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Images of beauty and decay #mishima @classicpenguins #Japan

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The Frolic of the Beasts by Yukio Mishima
Translated by Andrew Clare

You might recall me getting a teeny bit over-exited on the Ramblings a while back, when I discovered that some newly-translated Mishima was about to make its debut in pretty Penguin editions. He’s an author I have a history with; as I’ve mentioned before, I went through a serious Japanese lit phase pre blog, and Mishima was something of an obsession. So naturally I picked up the Penguin Modern “Star” and the Modern Classic “The Frolic of the Beasts” as soon as they came out; but I’m having to hold back on the former as I’m reading the Moderns sequentially and it seems wrong to jump ahead… However, “Frolic…” has been sitting there on the shelf looking quizzically at me since it arrived, and as I was in Japanese literature mode recently after reading the Red Circle Minis (more of which later), the time was right for frolicking with Yukio… ;D

With a memory as rubbish as mine, and no proper record of what I read when, I’m going to be hard-pressed to say how this compares to the author’s other works. “Frolic…” is from 1961, so later-period Mishima; his first published novel was 1948, although he wrote short works before that; and he died in 1970. So by the time of “Frolic…” Mishima was an established author, and here he’s definitely at the height of his powers.

“The Frolic of the Beasts” concerns, of course, love and human relations. There are three main protagonists: Koji, a young student madly in love with the older Yuko. She, in turn, is married to the even older Ippei, a literary critic and libertine. The triangle created by these three troubled humans is a complex one, and as the book opens we see the three frozen in time, having their photograph taken by a harbour. There are references to past incidents, and hints of those to come, while Mishima nails his characters to this precise point in their history. It is no secret by the end of that opening that some of the characters are now dead; what follows is a masterly piece of storytelling as the author gradually and beautifully reveals the events which led up to that point.

She folded her parasol, asking the question in her typically sensuous voice, which conjured up the image of a small, stifling room filled with fetid flowers.

We find that Koji has recently returned from a spell in prison, and the reason for this makes his acceptance back into the family of Yuko even more unusual. There was in the past infidelity all round – Ippei had regular mistresses and Yuko had Koji; however, that was not enough for Yuko, and the complex powerplay between her and her husband brought about the first act of violence in the book, for which Koji paid the price. His return to Ippei and Yuko, now living by the coast where Yuko manages a plant nursery, brings tensions to the surface once more. The behaviour of this trio is mirrored by three young people in the town, Kimi and two young men who view for her favours. Kimi is the daughter of Teijiro, who tends the nursery, yet avoids him when she visits the town; here, too, there is baggage. The story unfolds with an inevitability, particularly since we have an inkling of what will happen; and, as the quote on the blurb says, we watch “the three of them – three fish caught in a net of sin“, yet unable to escape.

I’ve deliberately kept my description of events vague, because watching Mishima unfold his tale is mesmerising and too many details would spoil that. As I said, by the time he wrote this book, Mishima was an author totally in control of his characters and story, and the book is quite breathtaking. When I read his “Acts of Worship” for the #1965club I was blown away by his portrayal of the complexities of relationships, and his nuanced rendering here is just as striking. He captures Yuko’s fickleness, cause of so many problems; Koji’s immaturity and obsession with Yuko; Ippei’s arrogance and need to control. And he can completely throw you off balance, as when he drops into the narrative unexpectedly a shocking, almost casual revelation by Kimi’s father.

Koji dreamed of the worlds infiltrated by his dispersed flowers and leaves. He imagined a society of dazzling immensity and grotesque pitch-dark complication where these flowers and leaves hung, as if they were little ribbons secured here and there over its body. The flowers were mere caricatures there. These flowers and leaves would scatter and infiltrate shrewdly, like germs, a variety of entirely useless places in society for the purposes of practical sentimentalism, hypocrisy, peace and order, vanity, death, disease…

But above and beyond his narrative skills, what struck me strongly was his incredibly beautiful prose; it’s marvellously evocative of place, so much so that the setting becomes tangible as you read. The small fishing port of Iro, where much of the book takes place, is vivid and alive; and Mishima’s sense of, and sympathy with, the natural world is powerful and intoxicating.

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

Mishima’s characters are not necessarily particularly *nice* people; they’re flawed and damaged, and yet I felt sympathy for them as I read. The author seems to basically see humanity as being controlled by animal passions; hence, presumably, the title of the book. The narrative is laden with imagery: of death and decay, of beauty and corruption; and the moral corruption of Mishima’s characters is mirrored in much of the natural world which juxtaposes that beauty with squalor.

