I could think was, is this what you did too?
That said, the actual scene-by-scene is pretty good. Seppuku is a ritual, and this story is all about ritual. Mishima makes that very clear in his structure. The first chapter, barely a page long, provides a full report of the incident from beginning to end. It’s practically a newspaper report. The date, the name, the circumstance, the location, and most importantly the clinical description:
On the twenty-eighth of February, 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 Incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion—profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops—took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private residence in the sixth block of Aoba-cho, in Yotsuya Ward. His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death.
That’s it. That’s the whole story. But after that follow some fifty more (small) pages detailing the ritual, beginning with the couple’s wedding just six months earlier. They’ve anticipated this moment since their wedding night, Reiko just as ready as her husband, and Mishima takes us through slowly and deliberately—just like the movements of the couple. The narration is impressive in its steadiness and unflinching willingness to face the details of the event.
He returned to consciousness. The blade had certainly pierced the wall of the stomach, he thought. His breathing was difficult, his chest thumped violently, and in some far deep region, which he could hardly believe was a part of himself, a fearful and excruciating pain came welling up as if the ground had split open to disgorge a boiling stream of molten rock. The pain came suddenly nearer, with terrifying speed. The lieutenant bit his lower lip and stifled an instinctive moan.
Was this seppuku—he was thinking. It was a sensation of utter chaos, as if the sky had fallen on his head and the world was reeling drunkenly. His will power and courage, which had seemed so robust before he made the incision, had now dwindled to something like a single hairlike thread of steel, and he was assailed by the uneasy feeling that he must advance along this thread, clinging to it with desperation.
Compared with that first page of clinical reportage, the rest of the story makes the reader feel he’s clinging to just that same thread of steel and being dragged along to the finish. It’s a little bit hard to face.
I loved the structure. I loved the language, the control. But it’s impossible to ignore the emotion, the patriotism, and knowing as we do exactly what the author thought of that…I couldn’t help being distracted, disturbed, intrigued, curious…in other words, distracted. But I can’t honestly say it isn’t a good story.