Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow: Perfume in the Library

When I sat down to write about Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, I struggled to find the best way to describe it. A love story seemed too banal. An exploration of the fathers and sons dilemma too simple. An answer came to me as I was reading another book, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Spring Snow is an attempt to recapture a memory, a moment long gone, set into the frame of a tragic love story. And just as in Proust’s masterpiece, fragrance is a leitmotif for Mishima’s story.

Kiyoaki is the son of a nouveau riche family who has been raised in the aristocratic Ayakura household. His father, Marquise Matsugae, conscious of their provincial origins, desired for Kiyoaki to imbibe the manners and elegance of the nobility. But by the time Kiyoaki turns eighteen, he feels confused and torn between the two worlds, the old and the new. He has all of the hallmarks of an aristocrat with his refined aesthetic sensibilities and sophisticated manners, but he feels no respect for the emperor or the tradition. He is floating, unable to understand others and unable to make himself understood.

Early in the story, as a young page to the imperial princess, Kiyoaki stumbles as he holds her train. Her perfume and beauty overwhelm him. For his father, it’s a bad omen.

“Princess Kasuga’s lavish use of French perfume extended to her train, and its fragrance overpowered the musky odor of incense. Some way down the corridor, Kiyoaki stumbled for a moment, inadvertently tugging at the train. The Princess turned her head slightly, and, as a sign that she was not at all annoyed, smiled gently at the youthful offender. Her gesture went unnoticed; body perfectly erect in that fractional turn, she had allowed Kiyoaki a glimpse of a corner of her mouth. At that moment, a single wisp of hair slipped over her clear white cheek, and out of the fine-drawn corner of an eye a smile flashed in a spark of black fire… It was as if nothing had happened… this fleeting angle of the Princess’s face–too slight to be called a profile–made Kiyoaki feel as if he had seen a rainbow flicker for a bare instant through a prism of pure crystal (p 9-10).”

The story is set in Tokyo of 1912. Could the perfume have been Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, also of the same year?

The person who gives Kiyoaki the most torment, but who embodies his beauty ideal, is Satoko Ayakura, alongside whom he has grown up. He can’t understand his feelings for her and gives her up only to realize too late the magnitude of his passion. Satoko is about to be engaged to a royal prince. The passion is mutual, and the lovers are set on the dangerous course.

Kiyoaki is not a likable character in his selfish, self-destructive urges, but he is enigmatic and unpredictable. Under Mishima’s pen the inner worlds of his characters emerge in all of their complexity and nuance. Again, I would make a comparison with Proust, and possibly, with Dostoyevsky, whose novel, The Possessed, I also read over the summer.

Unlike Dostoyevsky, however, Mishima is a sensualist. I can’t think of a more moving description of the feeling that comes after the first kiss is drawing to its close. Or of making love. Or of the feel of sand on one’s skin. Re-reading those passages gives me the same thrill, but I won’t quote them, hoping that you will read the novel and discover them as part of its tapestry.

Even in translation the beauty of Mishima’s writing retains its glow. For instance, when Kiyoaki recollects his childhood spent with Satoko, he wills the memories of the past. She had already been engaged and Kiyoaki decided to give her up. As he recalls their calligraphy lessons, torturing himself by remembering all of the details. He thinks that he is past the yearning for her, but his memories reveal that his world revolves around Satoko.

“Kiyoaki watched as if in a dream. Then there was the ink that smelled dark and solemn, and the sound made by the tip of the brush as it raced over the surface of the scroll, like the wind rustling through bamboo grass. And finally, there was the sea–the well of the inkstone was the sea, and above it rose the hill with the strange name. This sea fell away so sharply from its shore that it gave not so much as a glimpse of its shallow bed. The still black sea, without a single wave, a sea spangled with gold powder falling from the ink stick, always made his think of the rays of the moon fragmented on the night sea of eternity (p. 168)”

And this is only a small glimpse into the treasures of Spring Snow.

