intimacy

DEATH IN MIDSUMMER & OTHER STORIES BY YUKIO MISHIMA

Throughout my life I have written hundreds of short stories; some stretching to thousands of words, and some only a paragraph or two. It’s strange that someone who admits to avoiding short fiction, for the most part, would be so drawn to writing it himself. Although I guess it sums up my personality. In any case, it isn’t that I don’t like short stories but, rather, that I think most of them are poor [including my own, most likely]. The masters of the form – Carver, Chekhov et al – show that at its best it is capable of capturing something of the true, and often banal, profundity of human existence in a way that nothing else can. In my writing, I’m somewhat obsessed with the idea of snapshots or moments, of dropping in on someone’s life for only a few minutes or hours, because when I think about my own life that is how I see it: in moments, not as some detailed, linear narrative.

To the list of ‘masters of the form’ I now want to add Yukio Mishima. I’ve long been an admirer of his writing, but had, until now, never sampled his short fiction. It seems impossible to discuss Mishima without referencing his strange personal life and beliefs [I have done so in all my previous reviews of his work]. I do not want to go over all that again in detail, except to say that on the basis of the title, Death in Midsummer, some other reviews I have come across, and the author’s biography, I found myself surprised by how normal, how free of perversity, and shock value these stories are. They are, in the main, domestic, focusing on relationships, specifically marriage, and children. It is a reminder that no matter how odd certain aspects of someone’s life is or was, it does not account for the whole person; Mishima may have been a fanatic, a fascist, a crazy man, but there was clearly a tender and empathetic side to him, involving a deep understanding of ordinary people, otherwise he would never have been able to write these stories.

Having said all that, the most well-known story in the collection, Patriotism, is as unnerving as anything I have ever read. It features a couple, a lieutenant in the army and his wife, who commit ritual suicide, one by disembowelling himself, and the other by stabbing herself in the throat. For the husband his death is about honour. He does not want to attack a group of rebels, whose cause he believes in, and yet he has been asked to do just that. And so instead of following orders he takes his own life. There is something, for me, attractive about this kind of action, this utter, fatal commitment to one’s principles. When I look around me, I get the impression that honour and integrity are in short supply, that most people these days are only really concerned with themselves and what benefits them, and so while I do not want anyone to meet a gruesome death, I admire Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama nevertheless.

yukio-mishima-patriotism

[From Patriotism, a short film directed by Mishima, which is based on the story of the same name]

For any sensitive readers, it is necessary to point out that Mishima does not flinch. In the story, the man’s wife is asked to watch, to bear witness, to the event, and we, as the reader, are put in the same position. So we stay with the lieutenant as he slowly slices open his stomach, as his insides fall out, as he breathes his last breath. It is brilliantly written, but is, still, incredibly unpleasant. Knowing what we know about Mishima [he too committed seppuku], it would be tempting to view Patriotism [especially considering that title] as a form of propaganda, as a kind of love letter to nationalism and ritual suicide. It is undeniably the case that he writes about seppuku in glowing terms. For example, according to Mishima, Shinji “contemplated death with severe brows and firmly closed lips” and “revealed what was perhaps masculine beauty at its most superb.”

However, it is interesting that, while as a standalone story it might be viewed in that way, and considered distasteful, as part of the Death in Midsummer collection it struck me as being primarily about marriage and intimacy, rather than suicide. The two characters have a strong and loving relationship, this is seen not only in the wife agreeing to follow her husband into death [she dies for her husband, not for a cause or principle], but in the way that he asks her to witness his own [which is unusual]. Furthermore, in doing so he trusts that she will follow him, and that she will not attempt to save him once he has commenced the act. In fact, the decision to die provokes even greater intimacy and love between them, and they actually have sex before performing the ritual. If you forget about seppuku for a moment, one can understand the story as an investigation into the idea that mortality gives fresh impetus to life; that they are about to die makes the couple love and cherish and appreciate each other even more.

“Reiko had not kept a diary and was now denied the pleasure of assiduously rereading her record of the happiness of the past few months and consigning each page to the fire as she did so.”

