adolescence

BLACK HOLE BY CHARLES BURNS

What do I remember about that period of my life? It was intense, you know. I was intense. Thing is, I was never a little boy; I skipped childhood and went straight to the awkward, brooding teenage years. I was a teenager at six or seven, if you know what I mean. So those feelings weren’t new to me; but yeah I guess they were kind of heightened around that time, at like seventeen or something; all the negativity about myself and the world. The drugs didn’t help, and the girls made it even worse. I discovered girls late, I guess. Like I really had to discover them; they weren’t always there, you know. I didn’t take drugs to feel good or have a nice time. I took them because…shit, who knows. Because I didn’t understand myself, I guess, and so couldn’t accept myself. But I don’t really want to talk about any of that; about me, I mean; this isn’t about me, for once.

So who then? Not Tom. I can hardly even picture him now, which is probably something he’d approve of. He’s lost to my memory like he was lost to the world. But the others are there, crowding my brain like a prison. I’d go to the same club every week and every week I’d make new friends. Friends that weren’t really friends, you know. Or maybe were more my friends than anyone else I’ve ever known. People you fucked in the toilets; people you bought drugs from; people you gave drugs to; people you fought with, like physically, but still said hi to later that night; people who stumbled into your life, often for mere moments, but who somehow left an impression on you greater than those you now see every day. Gareth, for example, who was gay as fuck but couldn’t admit it to himself; and so he drank all the time. And Sherry, who I gave a Love is All badge to and then never saw again. Beautiful Sherry who thought she was just a ‘typical ugly Asian girl in England.’ And Rick, and Mark, and Ally and Jemma; and so many more. Every one of them struggling with something, some terrible thing inside that beat so hard against the surface of their skins that it contorted their faces and their bodies. I’d have given them all a badge if I could.

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I guess I’m trying to say something about Black Hole; about how this comic book moved me; about the associations, you know. But it didn’t start off that way; moving me, I mean. At first I was kind of irritated by it. The way the characters speak to each other, for example. It reads like the dialogue from a crappy teen tv drama, like Dawson’s Creek or something. Like one guy says I love you and the girl says ‘don’t say that unless you mean it.’ Shit like that. Then there are the vaginas. Not real vaginas, but the suggestion of vaginas. It’s not at all subtle. The title, don’t forget. And also the open belly of the frog, and the wound on the girl’s foot and on her back, and so on. Like, I get it; I immediately got it. Horny teenagers; hormones; that feeling of sex being everywhere, all around you. Vaginas, dude. I should probably mention the bug too; the disease that the characters pass to each other and that causes the mutations; well, that’s an STI. So, anyway, initially I was a bit pissed about all that stuff; it struck me as unsophisticated, if you know what I mean.

But soon enough the whole vagina thing sort of faded into the background. And, yeah, the dialogue was still corny in places but I started thinking that maybe it’s intentional, you know; like maybe Burns was going for that. I’ve seen it written that he was aiming for a B-movie type feel or something; and the artwork backs that up, with it being black and white and blocky, and so on. I mean, as an allegory I still think the book kind of sucks, B-movie or not. I don’t like allegories much. Animal Farm and all that. Like how the mutants are the unpopular, ostracised kids, you know. Kids who wear the wrong clothes and laugh too loud at the wrong things, or something like that. Or maybe you could say the mutants are like society’s cast offs; the drug addicts, the homeless, the alcoholics; the ones who really fell off; the ones who really got lost. I don’t know, I guess that pretence stuff just makes me cringe too. Like it wants to dupe you – the reader – into thinking you’re smart because you figured all this out, when actually it’s so obvious and in-your-face that a boneheaded child couldn’t miss it.        burns_c_blackhole4.jpgI’m sure it seems like I’m being super hard on the book. Like I’m not finding much to say that’s positive. But I am coming to that. I just don’t know how to structure something like this; a review, I mean. I want to say only nice things, but I keep getting sidetracked. Of all the allegorical stuff I guess I most appreciated how Burns worked in the body horror theme. Like obviously a lot of adolescents feel that way; like they hate their bodies, are disgusted or embarrassed by their bodies. So, for example, Chris, who’s a girl, goes swimming; and she’s got the bug and she doesn’t know it yet, or doesn’t know that it’s showing; and all her friends or whatever see the open wound on her back and snigger and gossip about it. Or that other girl, who has webbed hands and wears gloves; that girl worries that her boyfriend is disgusted and embarrassed by her hands. And because of all that, I couldn’t help thinking of the girls I’ve known who wouldn’t let me see them naked; all those girls who thought their sex was gross, you know. Vaginas again, dude. Associations.

