Revisiting the Sea of Fertility
It’s been probably 25 years since I first read Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy, the first book of which is Spring Snow.
I’m quite pleased to have picked up Mishima again. Other than rereading some of his short stories (and The Sound of Waves which I read aloud with a woman I dated several years ago) I don’t think I’ve read any Mishima since my late teens or early twenties. In the last ten years or more I’ve read a lot of pulp genre fiction and a lot of nonfiction. Even though some of what would be classified as genre fiction (sci-fi) is excellent, I haven’t read a lot of the literature that I used to enjoy quite a bit.
As I’ve been working on my first novel (yes, work has continued on it since November) I’ve noticed that reading Spring Snow has had a direct impact on my writing process. Mishima dealt with human emotions, motivations, and foibles beautifully and I have trouble seeing all the points of view that I might like in a given scenario and set of characters. Spring Snow paints an antihero that is simultaneously sympathetic and unlikeable.
Kiyaoki, the central character of Spring Snow is at turns naïve and conniving, obsessive and languid, loving and cruel, lucid and irrational. During the course of the novel he cannot be said to have developed as a character or grown. In some ways Spring Snow is about the insanity of being in love. But perhaps more it is about the insane self-obsession of youth.
Spring Snow could be called romance noir inasmuch as the plot resembles the narrative structure of film noir. At several points the plot could easily be resolved by the right action of the protagonist, and at these points the protagonist, for varied reasons, selects the destructive path. I almost expected it to end with tommygun fire.
What really makes me glad to have picked up Mishima again is Mishima’s talent for lush description. When I read my own writing, it often feels flat and colorless. When I write I am often afraid that I will bore the reader with too much extraneous detail, and that important things will get lost. If I describe a tree in the first chapter I feel guilty if that tree doesn’t shoot someone by the third chapter.
But Mishima has no such fear. To be fair, his descriptions are not extraneous. However they are lavishly detailed. Each detail contributes perhaps only in a small way to the tone of the novel or to the themes Mishima wants to explore, but each detail does fit. At the beginning of the first chapter Mishima takes two pages—nearly 900 words (by comparison this entire book report is 884 words)—to describe a single photograph in Kiyaoki’s grandmother’s house.
Reading this kind of richly textured prose and elaborate description has helped me feel a bit freer in my own writing. Mishima has given me the permission to linger over a setting and give it the texture that it deserves. Compare a line from my first draft:
The bar was a dive.
With the corresponding description from my second draft:
Once upon a time the bar’s name—The Dive Inn—had been an ironic pun. In its earlier life it was respectably posh and had done a brisk lunch trade. It had been a cozy place for young professionals to gather in the evenings. But the irony had become a fulfilled prophecy: the place was a dive. No one came for the food or the view any longer. The view of the harbor could have been lovely if it weren’t for the burned-out warehouses, abandoned factories, and the collection of shipping cranes that its hillside vantage provided. Between five and midnight there would be a good number of workers in for their after-work drinks, but during the day it was place for the chronic regulars who wanted either to forget or be forgotten.
This is at once a bit of exaggeration and a minimal example. The difference in length is chosen for comic effect and the description of the setting is not lengthy or detailed. Nevertheless it does serve to distinguish between naming a setting and building an environment. Reading Mishima’s example has provided for me the kind of permission to sit back with my locations and let them be built in ways that hopefully feel authentic and immediate to the reader.
This leaves me with a question of balance, but that is an ongoing process. I can always pare back the descriptions if I’ve overdone them and they distract rather than enrich my story. But here is what rereading Mishima has done for me: it reminded me of one of the aspects of literature that I appreciate. It’s a piece of writing advice that is old enough that I can’t find its original author: write the story you want to read. Spring Snow may not be the story I want to read, but it is a story told in the manner I want to read. There are other ways in which my novel is the book I want to read. Reading Spring Snow has helped me find the permission to stretch my legs and write in a less constrained manner.