While Patriotism may be the most [in]famous story in this collection – and I did enjoy it, as much as that is possible – it is certainly not the best. That accolade I would give to the title story, which also happens to be the longest. Death in Midsummer begins at the beach, one that is “still unspoiled for sea bathing” and where the sand is “rich and white.” Three children are present with their aunt, while their mother takes a nap back at the hotel. Initially, all seems idyllic, but there is something ominous in the air. First of all, the mother is described as ‘girl-like,” almost suggesting that she ought not to have children yet, a suggestion that is given extra weight by the fact that she is not with them, that she has let them go off with someone else. Even more worrying is the line “it was height of summer and there was anger in the rays of the sun.” Where or at what or who is this anger directed?

You may never get a straightforward answer to that question, but before too long the significance of the title becomes apparent. The aunt and two of the three children die. From this point onwards, Death in Midsummer becomes an investigation into the nature of grief, one that is as honest, as moving, and as beautiful as Tolstoy’s masterpiece The Death of Ivan Ilych. As one would expect, the mother blames herself somewhat, especially as the aunt is not alive to shoulder the burden of blame herself; indeed, she likens telling her husband [who did not go on holiday with the rest of the family] about the accident to having to stand before a judge. I found this entirely believable, regardless of whether anyone is actually to blame [and one could argue that they are not in this instance] it is not unusual to feel as though you are guilty of something when a terrible thing happens near you or around you. There is guilt in living, in avoiding trouble or death. Mishima also touches upon the guilt felt by those who survive a tragedy when they notice that they are moving on, as though such a thing ought to not be possible if you really care. Again, the mother thinks in terms of criminals, and compares herself, in getting on with her life, to someone getting away with a crime.

There are almost too many psychological insights and highlights; every paragraph, every sentence almost, contains some touching observation. Such as when the husband receives the news, and he likens it to having been dismissed from his job. Or when he asks for the news to be repeated, even though he knows it will not change the second time around. Or when the wife admits to feeling as though sorrow ought to come with special privileges. Or when Mishima notes that death is an administrative affair, involving certain expected responses and a lot of organising and planning. Or, finally, when he highlights the poverty of human emotions, whereby one’s response is the same, regardless of whether one person dies or ten. I could indulge myself and write a paragraph about each of these things, but I won’t. What I will say is that, as with Patriotism, in less capable and sensitive hands Death in Midsummer could have been melodramatic, even exploitative. It is to the author’s credit that the heart of the tale is not dead children, but that of a grieving couple surviving, staying together.

There are, of course, other stories, but I will not linger over those. I do, however, want to briefly touch upon Mishima’s subtlety as a writer. At the very beginning of this review I mentioned Raymond Carver. His collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of my favourites, and what I most like about it, and the author, is how light his touch was. I sometimes get so tired of reading things where everything is spelled out for you, where the how’s and why’s and what’s are raked over in great detail. Carver didn’t do that, and nor did Mishima here. Indeed, there are two stories that perplexed me until I had put the book down and given them some thought, where what had actually happened wasn’t immediately clear, was ambiguous. I loved having to work a little bit, to engage my mind, to interpret gestures and responses for myself. For example, in Thermos Bottles, Mishima does not outright tell you that the wife had been unfaithful, and yet one thinks that she was because of the way the ‘other man’ talks about the couple’s child, with authority, as though he knows it in a way that he ought not to. I thought that was handled brilliantly, and the same could be said of Three Million Yen. The only one that did not grab my attention was Onnagata, but that perhaps says more about the company it finds itself in than the quality of  the story itself.

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PALACE WALK [THE CAIRO TRILOGY PT. 1] BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ

I do wonder sometimes why certain people bother to read foreign literature, as they seem intolerant of, or are at least irritated by, cultural differences. I was browsing some reviews of a Japanese novel the other day and I came across a couple which suggested that the book in question, and Japanese literature as a whole, is troubling, and ultimately unenjoyable, because the female characters are infantilised. Well, gee, really? First of all, I don’t agree; I think that Japanese literature of a certain age does often feature quiet, submissive female characters, but I’m not entirely sure how that equates to child-like. Nor do I believe that submissive women is specifically a Japanese issue [there are a shit-tonne in English literature, for example. Persuasion anyone?]. Furthermore, there are strong, active female characters in many Japanese novels, like Taeko in The Makioka Sisters. Thirdly, and more pertinently in terms of the book under review here, why are submissive female characters a problem? Do submissive women not exist? Perhaps Japanese women are or were at one time largely submissive, and these Japanese books are merely a reflection of their society. I mean, I dunno about you, but part of the reason I read, part of my enjoyment, is to learn about, to be immersed in, other cultures, rather than to [negatively] judge them against my own.

