The Frolic of the Beasts – Yukio Mishima (tr. by Andrew Clare)

I have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to Japanese literature. I loved A True Novel by Minae Mizumura when I read it a couple of years ago. It made my Best of 2017 list and was also one of my nominations for the 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation.

I have a read a couple of books from Hiromi Kawakami and Yoko Ogawa. But sadly, not much of the earlier Japanese writers. Clearly, there are big, gaping holes that I need to fill up.

So when Penguin Modern Classics released a new edition of The Frolic of the Beasts, I decided to start there. I hadn’t read any Mishima and besides, I thought the cover was striking.

Yukio Mishima’s history is quite fascinating and turbulent. He is widely believed to be one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century and he was considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times, one of those times losing out to his compatriot Yasunari Kawabata (another author I haven’t yet read).

But it’s his death which caught headlines. Here’s an extract from the author profile…

In 1970, Mishima staged a military coup, which failed as he anticipated it would, whereupon he performed ‘seppuku’, a form of ritual suicide.

Quite an intense man then, and that intensity has rubbed off on this novel too…

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The Frolic of the Beasts opens with a prologue which reveals to us the tragic fate of the three main characters, Yuko, her husband Ippei and her lover Koji.

The subsequent chapters in the book then flesh out the events that led up to this tragedy in a narrative where the tension keeps building up.

The opening lines of the book are beautiful…

Koji thought about the sunlight that shone brightly into the connecting corridor that led to the bathhouse, cascading over the windowsill, spreading out like a sheet of white glossy paper. He didn’t know why, but he had humbly, passionately loved the light streaming down through that window. It was divine favor, truly pure-dismembered, like the white body of a slain infant.

Those lines belie the harsh reality which is a prison where Koji has been serving a sentence.

Koji has been imprisoned for a crime of passion for which he believes he has repented. When the time comes for his release, it is Yuko, his lover, who comes to pick him up and not any of his family members, which only adds to the overall strangeness in the opening pages.

But Yuko has her doubts.

As they began to walk, Yuko was seized with anxiety that it had been a mistake to take charge of this forlorn young orphan. Since deciding to care for him, she had not once experienced such a sense of trepidation, which was clearly therefore some sort of presentiment. She had even been censured for her rashness by the prison governor, who said he had never before heard of a case where a member of the victim’s family had become the criminal’s guarantor.

Gradually, we begin to glean the details. Koji, a University student earlier, had been working as an apprentice with Ippei (Yuko’s husband). Ippei is a cultured man, a literary critic whose books have been well received. But he is cruel and a womanizer.

Koji immediately falls in love with the beautiful and enigmatic Yuko (the red lipstick on her pale face is often cited as the striking feature of her beauty), and begins a doomed affair with her. The impossibility of the situation, however, drives Koji to attack Ippei with a wench. And Koji finds himself in prison for this act.

Upon his release, Koji decides to work in the greenhouse which is situated on Ippei and Yuko’s estate in a rural part of the country. Ippei is a changed man though after the attack. He is suffering from aphasia, a condition which has hampered his speech and his ability to understand and communicate leaving him vulnerable, and a shadow of his former self.

Thereafter, begins an uneasy and ill-fated relationship between the three, as Yuko and Koji still find themselves trapped in a situation from which they don’t know how to untangle themselves. It can only end in doom.

The Frolic of the Beasts then is a psychological novel, a tale of seduction and violence, as we try to discern what goes on in the minds of the protagonists and what drives their actions.

While it was easy to understand Koji and the conflicts, thoughts and emotions raging in his mind, Yuko comes across as pretty inscrutable. That was a problem for me because I couldn’t really grasp her motives. But then, maybe Mishima intended it that way.

Ippei is a fascinating creation. Especially, in the way he exerted control (or seemed to) over Koji and Yuko, both when he was in full command of his faculties before the attack, and even as an invalid after that event.

Even before he (Koji) saw Ippei’s completely changed form, he ought to have dropped to his knees in tears and apologized. Instead, something had intervened, clogging the machinery and stopping this course of events. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was; perhaps it was that unsettling smile that hung about Ippei’s mouth like a spiderweb.

In terms of prose, Mishima’s writing is languid and gorgeous. He is very good at evoking a sense of place, of painting an atmosphere where there is tension lurking beneath the surface. The feeling of claustrophobia is palpable throughout.

The trees and the grass had begun to dry out from the morning dew and the previous day’s rain. The rising water vapor and sunlight appeared to completely cover the surface of the mountains and forests in trembling silver leaf. It was extremely quiet, so much so that it seemed as if the mountains and forests were lightly enveloped in some sort of glittering shroud of death.

Mishima also excels in giving psychological depth to his characters. In this passage, he attempts to convey what’s going on with Ippei after the catastrophic transformation in him.