Yet, ultimately, what really got to me was something else. I felt like after a while Burns got as sick of the allegory as I did. At some point I realised that he had just kind of let it go; like he stopped trying to find clever ways to say stuff and decided to just say it; like he stopped trying to hit you over the head with the Gen X thing; and Black Hole then became emotional, warm, sympathetic and all that. It became sincere, I guess is what I’m trying to say; and that really woke up Sherry and Mark and Rick, and the rest. Like how Chris loses her way when she loses her guy. Just that; that one moment, that one incident, and she goes down and finds it tough to get back up. I’ve seen it happen, you know. People who can’t cope with the rough and tumble of life; maybe forever, maybe for only a period of time. Chris drops out and becomes pathetic. I’ve seen it happen. That she has the bug or is a mutant or whatever doesn’t matter. Or Eliza. I don’t know, I think Eliza got to me the most. Drugged up and zoned out and all. When she fucks that kid with the sideburns she says something about how nice it is to fuck someone you like for a change. And my heart nearly broke. Her tail is neither here nor there. I’d have given her a badge if I could.

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THE DEVIL IN THE FLESH BY RAYMOND RADIGUET

Precocity is, it seems, both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I find it both attractive and repellent, although I am sure I am not alone in that. Indeed, it took me a long time to admit to enjoying the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the child emperor of French poetry; and yet I was, despite my public and sincere criticisms, privately very much drawn to it. How do you explain these contradictory feelings? Jealousy? Well, I think it is more than that, more complex. I would argue that to be so young and so talented just does not seem right, as though nature had made a mistake, had created a freak, like a pretty little kitten with five legs. All of which is to say that I anticipated that I would be, at best, ambivalent towards Raymond Radiguet, whose first novel – Le Diable au corps [The Devil in the Flesh]was published in 1923 when he was just twenty years old.

The short novel begins with the narrator admitting that his story is likely to result in ‘a good deal of reproach.’ It is a fantastic opening line, because not only does it inspire you to want to read on, in order to find out why, but it also hints at the personality of the young man, for he does not give the impression that these reproaches would be unwarranted. Indeed, the schoolboy, who is never named, very quickly confirms one’s initial suspicions as to the quality of his character. He states that his sensuality was ‘aroused rather than quelled’ by his parents’ disapproval [for example, he uses his father’s boat even though it is forbidden] and admits to feeling contempt for his peers. Of course this may strike you as ordinary small-scale teenage rebellion, and one could also, with justification, point out that most teenagers are self-absorbed and arrogant, but that does not make the behaviour any more admirable or the person more likeable.

“I could touch her face, kiss her eyes, her arms, dress her, damage her in whatever way I liked. In my frenzy I bit her where her skin was uncovered, so her mother would suspect her of having a lover. I would have liked to carve my initials there.”

Moreover, as he continues to recount his story one gets the sense that there is something slightly more sinister, or concerning at least, about the boy’s attitude. In what is the novel’s finest scene, he watches as a woman, a maid, totters about on the roof of a house, a woman who has clearly had a kind of mental breakdown and is potentially suicidal. While some children, including his brothers, are more interested in the fair that is simultaneously in action, he is absorbed in the spectacle on the roof, which makes his heart quicken ‘to a new, irregular beat.’ Furthermore, when he meets Madame Grangier he takes an instant dislike to her because of her ‘short figure and inelegant appearance.’ These examples, for me, suggested a callousness that one cannot explain away entirely in relation to someone’s youth, as he views one person as a sort of entertainment, and judges the other harshly by virtue of her lack of beauty.

At this point all the signs were that The Devil in the Flesh was going to be another in a long line of French novels focussing on young men so caddish as to approach the level of psychopath, men who harbour particularly unpleasant ideas about women. And, at least on the most superficial level, much of the content bears that out, particularly the central relationship with Marthe, an older married woman with whom he starts an affair. While he professes to love her, this relationship is characterised by a relentless pursuit of power, with the boy wanting to gain control over Marthe and get her to do as he pleases. For example, the first date, if you want to call it that, involves the narrator convincing the girl to put off an appointment with her mother-in-law in order to spend the day with him. He delights in being able to make her lie for him.

