Mishima is one of those writers associated with bright young things, what with the philosophy, weird sex, and author’s own infamy lingering over the legend, so it’s a bit embarrassing to finally discover him for myself in my thirties. I’m not sure what I expected, but this novel did my head in, spectacularly. I can see how easily this work could be dismissed, what with it’s catnip-for-pseud’s themes – existentialism, estrangement of culture, that old chestnut about the beauty of decay, plus a central figure who is so compellingly repugnant. But the writing is utterly entrancingly beautiful, and Mishima’s commitment to his vision so total, I was deeply moved, even if I felt like a lot of it flew above my head.
The opening section reminded me of The Go-Between (aka the most perfect novel ever written), in it’s evocation of youth, but from the perspective of a dedicated outsider. The lead character, Mizoguchi, sets himself – or is set against – society, and there is a metric ton of fun themes for any amateur Freudians to pick through in his history. He enters a Zen Buddhist order following in the footsteps of his father, and also follows his father to the temple of the title: a building so beautiful that its influence on Mizoguchi grows malignant. Or, rather, he grows malignant around it, a tumour in the system.
I’m going to avoid doing a plot summary, because I don’t think it would do the book much justice and I also doubt I have the skill to encapsulate it. To pull on that fake Freudian beard again, it’s a book about many inner battles, sacrilege, and destruction. I found it as gripping as a thriller. There’s a character called Kashiwagi who reminded me of Bazarov in Fathers & Sons for sheer lyrical cynicism, and the book’s not without dry humour. The translation I read (Ivan Morris) read seamlessly.
In the introduction to the Everyman edition, Donald Keene observes that the reader shouldn’t get too bogged down with the Zen koans that reoccur throughout the novel (like the tale of ‘Nansen killing a kitten’). As a reader, I suspected that my appreciation for what I was reading was hampered by my own dullness, but I was moved to tears by the beauty of what I did take it. Maybe it’s the seasonal affectional disorder, but the sharpness of Mishima’s prose really hit home with me. So to any interested readers, I’d pass on Keene’s advice, treat the whole book as a koan.
On a far shallower note: Mish – one of the handsomest authors ever, y/y?