In a sense, it was as if the connection between spirit and action had been severed and the one jewel that had been both the source of his self-confidence and the measure of his public respect had split and become two complementary jewels, which had been placed on opposite banks of that large dark river. And while the jewel on the far bank, namely his literary works, was to the public at large the real treasure, to Ippei, it was nothing more than a pile of rubble. Conversely, while in the eyes of the general public the jewel on the near bank, namely his spirit, had already turned to rubble, it was to Ippei alone the only genuine jewel in his crown.

Indeed, in a way, the essence of the novel can be summed up in a conversation between Koji and Ippei in the final pages…it is Koji’s rant which also gives the novel its name…

We could have discarded our troubles, dug ourselves a hole as big as yours, and, right in front of your very eyes, Yuko and I could have had done with it and slept together like a pair of frolicking beasts without a care in the world…But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. And neither could Yuko. Do you understand?

The Frolic of the Beasts is my first Mishima. It’s a slim novel and therefore the perfect entrée to give a flavour of his writing. He is certainly an interesting enough author for me to want to read more from his oeuvre. I have the Confessions of the Mask, After the Banquet and of course the famous Sea of Fertility Quartet. Would greatly appreciate any suggestions as to which of his I should try next.

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Family Lexicon – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. by Jenny McPhee)

Italian author Natalia Ginzburg’s work has been getting quite a revival in recent times with publishers such as NYRB Classics, Daunt Books and New Directions Publishing at the forefront in this regard.

If the quality of Family Lexicon is any indication, more of her books getting translated into English is indeed a big boon.

Family Lexicon

This is how Ginzburg’s preface to Family Lexicon begins…

The places, events, and people in this book are real. I haven’t invented a thing, and each time I found myself slipping into my long held habits as a novelist and make something up, I was quickly compelled to destroy the invention.

When the book opens, Natalia is a child, and she recalls the skiing holidays that her tyrannical father – Giuseppe Levi (affectionately called Beppino) – greatly enjoyed but that her siblings and her mother had to endure much against their will.

Beppino is Jewish and quite a dominant personality, a respected scientist but prone to ranting and raging. He admonishes his family members often calling them ‘nitwits’, has a decided opinion on the friends they should keep, and has expectations from his children, at least the boys, on the careers that they should pursue. He is also a man who has no sense of money although he is averse to reckless spending.

Natalia’s mother Lidia is a Catholic and quite the opposite. She has a cheerful disposition. And while the family having to relocate often (due to the demands of Beppino’s career), always unsettles her in the beginning, she can never stay morose for long and reverts to her cheerful self again.

The truth was, even if my mother grumbled and complained in Sassari and Palermo, she’d been very happy there because she had a joyful nature, and no matter where she was she found people to love and to love her. Wherever she was, she always found a way to enjoy places and things around her and to be happy.

Natalia, meanwhile, is the youngest in the family and has four siblings. Her brother Gino is the eldest and shares his father’s passion for skiing. He is also Beppino’s favorite. There’s Mario and Alberto and her elder sister Paola.

Paola and the mother get along very well and share a special bond, a bond that Natalia is too young yet to appreciate.

Mario is more of a rebel and abhors his father’s tyranny and hold over the family.

In the earlier sections of the novel, Ginzburg does a wonderful job of portraying the dynamics in the relationships between the children, how they have a form of communication that is unique and their own.

If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they’re like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world…

The personalities of the parents never waver. But the children as they grow up into adults see a dramatic change in their alliances and personal relationships.

For instance, in the earlier pages, we learn that Mario and Paola are quite similar in many respects and have quite a close bond, which never really lasts into adulthood.

Lost in their melancholy, Paola and Mario exuded a profound intolerance for my father’s despotism and for our family’s simple and austere habits. It seemed they felt themselves exiles in our family, dreaming of an entirely different homelife and lifestyle. Their intolerance manifested itself in great pouts and moon faces, listless looks and impenetrable expressions, monosyllabic responses, angrily slammed doors that shook the building, and curt refusals to go to the mountains on Saturday and Sunday.

Despite Beppino’s rants and set opinions on their careers and his persistence on them not marrying, the children refuse to get cowered. They go on to marry the partners of their choice and to pursue the careers that they wish.

But despite the personality clashes, there is one thread that unites this family of intellectuals. All of them are anti-Fascists.

It is also a stark reminder that while this novel is a portrait of a family, it is set against the darkening and terrifying backdrop of Fascism.

Anti-fascism is the prism through which Beppino evaluates his acquaintances, friends and his family. He is ready to overlook flaws and overturn his opinions on his circle of acquaintances if it is revealed to him that they are anti-Fascists.

Beppino and his sons actively engage in various resistance activities underground which frequently lead to their arrests. It’s something that Beppino greatly prides in, even if the terror at being imprisoned is immense.

There is a great set piece in the middle section of the novel when Mario is almost caught smuggling anti-Fascist propaganda literature into Switzerland. While Mario and Beppino are continuously at loggerheads with each other, this one act of resistance earns Mario the grudging respect of his father.

Of course, while the core of the novel revolves around Natalia’s family, it is also very much about Natalia herself. Natalia goes on to marry Leone Ginzburg also an anti-Fascist and revolutionary in his own right.