When Marthe goes shopping for furniture for what is to be the house she will share with her husband, the boy contradicts her choices; when she suggests she likes a certain piece he ‘immediately suggested its opposite, which I didn’t necessarily like myself’ and by the end of the day the ‘browbeaten’ girl has started to doubt herself and her own tastes. It is a particularly powerful scene, because it shows how easily, and with such subtlety, people can be manipulated, and how a controlling person can employ their art in order to get what they want without resorting to physical violence or threats. The boy, quite consciously, wants to make her live in a house in which he has chosen all the furniture, because he believes it will symbolically make him part of the marriage, and that, by making her complicit in this way, he will have a kind of ownership over her. Furthermore, this need for power and control also extends to the fiancee, who will, unknowingly, look upon and use his furniture every day.

However, while all this does put one in mind of Julien Sorel, Frédéric Moreau, and Georges Duroy et al, Radiguet does a number of interesting things that elevates his work, that makes it something more than a down-sized version of The Red & the Black or A Sentimental Education. First of all, one must remember that the narrator is essentially a child, while his lover is an adult. This fact alone makes one doubt the veracity of some of his claims, makes one wonder if he is playing up to his role as a scoundrel, especially when he recounts episodes such as when the couple are in bed and the boy wants the light to be put out, believing that the ‘darkness would give me courage.’ Moreover, there is an scene where Marthe buys him a dressing gown and suggests that he try it on straight away. She does this in order to get him to have sex with her, which indicates not only that she is prone to playing manipulative games herself, but also accentuates her experience [and his inexperience].

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Throughout The Devil in the Flesh there are numerous other instances where the narrator comes across as shy and naive, or when one is reminded of his youth. In one scene, during their first meeting, he considers kissing Marthe, and yet is glad that he cannot because they are not alone; he is relieved that a barrier exists that makes it impossible to do the thing that most scares him at that moment. It is in relation to incidents such as this that one comes to realise that this cad maybe isn’t as bad as you, and even he, believes; he is, quite simply, a child engaged in adult business, or, as he himself acknowledges, a boy ‘attempting to come to grips with a man’s adventure.’ If one bears this in mind his behaviour, his meannesses, his wrong-doing, at least in terms of Marthe, is shown in a new, softer light; indeed, they become forgivable, perhaps even understandable.

What further distinguishes the work is what it has to say about war, and this is, I imagine, what stirred much of the controversy surrounding the novel. Indeed, on the first page the narrator states that war, far from being a tragedy, meant ‘four years of holiday.’ He also talks about how ‘the Austrian assassination,’ which I imagine refers to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, produced an atmosphere ‘conducive to extravagance.’ What he is suggesting, then, is that the war made all kinds of previously unacceptable behaviour permissible, which makes sense of course. The instability, the spectre of death peering over your shoulder at all times, must have had an effect upon people’s minds, must have made them eager to enjoy themselves whilst they could. Moreover, and this is particularly relevant in regards to Marthe, the fact that so many husbands were away from their families provided an opportunity for people to indulge themselves if they were so inclined. Therefore, and the narrator does mention this himself, one could maybe view Marthe’s affair with a schoolboy as not a great love, but as something that was, in essence, simply a consequence of the war.

LE GRAND MEAULNES BY ALAIN-FOURNIER

Some time after leaving university I was in a club; and at one point in the, er, festivities I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around, and there was an attractive blonde girl. She spoke my name; I stared back at her blankly. ‘Don’t you remember me?’ she asked. I had to confess that I didn’t. ‘Nicole,’ she said. I was about to embarrass myself further, and admit that I still could not place her, when it came to me. Ah, Nicole! Of course! She had been in the same halls of residence as I. We didn’t take any of the same classes, and we hadn’t spoken all that often, but our paths had crossed once or twice in the corridor or at parties.

As the night wore on we danced and we chatted and we kissed; and when the club closed we set out on a walk, with Nicole in the lead. I know my home city well, but being drunk, with my attention elsewhere, I had no real idea how we came to be in the place where we ended up. As I remember it now, and as I remembered it the next day, it resembled some kind of stone arena, with high walls, and lights all around, some of them hanging from trees. Of course I doubt this was the case, but that is what I see when I cast back into the past to try and dredge up that night. I don’t know exactly how long we were there; it felt like hours, but it could only have been thirty minutes or so.

In any case, before Nicole and I parted, she asked for my telephone number. Unfortunately, I did not know it by heart [I still don’t] and I have never carried my mobile with me on nights out. ‘Tell me your number,’ I said, gallantly, ‘and I’ll remember it.’ Foolish boy! Of course, when I woke up the next day the number was entirely lost to me; it was as much an irretrievable part of the night as the kisses and the fantastic stone arena had been. Yet I didn’t initially let it bother me too much, being used to hooking up in clubs and also being of the belief that I would sooner or later bump into her again.

