Spring Snow I think is a book that may appeal to different kinds of readers. If you’re interested in style, Mishima is a great stylist and uses striking metaphors, as my last two blog posts have demonstrated. If you’re interested in ideas, the book discusses love, dreams, tradition vs modernity, Western influence, history, reincarnation, duty, etc. (without touching on fascism or nationalism, for which the author’s notorious). If you’re interested in characters, Spring Snow also has interesting characters.
No wonder it’s often named among the greatest novels of the 20th century Japan.
At the centre of Spring Snow is Matsugae Kiyoaki (name in Japanese order), who comes from a nouveau-riche family and who is raised among the Ayakuras, a poor aristocrat family, in order to become cultured and elegant. His good looks and elegance are reminiscent of the main character in The Tale of Genji. The love affair between Kiyoaki and Ayakura Satoko also seems to be partly inspired by one story in The Tale of Genji: Suzaku’s Third Princess (Genji’s last, neglected wife) and Kashiwagi (To no Chujo’s eldest son).
One thing I find interesting is that Mishima mostly focuses on Kiyoaki’s perspective and sometimes gets into the minds of Honda (his best friend) and Iinuma (his tutor and retainer) but never switches to Satoko’s point of view, except a brief moment when he tells us that she’s desperately waiting and hoping for a letter from Kiyoaki. That creates the same effect as in Proust—the beloved is only seen from outside—though compared to Proust, we are here more distanced from the lover because Spring Snow is written from the third person’s point of view.
I like what Mishima does with Kiyoaki however. I see that some people on the internet have called the characters star-crossed lovers, but they’re no Romeo and Juliet—their love story is doomed mostly because of the lovers themselves, because of their little games, especially on Kiyoaki’s side. He is spoilt and solipsistic and impulsive. He is in some ways similar to Proust’s narrator. And yet somehow Mishima gets us to feel for him and find their story tragic.
I also like the characterisation of Count Ayakura (Satoko’s father) and Tadeshina (Satoko’s maid, an accomplice in the affair). The Count, compared to many other characters including the Marquis (Kiyoaki’s father), is barely there for most of the book, but he becomes a distinct character in the last part, and more interestingly, the reveal makes us see in a completely different light not only him but also Tadeshina, and to some extent, the Marquis. I always love it when a writer does that—it’s not easy to achieve.
Spring Snow is part of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which I believe is loosely connected. I will definitely read more Mishima—he’s much more interesting than Tanizaki and Kawabata—but not yet, Runaway Horses will have to wait.