For me, some people bring a weird form of cultural arrogance to their reading; and this arrogance appears to result in a short-sighted, lazy kind of relationship with the texts in question. Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk focuses on a family which is dominated by its patriarch. The wife [Amina] is not allowed outdoors, the daughters are married off without having much of a say in the matter etc. Cue: lots of hand-wringing and overly PC criticism. Yet the people who criticise the work as sexist completely miss the point. Mahfouz clearly intended this family to show Egyptian, and Muslim, society at its most strict, or old-fashioned; it is a family out of step with the times. This is made abundantly clear on numerous occasions if you bother to pay attention. While the central family are ruled by a tyrant, other families, other patriarchs, are far more relaxed; indeed, many characters comment on al-Sayyid Ahmad’s unyielding behaviour; they even chide him for it. Not only that, but he is shown to be a man who is losing his grip on his family; his daughters and sons and, most shockingly for him, his wife all rebel against his iron rule at certain pivotal stages of the narrative. The new relationships formed by his daughters with their husbands show they have, in one case, more freedom and, in the other, absolute control. I really cannot fathom what some readers find to get upset about.

Palace Walk is only the first part of what is commonly known as The Cairo Trilogy. It is a domestic drama, with, as stated, an overriding theme of change. Like the aforementioned The Makioka Sisters, we are introduced to a society evolving, one on the cusp of a new identity, or way of living; some characters are happy or at least willing to go with the flow, and yet one is categorically not. I find this kind of thing fascinating; it’s like watching a dodo trying to drive a car. However, change is not Mahfouz’s only concern; he has a lot of interesting things to say about family dynamics, about hypocrisy, and politics and love. On hypocrisy: I think one of the things that so enrages some readers is that while al-Sayyid Ahmad demands exemplary behaviour, and compliance, from his wife and children, he seeks to please himself, is himself a boozer and a womaniser. I would again cite cultural, not to mention temporal, differences here as a reason not to criticise the work; and I would also point people to the fact, and it is mentioned in the text, that al-Sayyid Ahmad would be well within his rights to actually take more than one wife, and yet he doesn’t, believing, admirably, that one wife, one set of children, creates a better, more stable environment for his family.

Indeed, it would be a gross misrepresentation of the work to give the impression that the characters are all one-dimensional, that al-Sayyid Ahmad is merely the oppressor, and his wife and daughters the abused and oppressed. The length and the relatively slow pace of the novel actually allows Mahfouz to fully develop his characters, in a way that one doesn’t find in contemporary literature. al-Sayyid Ahmed is thrillingly complex, thrillingly human; so, while he has his ways, of course, it is clear that he loves his family, that he cares deeply about them. He does, however, also care about his image, about his reputation. He is inconsistent, yes, but so am I, so are most people. His wife, too, obviously loves her husband and, generally speaking, is happy to serve him. I guess some people might say that it is wrong for Mahfouz, as a man, to show a woman who is happy to serve her husband, but, again, I think they would misunderstand the book; at no point does the author judge any of his characters or ask you to judge them; this lack of judgement is, actually, one of its most pleasing features.

Yet my favourite aspect of the novel is how close Mahfouz allows you to get to his characters. Palace Walk is an engagingly, charmingly intimate portrayal of an average Muslim family. We are given access to their most mundane actions or rituals, such as how each member of the family eats their breakfast, how make-up is applied; we read about their good-natured piss-taking of each other, their petty squabbles, their most basic hopes and fears. The kind of intimate access you have to them ultimately makes you [or me, at least] care about them; it, in fact, creates a kind of relationship between you and the family, so that you almost feel part of it. Indeed, when Amina hurts herself late in the novel I found myself wishing she would get better. This is in contrast to my usual experiences where I generally hope for nothing but disaster to befall the people I’m reading about [it’s just more exciting, y’know].

One last thing: Mahfouz did, of course, win the Nobel Prize [it says so on the cover of the book, just in case you were in any doubt]. One would anticipate on that basis that his prose would be top drawer. However, while his novel is a fine achievement, and there are some aspects of his writing that are impressive, on the whole it didn’t give me a raging hard-on. I don’t speak or read Arabic, but apparently it is very difficult to translate into English. So, I’m inclined to believe, or am at least prepared to believe, that this is a translation issue rather than a true reflection of Mahfouz’s ability as a prose stylist.