However, over the following months, even though I frequented various clubs in the city, including the one in which we had met, and although I kept something of an eye out for her, I found no trace of Nicole, by which I mean that she never herself turned up, and nor did any of the people I had seen her with that night. The longer this continued, the more interested I became in the situation, the more mental energy I devoted to it. Who is this girl, I thought to myself, whose life briefly merged with mine only to suddenly disappear? At the end of each night I would leave the club and go in search of the arena, hoping that being in the same state [i.e. very drunk] would somehow jog my memory and lead me there. By this stage, the whole incident had taken on the qualities of a dream – I felt as though I was searching for someone and a place, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate to myself, which had, in fact, never existed anywhere except in my imagination.

Now when I think back to that time and wonder why I so wanted to see Nicole again it strikes me that it wasn’t the girl herself that I was chasing, that I was looking for, but a part of myself, the part that had only been possible when I was with this particular girl in that extraordinary place; I found it hard to let that go.* This is not, of course, unique to me; many of us want to reclaim or relive our pasts, many of us hanker nostalgically after certain experiences, and this, at least partly, is what Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier’s beautiful French novel, is about.

“This was the setting in which the most troubled and most precious days of my life were lived: an abode from which our adventurings flowed out, to flow back again like waves breaking on a lonely headland.”

Le Grand Meaulnes begins with the arrival of a young boy, Francois Seurel, in Sainte-Agathe. He is accompanied by his father, a teacher, and his mother, who he describes as the ‘the most meticulous housewife ever known.’ It is, then, made immediately clear that Francois’ home-life is rather conventional, and, well, perhaps a little boring. Moreover, the boy himself is both ‘timid’ and, due to a problem with his knee, ‘weak,’ and so does not, or cannot, play with other children. Then one day Augustin Meaulnes – who is, of course, the great or grand Meaulnes of the title – enters his life. The circumstances behind their first meeting are significant: it is a Sunday, a day traditionally of rest, the dullest of dull days, when one would not expect anything exciting to happen. However, when Francois returns from church he finds a woman gazing through the window of his house. It turns out that she has ‘lost’ her boy, who is, well, I think you’ve probably worked that out already.

It was clever on Alain-Fournier’s part to introduce Meaulnes in this way, not with his presence, but by the absence of it, thereby revealing an important, or the defining aspect of his behaviour or character without him even being ‘on stage.’ Having given his mother the slip one understands straight away that this is an adventuresome boy, who does things his own way, who is, in contrast to Francois, unconventional. Indeed, his physical entrance into the novel confirms this impression, as he comes down the Seurel’s stairs to announce that he has been rooting around in their attic, quite without permission of course, and has found some unused fireworks. He then takes Francois outside and sets them off. This is, in effect, the symbolic and literal start of a more exciting existence for Francois.

In order to be able to enjoy Le Grand Meaulnes one must accept its limitations. There is, for example, no character depth; everyone is ‘one dimensional,’ is, essentially, a symbol, or a type, of one sort or another. Meaulnes is shown in the beginning to be adventurous and brave and independent, and that is how he remains; all of his actions – like taking Fromentin’s horse and cart on a long drive in order to pick up Francois’ Grandparents – are further proof of these qualities. Francois does not develop either; sure, he gets into more scrapes than he would have done without Meaulnes’ friendship, but he does not take a very active part in them; he is, in effect, an observer or bystander or, at best, a sidekick. Indeed, no one behaves in a way that would surprise you, and no one’s thought processes, aside from the narrator’s, are engaged with; all of the characters are straight forward and predictable [even Meaulnes, whose unpredictability is itself predictable].

I also ought to mention that the plot is often derided as unbelievable and silly and too reliant upon coincidences, particularly in the second half. Responding to these specific criticisms is difficult, because silly and unbelievable are subjective terms. All I can say in that regard is that I don’t agree or that all literature is unbelievable if you bring a cynical attitude to it [and this book more than most requires you to be open-minded, because, for the greater part, the prevailing atmosphere is one of awe and wonder]. In terms of coincidences, yes, there are some, but I have never understood why this bothers readers as much as does. Life is full of coincidences, so it is not as though we have no experience of them ourselves. Besides, I would argue that, flawed or not, the plot is tremendously gripping and moving.

