~written by Yukio Mishima
~translated by Michael Gallagher
I don't remember exactly how I first came across Yukio Mishima's The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, but I think it may have been when I was looking into the Japanese works that Michael Gallagher had translated. I've recently developed an immense interest in Japanese literature and Mishima is widely considered to be an important author and so I felt his books would probably make a decent starting point; The Sea of Fertility is often mentioned as his masterpiece and I was able to find a complete set in good condition at one of my favorite used bookstores, so I decided to start there. It was only after I started reading the first book in the sequence, Spring Snow, that I realized I actually knew who Mishima was--just not by name. At one point, a cousin was either reading one of Mishima's books or one of his biographies and happened to mention Mishima's death in 1970 by seppuku; this apparently stuck with me to some extent.
Kiyoaki Matsugae is the only son of a samurai family that has recently risen in economic if not social status. His father is now the Marquis and his grandfather, now dead, continues to be revered. Kiyoaki himself is somewhat a disappointment and is not well liked by his peers--who find him to be too arrogant, decadent, and melancholy--except for his closest friend Shigekuni Honda. Satoko Ayakura is the only daughter of a noble family in decline. She and Kiyoaki were raised almost as siblings so that he might gain something of culture and experience at court. Kiyoaki knows that Satoko has had a crush on him for years, but he feigns indifference while in reality she has quite and effect on him. He is slow to realize that he has fallen in love with Satoko, but when he does he feels compelled to act upon his desires, despite any repercussions they might bring.
Most of the novel takes place during the beginning of the Taishō era (which lasted from 1912 to 1926), a time period that I knew nothing about before reading Spring Snow. Mishima captures the feel of the time magnificently and shows the turmoil surrounding the increase in Westernization and the changing of Japanese society's mores and social and power structures. A lot of detail is given to the setting, and while this doesn't necessarily serve to advance the plot, it provides important background information. Often what initially seem like tangents are tied back into the novel later on in such a skillful and sometimes surprising way that I was duly impressed. I didn't find the story itself to be particularly original, I've read plenty about doomed love, but I did find Spring Snow to be beautifully presented with a multitude of layers to it.
I enjoyed Spring Snow immensely. Gallagher's translation is very well done (at least as far as I can tell), although some readers might find it to be overly formal. On the other hand, I particularly liked the style, finding it to be elegant, sensual, and evocative. However, I can't say that I particularly liked Kiyoaki--at least as a person. As a character he was fantastic and even managed to be somewhat sympathetic despite being so self-absorbed and generally unlikeable; he certainly made for a convincing teenager. Despite being the first volume in a four part cycle, Spring Snow stands on its own remarkably well even though the set-up for the subsequent novels is definitely there. I am very much looking forward to reading the next volume, Runaway Horses.