Mishima: A Vision of the Void by Marguerite Yourcenar (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $13.95)
Very judiciously, as befits the first woman elected to the Academie Francaise, Yourcenar begins her essay on Mishima with a disclaimer. "It is always difficult to judge a great contemporary writer: we lack the proper distance. It is even more difficult to judge him if he belongs to a culture different from our own, a culture colored by our fondness for or distrust for the exotic." For the next 150 pages of this often ambivalent analysis, the distinguished woman of letters proceeds to demonstrate that the task she has set herself is not only arduous but virtually impossible.
Though Yukio Mishima left a sizeable body of work when he committed ritual suicide in 1970, much of this legacy has never been translated into English or any European language. Moreover, the Japanese writer invented a biography for himself out of thin air, though previous researchers have uncovered certain circumstances and incidents in his actual life that partly explain his eccentricities.
A Doting Neurotic
As a child, Mishima was sent to live with his grandmother, a doting neurotic invalid who kept the small boy confined in her room as a virtual prisoner. "At the age of 8 I had a 60-year-old lover," Yourcenar quotes, explaining that the relationship provided the writer with his "first knowledge of the strangeness of things" pervading his mature work.
In addition to the multivolume "Sea of Fertility," about which Yourcenar is clearly dubious, she discusses "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion," calling it his "scarlet masterpiece," "Confessions of a Mask," the "black masterpiece," "The Sound of Waves," a "sunny masterpiece;" and "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea," considerably "laconic . . . in a denuded style, sometimes almost flat, crisscrossed with furrows intended . . . to make us stumble."
Unfortunately, this last semi-masterpiece is the one most Americans will know best, because it was made into a film, reset, for unaccountable reasons, in England.
Mishima's many plays, scores of magazine articles and serialized novels meant for "the masses" remain inaccessible to those unfamiliar with the original language, depriving critics of a huge body of material that might have illuminated the character of this aloof, enigmatic man. As frustrated as any undergraduate confronted by an incomprehensible assignment, Yourcenar retells the plots of the translated works, devoting most of the book to the wildly convoluted twists and turns of "The Sea of Fertility," the tetrology Mishima sent off to his publisher on the day of his suicide.
"For the average reader," (a person for whom Yourcenar has no great affection), "the stumbling block--but also, for reasons we shall see, the supreme virtue--is the notion of reincarnation, which underlines the entire work." This "average reader" is not only in for trouble with Mishima but with Yourcenar herself, whose prose is either extraordinarily opaque, dogmatic and Parnassan or whose style suffers cruelly in translation. Pronouncing other judgments on Mishima's books "sophisticated but crude," she resorts to hackneyed Freudian interpretations.
In sum, the insights offered into Mishima's grisly death seem curiously self-evident. We learn that one of his novels, "Kyoko's House," was a disastrous failure, that he had a lonely, miserable sojourn in New York and another, equally solitary and disappointing, in Paris; that he longed for the international fame and recognition he never received; was bedeviled by lawsuits, blackmail and financial woes. Though his politics were so extreme that he was labeled a fascist, the Japanese right wing not only repudiated him but sent him death threats, never offering the adulation he considered his due. Toward the end of his 45-year life, he established his own private army, the Shield Society, or SS as it was popularly known. Eventually he wrote a play called "My Friend Hitler," meant, Yourcenar assures us, to be ironic, but no more acceptable for that.
The critical study ends with a detailed description of Mishima's grisly suicide, aided and abetted by the young student who had become his disciple and lover. Re-creating this horrific event, culminating with the severed heads of Mishima and Morita neatly arranged on the carpet, Yourcenar muses on the existential significance of the act. "Two objects . . . not even subjects for meditation, because we lack the knowledge to meditate on them," though in fact we have been doing exactly that, and to no avail.