Superficially, Le Grand Meaulnes is a kind of fast-paced mystery novel. As noted, Augustin one day leaves to pick up Francois’ Grandparents, but he fails to meet them, and doesn’t come back for three days. When he does return, he fails to provide an explanation, seems distracted and aloof, and appears to be working on some sort of map. Naturally, if one has not read the book before, all of this is intriguing. Where has Meaulnes been? What is the map for? What happened to him? Whatever the boy experienced clearly had a profound effect upon him and one is eager for an explanation. [Furthermore, even once the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, there continues to be twists and surprises, such as the identity of the gypsy boy, and the nature of the relationship between Frantz, Valentine and Meaulnes].

One is always told to avoid spoilers in one’s reviews, but, as far as I am concerned, this is absurd, that any review that avoids spoilers isn’t actually worth reading because it cannot have engaged with the book in any meaningful way. With that said, I have no qualms about revealing that when Meaulnes leaves with the horse and carriage to pick up Francois’ Grandparents he gets lost and eventually comes upon a remote house, where a fete is taking place. He infiltrates the party and subsequently meets a beautiful girl, Yvonne. Now, what is so brilliant about this idea is that, for a novel about adolescence and adolescents, it actually taps into so many popular, seemingly immortal and universal, aspects of adolescent fantasy, such as the idea of getting lost, the prospect of discovering some magical place hitherto unknown, the opportunity to pretend to be someone other than yourself and, in the process, meeting a beautiful girl [or boy, depending on your preference, of course] with whom you fall in love.

However, to give the impression that Le Grand Meaulnes is nothing more than a kind of teenage fantasy or fairy-tale, or even a pacey mystery, is to undersell it. What elevates it to the level of a masterpiece is that it is, much like Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, a perfect synthesis of gripping plot and philosophy, adventure and romance and ideas; it is, despite its apparently simple characters and whimsical story, a sneakily complex little novel. It is important to remember that Francois, from some distance in years, in narrating the tale, is, with fondness and some sorrow, looking back to his own childhood. Le Grand Meaulnes is, then, like Marcel Proust’s opus, on one level about memory, about how we remember important events or periods in our lives. Indeed, he admits within the first couple of pages that his memories are somewhat confused or have, in a way, merged, so that what may have been numerous days or experiences seem like, have become, only one.

I think this is subtly profound writing, because it is exactly how memory works – memories do not come to you in a linear fashion, as a straightforward or precise narrative; days do not follow in sequence; and so what you remember is likely to be an amalgamation of various memories or days. If you try to picture an event, let’s say your first day at school, certain aspects may be as it was then – that it was a Monday, saybut it is also likely that you will misremember or confuse certain details, that, for example, you will recall the walls of the classroom being grey when they were actually cream, that it was, in fact, the walls of a different classroom, years later, that were grey. Moreover, one sometimes cannot help but place important people in places where they cannot have been, or one feels their presence hanging over certain incidents that they were not part of. On this, perhaps my favourite passage in the book is when Francois tries to conjure up the first night in the new house in Sainte-Agathe, and sees Meaulnes’ tall shadow moving across the wall, to and fro, ‘restless and friendly,’ even though it would be ten years before they would actually meet.

As one progresses through the novel one comes to realise that there is a satisfying mirroring going on vis-à-vis Meaulnes and Francois, that while one is trying to go back to the place where he met Yvonne, the other is trying to go back in his memories [in fact, both could be said to be going back in their heads]. Bearing this in mind, one could see the lost domain as not only a real, physical place, but as childhood itself. This is given further weight when one considers that the domain was characterised by a kind of gaiety or freedom, and was full of children who, on at least one of the days, were in sole charge. Throughout the book both the older Francois and the young Meaulnes are trying to recapture something ephemeral, something that therefore cannot be recaptured.

“Weeks went by, then months. I am speaking of a far-away time – a vanished happiness. It fell to me to befriend, to console with whatever words I could find, one who had been the fairy, the princess, the mysterious love-dream of our adolescence.”

“I’m sure now that when I discovered the nameless domain I was at some peak of perfection, of purity, to which I shall never again attain.”

One might argue that this interpretation overlooks the love relationship between Meaulnes and Yvonne, that it was her who he was desperate to reclaim or rediscover, not some mythical idea of childhood, but I don’t see that. It is telling, for me, that Meaulnes, once he and Yvonne are reunited, feels deflated or disappointed and actually leaves at the first opportunity. Of course, his leaving is explained as being part of some promise or pact, but Isn’t it really the case that Meaulnes was more in love with the idea of Yvonne and the lost domain, than with the real woman and the real place? Let’s face it, he did not have to abandon her; he had a choice and he chose to go, to follow the dream rather than live with reality. To return to Nicole and my introduction, like me it was not the woman that he wanted, but how she made him feel, what she was part of.

