Sometimes when I am reading (and reviewing) a book, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of wishing I knew either more or less about it. To open a book with no knowledge of who the author is gives a reader one perspective. To be a student of literature, and to know with critical depth the context from which the book came is another. And then you can do what I did when reading this book: be halfway through, and idly flip to the rear dust jacket cover, and find out that the author, Yukio Mishima committed sepekku after completing the book, which was the first of four volumes, detailing Japanese life in the 20th century. I also read, in fragments, that Mishima was considered both a rightist and a critic of Japan's militarist and autocratic governments. Someone who knew more about Japanese culture, Japanese literature, or the biography of Yukio Mishima could parse exactly what that means. Someone who wasn't given those crumbles of information could just read the book as is. For me, I was stuck in the middle. Reading this book, I kept on wanting to ask questions of someone who I thought was familiar with Mishima's work, and the fact that this wasn't possible might have prejudiced me against the book.
"Spring Snow" is both a comedy of manners and a work of social realism, as well as being a bit of a melodrama. To discuss this book fully, I will have to give some information about the way the plot develops. The book follows Kiyoaki Matsugae, the scion of an aristocratic house, whose sensitive nature drives a wedge between him and his parents. He has a friend, Shigekuni Honda, of a less aristocratic but still very established family. There is also another allied family living in the same compound as the Mastugaes, the Ayakuras, whose daughter Satoko has been Kiyoaki's friend since childhood. The two have a relationship that is friendly and familial, but the romantic tension between them is something they can not navigate. Kiyaoki rebuffs Satoko's desires for a relationship, but when Satoko gets engaged to an Imperial Prince, he starts an affair with her, an affair that leads to a pregnancy, an abortion, and her becoming a Buddhist nun. Kiyaoki tries to persuade her to leave the convent for him, but in the process becomes sick and dies. Given the strict and duty-based mortality of the Japanese aristocracy, the entire affair turns into a mortifying scandal.
While reading this, I did realize it had some parallels to The Red Chamber Dream: the sensitive scion of a wealthy family raised in a compound with a female friend who he has mixed feelings of romance towards, with the ideas of romance and mortality underlined by references to Buddhist cosmology. This is another place where my knowledge is too much and too little: I couldn't read the book as someone naive of The Red Chamber Dream, considered to be the greatest Chinese novel of all time, but I also don't know if Japanese writers in the 20th century would be so conversant as to base a book off of it.
There were many parts of "Spring Snow" that I liked, but I found myself wondering how I was supposed to like them. The book has many things that to a Westerner would be considered stereotypically Japanese: there is at least Cherry Blossom Viewing party in the book. Architecture, art and the natural world are described in poetic and elegant terms. There are many conversations where overly formal and polite speech masks subterfuge. I am not sure whether Mishima is using these elements as a natural part of his milieu, or whether he is purposely using them to mock a society that he sees as corrupt. One of my favorite passages in the book comes when the two families try to find a way to "rescue" Satoko from her life as a nun: by making a wig.
"The truth of the matter was that this wig as yet only existed in their imaginations and was totally irrelevant to Satoko's intentions. However, once they succeeded in dressing her in a wig, they would be able to construct a flawless picture from the pieces of a shattered jigsaw puzzle."
Mishima seems to know that things that happen in his story are ridiculous, but I was unsure whether he was aware of the lack of scope of his story. The book seems to take the fact that the affairs of the aristocracy as the only affairs worth writing about for granted: the common people and servants that provide subsidiary roles in the book are dismissed outside of the roles they play to support the main characters. One of my main questions in the book is whether Kiyaoki is meant to be treated as a tragic hero, or as a petulant child. My own reading was mostly the second: his death is caused by his immaturity, selfishness, inherited sense of entitlement, and outright poor communication skills
. But given my cursory knowledge of Mishima's own life and death, I think that for him Kiyaoki was more of a tragic hero.
Books, in a way, are a dialog between the author and the reader. This book, indeed, drew me into a dialog, as evidenced by the fact that I have managed to write so much about it. But it is a dialog that is incomplete, and where I find myself filling words in for the author. This is, I suppose, part of the puzzle of literature.