She has three children with him, but the terror of Leone’s death at the hands of Fascists is never far behind, and a burden she must bear.

Family Lexicon, then, is about family, rebellion, the ties that bind them together and how each member goes on to lead a life of his or her own choosing.

Ginzburg’s writing is addictive and she adopts a lighthearted, satirical tone that is effective in downplaying the darker elements in the story, especially the grim prospect of Fascism looming large. Her narrative wonderfully brings out the colorful personalities and eccentricities of every family member. Indeed, the most striking of the lot is Beppino, who despite being a tyrant, comes across as an absurd and sometimes sympathetic figure thanks to Ginzburg’s flair for comic storytelling.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Family Lexicon. It’s the only Ginzburg I have read so far, and is widely considered to be her masterpiece. Even if I have that nagging feeling that I’ve probably read her best book first, I am still quite keen to explore and hopefully savour more of her work in the future.

You Would Have Missed Me – Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. by Jamie Bulloch)

You Would Have Missed Me is the second book in Peirene Press’ 2019 series ‘There Be Monsters.’ It’s also the first time they are publishing another book of the same author – Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast was published in 2014 to critical acclaim and was considered for many prizes. And I am happy to sat this novella was another strong offering not only from the author but also from Peirene.

You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me takes place in a single day and our narrator is a little girl, who has turned seven. This is what she tells us in the opening pages…

We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once gain it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.

The Promised Land is West Germany in the 1960s, when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was at its peak.

Along with her parents, the girl manages to flee the East German refugee camp where they were living for a while to finally land in West Germany with hopes of a better life and standard of living.

Gradually, as the novella progresses, we are given a glimpse of the narrator’s life, her tenuous relationship with her mother, and the toxic relationship between her parents.

The girl’s mother is a woman who is chronically disappointed with everything around her. In the opening pages, the mother who always dreamed of having teak furniture, still finds something to complain about even when that dream comes true.

We only really spent time in the lounge when there was something to watch on television or if it was a special occasion. It was stuffed with teak furniture, as much as it could fit inside the room. Both my father and my mother now said it had been a mistake to furnish the lounge with teak because teak needed to be polished all the time to keep it shiny.

Before she came to the West, my mother always dreamed of teak furniture, but of course she didn’t know you had to polish teak all the time because she’d only ever dreamed of it and had never owned any.

This disappointment and many others pervades at various points in the novella. Indeed, the mother comes from a wealthy family, and moving to the West was something that she always wanted. And yet when that reality comes into fruition, the mother continues to remain a disappointed woman, always stating so and dropping hints to her husband of her wealthy fiancé earlier (and killed in the war).

The father, meanwhile, does not really care much for the Promised Land and has no patience with his wife’s continuous complaints. It essentially means that the atmosphere at home is not really healthy and the girl grows up isolated.

When we were in the refugee camp my father didn’t live with us to begin with because he wanted to finish his studies in East Berlin and have time to think about whether he’d rather take a job in the East than join us in the West. He studied, had loads of girlfriends, like all students, and went to Western cinemas, which meant it took him a while to decide, and so in the meantime we were in the camp without him…

Vanderbeke’s writing style in this one is quite similar to that in The Mussel Feast – the prose forms loops and is circuitous and repetitive in nature. This actually heightens the impact of the narrative propelling it forward and makes for an invigorating read even when the subject matter is dark and the environment claustrophobic.

But it’s not all bleak. There is a glimmer of hope in the form of a globe our narrator receives as a birthday present, a reminder of happier times in the East and of possibilities in the future. Plus, she also begins to find her own voice…

Ever since I’d heard my voice, I’d been saying things I’d never have dared say before.

And only a few pages later…

Then we had supper. I didn’t forget to wash my hands, but when we were sitting at the table I said that I wasn’t hungry.

Of course you’re going to eat something, my mother said.

I heard the voice. It was slightly deeper than mine and very calm.

Like hell you will, it said.

Ultimately, You Would Have Missed Me asks us what really makes a home. Also, does an escape from a place of conflict to a freer land always guarantee a better life?

Through the eyes of our narrator, we realize that while the Promised Land has offered materialistic comforts not possible in a refugee camp, the girl was happier when they were living in East Germany. The critical factor here is relationships. In the refugee camp, she had her grandmother whose cooking she relished or Uncle Grewatsch, Uncle Winkelmann and Auntie Eka, who entranced her with nuggets of knowledge. None of which is now accessible to her in the Promised Land where the toxic and abusive relationship between her parents continue.

The broader idea of what constitutes a home is also very theme in today’s times in context of the refugee crisis we have been seeing. Those refugees who against all odds find their way into a freer Europe can’t really be sure that they will lead a more fulfilling life. There are challenges of assimilating into a completely foreign culture and adapting to a different way of life. There are economic considerations. And there are possibly those who were happier staying in their own country but were compelled by cruel circumstances to just abandon their homes and flee.

Overall, You Would Have Missed Me is an absorbing novella, although I would still rate The Mussel Feast higher.