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.