*For anyone interested in my story, I never saw Nicole again, but I think I may one day have stumbled upon the stone arena, which, if I am correct, is part of a large park or botanical garden that is roughly ten minutes walk from the club, although it does not, except in the most vague or rudimentary fashion, align with my memory of it.

SPRING SNOW [THE SEA OF FERTILITY VOL.1] BY YUKIO MISHIMA

Has there ever been a stranger novelist than Yukio Mishima? On the one hand, he was a body-building Nationalist, who advocated bushido, the samurai code; he also, as many know, committed seppuku, which is a ritual form of suicide involving disembowelling and beheading. You don’t, it is fair to say, get that kind of thing with Julian Barnes and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

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Yet, on the other hand, Mishima was undeniably a cultured man, who spoke English and dressed in the English fashion; he was a bisexual who acted in films and wrote plays as well as novels and short stories. It is almost as though he embodied the conflict – that of the traditional and reserved vs. the modern and progressive – that until very recently so dominated most of the great Japanese literature, and about which his own work, especially Spring Snow, is also concerned.

In what is perhaps a nod to Murasaki Shikibu’s monumental Tale of Genji, Spring Snow is primarily focussed on a preternaturally beautiful young man. As with the shining prince, everyone who meets the central character, Kiyoaki Matsugae, is struck by his attractiveness; and the awareness of his good-looks and the effect it has on other people makes him somewhat spoiled and conceited. Furthermore, although he is the son of a nouveau riche couple, who dress in Western clothes, he was actually raised by a once-prosperous aristocratic family, in order to ensure that he is well versed in traditional Japanese ways and has an elegant bearing. This upbringing means that Kiyoaki is, in a sense, caught between two different eras; he isn’t fully a traditionalist [he doesn’t revere the Emperor, for example], nor is he entirely modern; he is elegant, as his parents desired, but his elegance, and decadence, means that he is unfit for the modern world [for instance, out of indolence he neglects his schooling].

I imagine that it is clear already that my opinion of Kiyoaki is not especially positive. He is not bad per se, but he is tremendously arrogant and self-obsessed. Of course, you could excuse some of his flaws on the basis of his age; Kiyoaki is a teenager and so arrogance and self-obsession are pretty much part of the deal, but even so the behaviour of most teenagers does not lead to the ruin of numerous people. I should point out, however, that I do not think that the reader is meant to like him; I believe that, as a product of two conflicting eras, or ways of life, the effete and ineffectual Kiyoaki is, for Mishima, a necessary failure as a human being. For me, it is telling that his servant Iinuma, the one character whose attitude would have, I think, most closely resembled Mishima’s own [in terms of his feelings about loyalty, duty, etc], is disappointed in him, and even, at times, disgusted by him.

“Iinuma looked down at his face, at the sensitive darting eyes with their long lashes – the eyes of an otter – and he knew that it was hopeless to expect him to swear the enthusiastic oaths of loyalty to the Emperor that a night like this would have invoked in any normal young Japanese boy.”

“Kiyoaki’s eyes were now wide open as he lay on his back staring at the ceiling, and they were filled with tears. And when this glistening gaze turned on him, Iinuma’s distaste deepened.”

As I read the novel for the second time, I was baffled by the popular opinion that it is a moving love story, or even the greatest of all love stories. Yes, it details a troubled relationship between two young people – the aforementioned Kiyoaki and the equally beautiful Satoko, the daughter of the noble family who raised the boy – but it is a strange kind of love that continually rejects someone and then suddenly wants that person at the point at which it has become impossible to have them. Perhaps Satoko does love Kiyoaki, but there is abundant evidence that the same is not true for the young man. For example, the first thing he says to his friend Honda, when an ill-looking Satoko is unresponsive towards him, is “I don’t think Satoko will sleep with me anymore”. Does that sound like love to you? No, it sounds like someone who is a bit of a dick. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not always been a nice guy where girls are concerned, so you could say I’m in no position to judge. But on the basis of the principle of it takes one to know one I’m calling Kiyoaki out.

Moreover, although there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their relationship, I don’t necessarily buy the star-crossed lovers interpretation of the story because the couple, Kiyoaki in particular, cause their own problems and create those obstacles themselves. Having said that, I guess you could argue that fate or destiny is also an obstacle to the couple’s love, and this is certainly not something that Kiyoaki and Satoko can control. As you may know, Spring Snow is part of a tetralogy called The Sea of Fertility. Each book in the series deals with reincarnation and predestination. In Spring Snow, the first volume, there are numerous hints and suggestions that what is happening, specifically to Kiyoaki, is, in a sense, meant to be. For example, he keeps a dream journal, and one of his dreams involves Satoko clinging to his coffin; there are repeated references to his demise, and a general sense of foreboding hangs over the novel.

