May 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

A Dialogue on The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

ENTHUSIAST: Well, slap my face. What a novel. Such a tidy tragedy coming together at the very close of the narrative like a magic trick. The other work this reminds me of is The Beast in the Jungle, when Marcher's terrifying and boring doom sinks its claws into his flesh in the final few sentences; however, unlike Marcher, who can lounge about his mansion waiting for fate to take wing, our hero here, the naval officer Ryuji, moves restlessly about the watery places of the earth like Ishmael or Conrad's Marlowe, before attempting to settle down. I notice I'm drawing an abundance of comparisons to other books. But I feel that Mishima tapped into the vital secret magma that all great writers draw upon in common.

SKEPTIC: Yes, that is one way of justifying your allusive crutches. Another justification would be that Mishima is extremely derivative. This novel is, an uncharitable reader could say, The Beast in the Jungle rewritten clumsily without the dramatic skill or humor of his influences.

ENTHUSIAST: Humor? Henry James is some type of humorist now?

SKEPTIC: Of course he is. What did you imagine all those endless qualifications to qualifications to qualifications about his creations' motives and temperament were about anyway? They're meant to be funny until they're suddenly tragic. The humor derives from skewered self-importance. Mishimia, I fear, doesn't see anything humorous about the fascist glory sought after by his Westernized Japanese. Although that may, you know, simply be obscured by poor translation.

ENTHUSIAST: The coward's qualification to any criticism of a foreign book. What's this, first of all, about Mishima not grasping the humor of his characters' situation? The children's little gang of death-worshipping rascals contains hilarious and deadpan dialogue on their plans to do battle against life itself. The part where they fulminate against housekeeping and thrift and decide that fathers themselves must be eliminated? Hilarious. It's like Dostoevsky's Demons. Now, of course you're restraining your smile because otherwise I'd be right and you'd be wrong.

SKEPTIC: Again, wrong. The ranting scenes in Demons are obviously comic. I feel, somehow, that Mishima, far from laughing at this gaggle of sadists, sees them as the seedpods of a future shogunate. The description of their ritual disembowelment and murder of a kitten set off my private alarm system. The violence and the desecrated cadaver of that poor little creature were so lovingly described, with such a cold aesthetic perspective, that I feel sure Mishima feels there are much worse things than murder. Such as? Well, for example, dressing in Western clothing or eating soup first in a meal, another Western touch that Mishima's eye lingers on with indignation.

ENTHUSIAST: Goodness. Someone's been reading about the man's life. You must have heard by the water cooler that the author, rather than take a writer's residency on some quiet campus with health insurance, decided to attempt a fascist coup and then ritually disembowel himself. Many writers would consider that a dead end, career-wise.

SKEPTIC: So, I read Wikipedia. Are we supposed to pretend we don't? Is that the new prudery?

ENTHUSIAST: Stick to the point. You know he met a violent end, and so you project your probably poor estimation of Mishima's personality onto his books. Listen. If Mishima had been a crude peddler of propaganda he would have written a very different book. One maybe in which the young thugs weren't so obviously cringing and pathetic, and one in which the love affair between two worldly Japanese hadn't been rendered with such touching subtlety. Your argument against the kitten killing scene is the same argument used by every ideologue and hysterical pedant against real art: namely, that, while you don't dispute that what is depicted is true, and you can't dispute that the depiction has moved you emotionally, you simply don't want this image to float before your eyes, because of some peculiar sensitivity.

Also, isn't it strange that you use the very, shall we say, freighted epithet, fascist, a word peculiar to Europe, in order to dismiss an entire modus vivendi from one of the great countries on earth? Namely bushido, the way of the samurai? According to your nervous, middle-class view of things, a samurai does seem to be a threatening death-worshiper. Basically you find a worldview in a book unpalatable and then declare the entire book impure. Please let me know if I've mischaracterized your criticism.

