Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Thoughts on Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow

Right-ho, I’ve just finished Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, and if I'm going to begin commenting on what I read, this seems like a sensible place to start. It’s a Japanese novel written in the 1960s, bound up with conflicts between tradition and change in Japan in the 1910s. It’s slow, gentle, delicate, detailed and packed with symbolism and metaphor. Oh, and there’s loads of scenery. I mean it: don’t read this if you have a morbid fear of trees. 


At the heart of the tale is the love affair beween Kiyoaki, son of a rising, new-money family, and Satoko, daughter of more retro parents, with a fiercely traditional attitude and fading levels of cash. The progress of the story is fairly irrelevant: you can probably work out the main structure of the plot from this one-sentence description, with some mild uncertainty about whether anyone will snuff it at the end. The novel is aware of this, and moves in circles around the affair, pursuing servants, families and friends as much as the protagonists. 

I think on the whole I liked this approach: true, it reduced the emotional impact of the central story, but there are some fascinatingly flawed side characters who deserve the detail lavished upon them. The two servants, Tadeshina and Iinuma, and the two Siamese princes, are all elaborately constructed and entirely convincing, but sadly none of them are treated to proper conclusions - they just vanish from the narrative (possibly because this is the first book in a series of four). 

More important than these four is Honda, Kiyoaki’s best friend. He’s the intellectual heart of the novel, as he reflects on the philosophical, religious and legal ideas he bumps into as he struggles through his last years at school. Partly he’s an obvious opposite to Kiyoaki (one emotion, one logic, blah blah), but the characteristics they share are subtly expressed (they’re both withdrawn, and prone to massive bouts of introspection that, if I’m honest, are sometimes quite wearisome. There were times when I wanted to give Kiyoaki a good slap), so their friendship, while nearly always described in the thoughts of one character at a time rather than shown in dialogue, feels convincing. 

The lack of dialogue and direct activity is pretty gosh-darn noticeable. Anyone would think the quotation mark button had fallen off our Mishima's typewriter. The narrative is perfectly happy to describe somebody’s mental state and character, but not necessarily to demonstrate it. One of the cheesy bits of advice given to anyone who wants to have a pop at writing is ‘show, don’t tell’, and anyone who clings to that will despise the way this is written. In recent years I’ve mostly been reading modern Anglophone novels, so I’m used to much more dialogue, much more action, and being left to interpret motivation for myself rather than being told it directly (this sounds like a loopy sweeping statement, but it makes sense as a comparison to the way Spring Snow is written). 

This isn’t a criticism. None of the characters have any release from their internal conflicts: they are all forced into loneliness by the way their society works. Sometimes this is physical and literal isolation (the princes at school, the convent, Tadeshina’s sick room), but often it is a mental barrier – an unwillingness to expose true thoughts because damnit, that’s not the done thing. The most obvious comparison for me was The Remains of the Day (and Kazuo Ishiguro, as if it's not obvious from the name, has a Japanese family, even if he has lived in Britain since the age of six): a fiercely constrained society with no emotional outlets, in the middle of massive cultural change (Westernisation in Spring Snow, the Second World War in The Remains of the Day). With this background, it makes perfect sense for Spring Snow to focus so much on the characters’ minds rather than their actions.

As mentioned, it’s not all internal description: there’s all that scenery, too. Even in translation the prose appeals to me greatly: it ebbs and flows, and revels in its descriptions. The elaborate metaphors are actually useful rather than the author showing off. They’re often used to show how Kiyoaki looks at the world and sees it reflecting his own woes. There are striking scenes in gardens and lakes, and there’s plenty of blossoming of trees and ripening of fruit, just as the lovers settle down to their own ripening and blooming, nudge nudge, wink wink. 

Okay, that doesn’t sound subtle, but it works because the weather, flora and fauna are the setting: there is almost no urban activity. The only exception is a wonderful scene near the end, and I’m afraid this will be a little spoilertastic, where Kiyoaki finally sets out on his own to track down Satoko, who has sequestered herself in a convent. Just as Kiyoaki is about to walk away from his private school, we finally see the city: smokestacks, factories, barbed wire. This is the modern world that the aristocracy have been pretending they aren’t part of. Then Kiyoaki says goodbye to Honda. He doesn’t give an extravagant speech, but simply says ‘Well, I’ll be seeing you.’ Rebellion in action accompanied by rebellion in speech. Score. 

They key word throughout is ‘elegance’, applied constantly to Kiyoaki and Satoko’s pa, the Count. The word is both a compliment and a criticism, and the novel withholds judgment. Sometimes it leads to both beautiful, measured manners, and an occasionally attractive, almost heroic, self-denial and restraint (the elegant Count is much more sympathetic than the furious, interfering Marquis). However, at other times it leads to paralysis – an unwillingness or inability to act that dooms Kiyoaki and will probably ruin the Count’s family. The vigorous western lifestyle of the Marquis gets things done, and it is the only thing that comes close to saving anyone, but it is also demanding and aggressive. 

Having said that the novel withholds judgment, I think it comes down on the side of elegance, not because of the values its characters espouse, but because of the way it’s written and structured. The novel’s story is a product of the beautiful but crippling effects of elegant behaviour, and it is told in a similar way: slow, restrained and careful.

Speaking of restraint, I need to learn some: this ended up being much longer than I anticipated, probably because the novel blossoms when you let your mind rest upon it. I like it more now I’ve written this than I did when I read the final page. Spring Snow is not a rip-roaring read (and it isn’t meant to be), but it struck me as magnificently suited to study and contemplation. Part of me would enjoy re-reading it and tearing apart all the layers of metaphor, digging in to the philosophical background (there’s some complicated stuff about Buddhism in there which went right over my head, but this is turned around on one occasion when the character the lecture is pointed at ignores most of it, too). Another part of me would rather pick up the next book on my shelf. And that chunk of my brain is winning. 

Overall, I can’t decide quite how much I liked Spring Snow. It’s brilliant in places, and there are some truely lovely passages (the idyllic scenes by the beach-house, the boating trip, Kiyoaki’s departure, the last journey to the temple near the end of the book). However, it did leave me slightly cold, whereas I was hoping and expecting to be left in tears at the cruelty of the world and the societies we construct within it. Some of this might be due to the book being the start of a series, so since I have absolutely no knowledge of where the remaining three books go I am probably missing the point at least a little. 

Oh well, that turned into a review after all, didn’t it? Damn, blast and buggery. I'm learning, alright?

ADDITION:

I'm also trying to learn about how to interact on this internet thingumy, so here are some links:

Shawn Rider - interesting social background. Looks at the characters as representatives of facets of East and West.

The Notes Taken - witty, concise and recent view of the book with a bit of insight into the rest of the series. Note to self: be more like this, next time.

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