“There’s no doubt that he’s heading straight for tragedy…I’ve got to use every ounce of my strength to stop him fulfilling his destiny.”

In this way, Satoko and Kiyoaki’s relationship is tragic, because they never had a chance. However, if you want to appeal to predestination then you can’t really talk about Kiyoaki at all, because without free will he becomes a non-entity. As a reviewer, in order for discussion to be possible, I want to take him on face value.

One may ask then, if Kiyoaki is so unpleasant, and Spring Snow is not the tragic or tear-jerking tale of adolescent love it is billed as, why should you read the book? Well, first of all, it is always engrossing; whether one sympathises with Satoko and Kiyoaki or not, one is, crucially, still interested in their fate. Furthermore, although the narrative isn’t exactly full of high-octane action, Mishima, unlike many of the other historically important Japanese novelists, does serve up a steady amount of excitement and surprise and tension. In contrast, something like Tanizaki’s acclaimed novel The Makioka Sisters may be wonderful, but it is at times interminably slow and uneventful; I can’t imagine that, when reading that book, there are people that have stayed up late into the night, desperate to reach the end of a chapter, so as to find out what happens next, but I can certainly see that being the case with Spring Snow.

I wrote at the beginning of this review that Mishima to some extent embodied the conflict that he wrote about, that of the traditional and the modern ways of life; what is most interesting about Spring Snow is that this conflict, this tension, is not only apparent thematically, it is in the style too. So, while the prose is undeniably graceful, as you would expect from a great Japanese novel, it lacks simplicity; indeed, Mishima’s style, with its extended metaphors, extreme emoting, and psychological depth, is, I would say, closer to Western writers, like Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky, than Kawabata or Tanizaki. I would also argue that Mishima’s characters are easier to understand and relate to for a Western audience; again, one may not like their behaviour, or admire their motivations, but they are more familiar to us; Kiyoaki is a brat, for example, but we all have known brats. Satoko is perhaps more a mystery, more like the enigmatic women you find in Kawabata, but even her actions can be viewed in terms of a young girl having the hots for a great-looking guy.

Yet for all that, the biggest selling point is just how beautiful Spring Snow is; it really is breathtaking at times. As with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the prose is actually so beautiful that it is, in a sense, diverting, so that, like when in the company of a beautiful woman one becomes incapable of judging her behaviour, readers tend not to pick up on how unsavoury the behaviour of the characters actually is. Also like Flaubert, Mishima’s prose is sensual, and highly detailed; in my review of Madame Bovary I called the Frenchman a hyperrealist, by which I mean he makes the real or ordinary seem extraordinary, and I would apply the same term to Mishima. There are numerous passages in the text that one could highlight as evidence, but one that particularly struck me was Kiyoaki holding the train of the princess’ dress:

“Beautiful, elegant, imposing, she was like a flower at the moment of its perfection…Princess Kasuga’s hair had the blackness and sheen of fine lacquer. Seen from behind her elaborate coiffure seemed to dissolve into the rich white skin-textures of the nape of her neck, leaving single strands against her bare shoulders whose faint sheen was set off by her décolleté…she held herself erect and walked ahead with a firm step, betraying no tremor to her trainbearers, but in Kiyoaki’s eyes that great fan of white fur seemed to glow and fade to the sound of music, like the snow covered peak first hidden, then exposed by a fluid pattern of clouds.”

I love that. It isn’t a one-off either, Mishima throws this kind of stuff out by the page. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know he may have been, but he was a wonderful, sensitive writer.

THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES BY ROBERTO BOLANO

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. – 1 Corinthians 13:11

I should have hated this. A book about a bunch of South American hippy-poets and their pretentiously titled Visceral Realism movement seems almost to have been written just to piss me off. It’s been called an On The Road for a new generation, and, well, I despise the Beats; it has also been compared to Cortazar’s Rayuela, and, uh, the twenty or so pages of that I managed to endure made me want to offer my soul to Satan in return for never coming across it again as long as I live. And, yet, I didn’t hate The Savage Detectives at all; in fact, I really quite liked it. This review is my attempt to come to terms with that.