I’ve left it a little while before writing about this book, because it was a powerful read and I wanted to let it settle a bit before marshalling my thoughts. “Frolic…” is most definitely a book which stays with you; not only for its compelling and ultimately tragic storyline, but also because of the stunning writing and the images left in the mind after finishing it. I’ve no idea why this book hasn’t been translated into English before, because I thought it was outstanding. Maybe it’s regarded as minor Mishima compared with his more famous works; but for the writing alone it deserves its place in his canon, and frankly if there are any more untranslated Mishimas out there to come my way in the near future, I shall be a very happy woman!

#1965Club – a delicate portrait of a relationship

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Acts of Worship by Yukio Mishima
Translated by John Bester

When I was casting around for possible titles to read for 1965, the name of Yukio Mishima sprang to mind (probably because of my recent over-excitement at new translations of his work). I wondered whether there were any of his works published in the appropriate year and a quick search revealed that a short story under the title “Acts of Worship” was indeed from 1965; and I already have this in a collection with the same title, translated by John Bester! I have of course read this; but it’s so long ago that memory has faded and so it seemed like the perfect way to read from the year whilst reintroducing myself to Mishima…

At 60 pages, “Acts…” is nudging close to novella territory, and it tells the story of the ageing Professor Fujimiya, and Tsuneko, the widow who takes care of his domestic life as well as acting as a kind of general factotum and sitting in with some of his poetry sessions. Tsuneko is a plain woman and the Professor has a wall-eye; their relationship is entirely platonic. Yet, when the Professor sets off for a pilgrimage to the Kumano shrines, he orders Tsuneko to accompany him, much to her shock. There are very strict boundaries in their relationship, set by the Professor, and the story follows them on their journey while exploring those boundaries. It’s a delicate, moving and beautifully written observation of a platonic relationship between two people who nevertheless depend on each other very much, and we watch Tsuneko (the main focus of the story) go through all manner of changing emotions while on the journey.

One rule that life had taught Tsuneko was that the only things that happened to a person with those that were appropriate to him…

I wasn’t wrong when I remembered that Mishima wrote beautifully, because he really does here. His observations of the world, the place of humans in it, their relationships with one another and the complex balance between them are so finely honed; and he evokes his settings marvellously.

Books had spread like mold, eating their way through each of the ten rooms in turn. Overflowing from the study, they encroached on the next room, converting it into a kind of lightless dungeon, then spread along the corridors making it impossible to pass without edging sideways. (No – my house is not that bad – yet…)

The characters of the Professor and Tsuneko are very finely drawn, and not without humour – in particular, the Professor, respected and yet a figure of fun at times, surrounded by his little clique of followers, is quite brilliantly conjured (and I make no apologies for the long quote, because I love it!):

The spectacle of the Professor crossing the cheerful modern campus of Seimei university with a bunch of his disciples in tow was so eye-catching that it had become one of the famous local sites. Wearing glasses tinted a pale mauve, clad in a badly fitting, old-fashioned suit, he walked with the feeble sway of a willow tree in the wind. His shoulders sloped deeply and his trousers were baggy, ill contrasting with hair that was dyed black and slicked down to an unnatural neatness. The students who walked behind him bearing his briefcase wore, as was only to be expected of such a resolutely anachronistic crew, the black uniforms with stiff white collars that everyone else at the university shunned; it gave them the air of a suite of ill-omened ravens. As in the sickroom of someone gravely ill, they were not permitted to speak in loud or over lively voices. Such conversation as took place was carried out in whispers, so that people watching from a distance would remark with amusement: “There goes the funeral again!“

And the two main characters are very separate and yet so intertwined. As Tsuneko recognises at the end, when the scales fall from her eyes and she sees the Professor clearly, part of her function is to help him maintain his illusions, which are in turn his coping mechanism. She however needs the Professor in order to have a function and place in life, and so the two are co-dependent in a delicately balanced relationship which is beautifully observed and written. The story also captures Mishima’s country at a time of change, with the hints of the traditional dress being discarded by most of the young, and I was intrigued by the fact that Mishima was in some ways mocking the old-fashioned style when he was a man who ended up sacrificing all for tradition…

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

“Acts of Worship” is a wonderfully told and memorable story and it was the perfect way to become reacquainted with Mishima. I’m keen to re-read the whole collection (and why is there no collected short stories available in English???) as well as move on to the newly translated works – I feel I have treats in store!

In which I get inordinately overexcited about some new releases… #mishima #penguinmoderns

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I think ony bookish peeps would understand the high state of excitement I got myself into at the end of last week…. I subscribe to a number of bookish and publishers’ newsletters (probably not a good thing for me to do) and one from lovely Penguin popped into my inbox with a focus on Japanese writing. Now I read a lot of JapLit back in my preblog days and still have some unread volumes on the shelves which I keep meaning to get to. However… while scrolling down the newsletter I spotted something fairly eye-popping – what appeared to be a book by Yukio Mishima which I’d never heard of!!