SKEPTIC: God, if only this were so violent a book that it jumped out of my hands. Then maybe I could appreciate it. In summary, it does sound pretty exciting. A sailor falls in love with a widow in Yokahama. Her thirteen-year-old son sees them have sex through a hole in the wall. He reports this to his gang of truants, with their rather sophisticated ideas about life and death, Japan and the West. Over the course of the novel a plan to somehow punish or transfigure the sailor takes shape.

Seemingly an exciting idea for a novel. The stuff of thrillers, you might say. And yet chapter after chapter of this slim novel contains neither drama, that is to say, a chance for the reader to wonder about what might happen next, nor interior dispute, emotional soliloquy. The lack of planning in the novel is palpable from page to page, and the dramatic ending feels rushed, as if the author had just remembered his plan before the end of the book.

ENTHUSIAST: I must have read a different book. The book I read abounded with striking metaphors and lapidary insight into the characters' motives. The chapters in which you said nothing happened, because I suppose no one got killed or married, contained fine observations by the characters into the nature of love and jealousy by the child, against the intruding stepfather.

SKEPTIC: Yes, let's chat about the son and his motives, which I found quite muddled. He seems to combine admiration for the sailor with contempt for him. A sense of defensiveness, as well as a desire to see him punished, but for all those contradictions, which I suppose were meant to lend depth, I found him blank. It was never entirely clear why he acted the way he did.

ENTHUSIAST: So, on the one hand, he is too complex and on the other hand he is too simple. Don't you see that you're setting an unattainable standard for a character?

SKEPTIC: Complexity is not contradiction. I suppose what I mean is this: none of the characters quite arrives at the point at which the clouds part and we suddenly glimpse his or her inner, moral character. The novel is structured such that we see quite a bit of the characters' interior thoughts about life, love, and each other. But that crucial point at which the character must make a defining choice eludes all of the main dramatis personae.

ENTHUSIAST [frowning]: Sorry, what do you mean? Stories aren't simply a series of moral choices, are they?

SKEPTIC: I would argue that they are. Think of all the scenes in which we get a sense of who Hamlet is. He yells at Ophelia, he teases Polonius, he refuses to participate in the pageantry of his stepfather's court -- all of these are moral choices made on the spur of the moment, and they show us the real man.

ENTHUSIAST: But there were plenty of those sorts of scenes in this book. For example, when the stepfather at last discovers the son's peeping tom antics he chooses to be radically conciliatory and not to beat the child. That gives us a view into his character.

SKEPTIC: True. But then the point of the sailor, as I saw him, was that he had from a young age felt himself destined for some kind of glory. This isn't an urge that ever incarnates itself into action. It hovers there theoretically without a counterpart here in the earthbound world of event and choice. Meanwhile, Mishima describes the operations of the widow's clothing supply business when he could have been investigating this feeling of destiny.

ENTHUSIAST: But the entire book is about how the sailor gave up this feeling of destiny and how this giving up led precisely to his fate.

SKEPTIC: I suppose that's true. But my point stands. The action and the description are a hodge-podge. No one wants to impose anything so strict as the three classical unities on a modern novella. But there's an argument to be made for the chapters to build on each other, drive toward some point; I'm not even sure why Mishima divided the novel into two parts, before and after the final voyage. It served no purpose for the inner lives of the characters.

ENTHUSIAST: Still, for all your pointless nitpicking, you must admit this is a memorable book, like a cattle brand laid on your brain. I mean, don't try to deny you've been thinking about it.

SKEPTIC: I will admit under the duress of your questioning that, after setting the thing down, images and themes flash back into my mind. But for me a novel gains stature not from the themes excavated from it, but from the memory of the experience of reading it. The memory of the pleasure.

One last thought: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a book that seems almost cinematic. I mean that I sense the author imagining light pouring over particular rooms and faces without being able to render it as prose fiction.

ENTHUSIAST: An intense work has to sacrifice control and decorum to achieve its ends. And without intensity, there's nothing. By your lights, all of us should be reading and writing perfectly crafted novels that offend no one, morally or artistically. And the day your wish comes true is the day I reach for my katana.

SKEPTIC: [rolls eyes] Good luck with that.