I ought to say something, briefly, about my relationship with Roberto Bolaño, because you’re probably wondering why I picked up the book in the first place, why, if it was anathema to me, I actually wanted to read it. I’d like to point out that I’m certainly not the type to read books in order to hate on them; that just seems too much like punching yourself in the bollocks, to me. I’m not a masochist, I don’t want to have a bad time. So, despite the hype, I had stayed away from The Savage Detectives for years. It wasn’t until Bolaño’s imposing 2666 was released that I began to pay attention, and that was only due to the book being 900-plus pages long. See, I have a thing for big books. I love them. They must secrete some kind of potent literary pheromone, because I can’t resist them.  I was, then, always going to buy 2666; and when, with little optimism, I eventually got around to reading it I found that it was a genuinely great book. This shocking revelation forced me to re-think my stance on The Savage Detectives.

The novel is split into three parts, with the greater weight given to two of them: the opening section featuring young proto-poet Garcia Madero and an even longer middle-section mainly focusing on the travels and adventures of Ulyses Lima and Arturo Belano, the originators of the Visceral Realist movement. Despite my pre-reading reservations I really enjoyed the first part of the book, which is presented as Garcia Madero’s diary entries. It’s pretty standard growing-up-pains type stuff – involving the loss of his virginity, drug taking, a bunch of kooky girls, and inappropriate friends – but Madero’s voice is colloquial and engaging. The material may be a little frayed around the edges but, perhaps due to the snappy dialogue, the humour, and the mostly light and breezy tone, it feels fresh.

“Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I’d rather not talk about it, because I didn’t understand it.”

That lightness of touch is why accusations of pretentiousness [from me as much as anyone] are wide of the mark. The characters do spend a lot of their time discussing poetry, are self-absorbed and opinionated, but, crucially, are also as goofy and stupid, as fumbling and awkward, as most teenagers and young adults. In fact, while poetry is clearly important to Bolaño, for me the focus is more on adolescence, and how dumb and fun and silly and sometimes painful it is, and how it is the period of your life that is full of fanciful dreams and ambitions, the time of your life when writing poetry and starting poetic movements and stealing books of poetry seem like heroic things to do. It’s no coincidence that Garcia Madero is 17, an age when one is on the cusp of greater responsibility [a career, a relationship etc]. Indeed, towards the end of the first part of the novel he has moved in with a woman, and it is this kind of adult responsibility, to my mind, that he is running away from when, in this section’s final scene, he climbs into a car with Lima and Belano and takes off.

The+Infrarealists+in+Mexico+City,+1976

[A young Roberto Bolaño and friends. Bolaño is on back row, second from the left]

In the second section of the novel the narrative becomes fragmented. It is still written in the first person, but instead of concentrating on the thoughts/experiences of one character it is composed of a [sometimes seemingly endless] series of anecdotes/stories told by numerous people who knew/had heard about/or came into contact with Lima, Belano, and, to a lesser extent, Garcia Madero during their road trip and beyond. Taken in isolation some of the anecdotes are revealing, some exciting, and some are banal or, to be less kind, tedious. However, the accumulative effect is quite moving. While in the opening section of the novel Lima and Belano [amongst others] came across as endearingly enigmatic or eccentric, in a stoned kind of a way, as the story progresses, as the anecdotes mount up, as time passes, the mood darkens, becomes more melancholy, as one comes to realise that the two poets and their friends are a little bit lost [perhaps literally, but certainly emotionally], that their lives are aimless, even tragic.

“Drink up, boys, drink up and don’t worry, if we finish this bottle we’ll go down and buy another one. Of course, it won’t be the same as the one we’ve got now, but it’ll still be better than nothing. Ah, what a shame they don’t make Los Suicidas mezcal anymore, what a shame that time pases, don’t you think? what a shame that we die, and get old, and everything good goes galloping away from us.”

To a certain extent the novel is about heroes, about who you look up to as a kid and why. We’ve all been there, we’ve all been fifteen or sixteen and idolised some older guy who is in a band and takes drugs and drops out of school. As you get older yourself, and maybe move away, grow up and get a job and get married, you may retain a nostalgic affection for that person and that time of your life, and yet you’ll understand, with a more mature perspective, that what you thought was an admirable romantic, exciting lifestyle was, ultimately, something of a waste, maybe even quite sad. It’s a novel, for me, about the sweep of time, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood; it is about how unsustainable adolescent dreams and behaviour are as you age, how eventually life’s hard knocks, its crueller aspects, will catch up with you.

NB: I should point out that I do not dislike poetry, or think it necessarily pretentious to discuss poetry. In fact, I read a lot of poetry, and I write poems myself. My expectations, however, were that the characters in The Savage Detectives, like those in Rayuela, would do excruciating things like reciting poetry while dancing in the rain or in the middle of love-making etc.