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

My first thought was that it was a new translation of a book I’d already got but under a different title – I’ve been caught like that before. So, I clicked off to the Penguin site to explore and found out that not only was this a newly published title which hadn’t been translated before, but also that there was a new Penguin Modern (no 51!!!!) of another story of his which is freshly translated. Time for a quick meltdown at the Ramblings….

See, I read everything by Mishima back in the day and absolutely adored his writing. But I haven’t revisited it for donkeys and I thought there wasn’t anything new to come. Wrong!!!! Needless to say both new Penguins arrived promptly at the Ramblings and here they are looking very pretty. So exciting!!

And just for the fun of it, I’ll share a few images of all of my Mishima books. Here they are, nestling on the Japan shelves:

And here’s the first selection, including his famous tetralogy:

And the rest, including a couple of biographies:

There is I think another which I read from the library and don’t own – I may have to rectify that for the sake of completeness… Interestingly, Mishima is responsible for me first setting up an Amazon account back in the day. I was very resistant to buying books anywhere but in a bricks and mortar bookstore, but I wanted a decent biography of him. However, I enquired in Waterstones, and they said there was an American one but that they weren’t able to order it in… Hence my Amazon account. But I have forgiven Waterstones and still love to buy books there (as will be seen from my regular Waterstones Wobbles!)

Mishima was a troubled and strange man, whose dramatic end probably overshadows his work to a certain extent. However I remember being knocked out by the beauty of his writing and I can’t wait to find out what I think of his work nowadays.

Of course, this does also generate a worrying thought – if there’s a Penguin Modern 51, there are obviously going to be some more…..

What to read for the #1951Club??

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One of the real joys of our reading clubs (where we focus on books from a particular year) is the fact that you get an excuse to rummage among the stacks and find out exactly which books from the year in question you actually own! I’ve been pretty good during previous clubs and have stuck almost completely to books I already owned. Coming to 1951 it seems I have rather a lot of volumes to choose from – and here they are in a lovely big stack! 🙂

This is probably not all the books I have in my collection from the year (there’s an Elizabeth Taylor for a start) but they’re all titles that appeal in one way or another. For a start, there’s plenty of Maigret:

I *could* just read nothing but Maigret all week – and that would be quite a pleasure! But there are other crime titles too:

I’ve read one Durrenmatt title and it was good, if dark; the Christie is that rare thing, one of her titles that I don’t think I’ve read!! And the Tey is one of my favourite crime books ever – but it gave me great grief when I was pulling books off the shelf to photograph! I knew which shelf my Teys *used* to be on, but having had a shuffle I wasn’t sure if they were still there. I looked on the shelf – not there. Searched the rest of the likely places but with no luck. Looked on the original shelf – still no joy. Looked in less likely places but to no avail. Went back to the original shelf and found them tucked up a corner behind some other ones – how do books do that??

If I need a break from crime these two are possibles – I haven’t read Steinbeck or Mitford for ages, so both would be good to pick up.

And then there are the heavier titles:

Of these, I *know* I’ve read the Greene and the Mishima; I *may* have read the Nabokov; and I don’t think I’ve read the Camus. These would probably take a bit more commitment, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place mentally to revisit the Greene – we shall see!

So, plenty of choice from books I already own, though no doubt there will be temptation from all the interesting suggestions people come up with.  Watch this space to see what I *do* read! 🙂

In which I wonder… just why *is* my memory so hopeless?????

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You might wonder what prompted that thought – and I’ve never prided myself on having a particularly great memory – but the story goes like this!

Whilst having a rummage around notebooks, as you do, trying to find just the right one to jot down notes, or comments on books I’m reading, I stumbled across one that I briefly kept in the early 2000s. In some ways you could say it was a primitive form of this blog – I simply noted the date I’d finished a book and *very* brief details of what I thought of it. It was quite fascinating to look through and see what I was reading at the time (a *lot* of Mishima for a start), but also quite revelatory in that I knew I’d read these books, I’d obviously loved them but I couldn’t for the life of me remember anything about the plot or characters!

If I’m honest, that’s one of the reasons I started blogging; apart from wanting to share my feelings about the books I read and love, it’s a way of recording in more detail what they were about and which bits I responded to. And writing here has helped with this (along with keeping a spreadsheet of reading and books bought!) However, I was totally flummoxed by a few entries when I was reading Truman Capote. I knew I’d read “Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” way back, but apparently I also read “Music for Chameleons” and was mightily impressed – which surprised me somewhat as not only couldn’t I remember that, I also didn’t think I owned it….

music-for-chameleons

A serious rummage through the stacks (and it took a while, because I’d moved the Capotes and some others from where they’d always lived on the shelves) revealed that I did indeed own the book – so I obviously *did* love it back in the 2000s!

I guess the solution will be eventually to get my whole collection onto LibraryThing or some very big spreadsheet – and also to knock the shelves into some kind of logical order. Then I might have a chance of remembering what books I own, where to find them and whether I’ve read them.

Or maybe it’s just my age! 🙂

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