Spring Snow is the first novel in The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which Mishima started in 1964 and finished in 1970. The other books are Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970), and The Decay of the Angel (1970). When The Decay of the Angel was completed, Mishima attempted a coup d’état, and when it failed–soldiers whom he lectured on returning Japan to its correct path mocked him, he committed seppuku, a ritual suicide. Towards the end of his life Mishima was seen as no more than a crackpot obsessed with the samurai code of ethics, but as Japanese politics have taken on a more extreme right-wing orientation, Mishima’s ideas are unearthed once again, and his suicide is glorified.

Based on his works, however, the image of a writer that emerges is more complex–and perhaps more controversial. His characters have failings, they pursue ideals that end up as mirages, and their Proustian madeleines taste bitter. The only belief that doesn’t get shattered is in the power of beauty.

Yukio Mishima. Spring Snow (The Sea of Fertility tetralogy). Translated by Michael Gallagher. 1969. Vintage, 2000. Public library link.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin. Ukiyo-e from the Brussels Royal Museum of Art and History.

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40 Comments

  • Old Herbaceous: What a wonderful review! I had not heard of Mishima before, but now I will have to explore his works. Maybe we need a Bois de Jasmin anthology of literature about fragrance … August 9, 2017 at 7:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Sounds like a fun list to compile! August 9, 2017 at 4:59pm Reply

  • sandra: I read my first Proust book..Swan’s Way
    I developed a love hate relationship with the book, but finished it.

    I had your book recommendation Borders at the top of my queue, but I think this one may be for a fun summer read and I will save Borders for when the autumn comes August 9, 2017 at 8:51am Reply

    • sandra: Both of these books are hard to take out of the library actually. Oh well, I can always check online to buy and then donate. August 9, 2017 at 9:28am Reply

      • Nick: Border was as good as Victoria said. I finished it already and passed it on to my partner. August 9, 2017 at 10:31am Reply

        • sandra: Great, I just ordered this and Borders from my local bookstore. They had some used editions. I will donate to my local library when I am finished. August 9, 2017 at 10:40am Reply

          • Victoria: Keeping fingers crossed that you like both. Mishima’s other novels in the tetralogy are excellent, but Spring Snow is his finest. August 9, 2017 at 5:06pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear it, Nick! August 9, 2017 at 5:05pm Reply

      • Victoria: By the way, have you come across a book called How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton? It’s such an entertaining read. August 9, 2017 at 5:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: Spring Snow is beautiful, and it will haunt after you’ve finished reading it.

      When I first tried reading Proust in college, I couldn’t move past the first few pages. But it also might have been because I expected something else from it. I have seen read it and enjoyed it. August 9, 2017 at 5:02pm Reply

      • sandra: Which books have you read by Proust?

        I am putting Alain de Botton on my list August 10, 2017 at 8:17am Reply

        • Victoria: Only the first three volumes of In Search for Lost Time.

          Alain de Botton is a prolific writer, but the only book of his I’ve read was about Proust. It’s so uplifting. August 10, 2017 at 8:57am Reply

  • Nick: Your reading recommendations have guided me well. Thank you! August 9, 2017 at 10:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for letting me know. 🙂 August 9, 2017 at 5:06pm Reply

  • Marsi: Funny you should mention Mishima and Proust in the same breath. After 9/11, I sought peace in Proust by reading all seven books of Á la recherche du temps perdu. It took 18 months. In between each book, I’d take a month off to read other books. Some of those months were spent on Mishima’s Sea of Fertility, so for me, in another way, Proust and Mishima are intertwined. Your insight here is wonderful. August 9, 2017 at 11:03am Reply

    • Victoria: I was thrilled to read your comment earlier and to find someone else saw these two in parallels. Of course, as personalities they couldn’t have been more different. Did you read the other novels by Mishima, besides the tetralogy? August 9, 2017 at 5:10pm Reply

  • Jeremy: Ive read Kawabata and Oe, but not Mishima. Thank you for this excellent review! I love your blog, by the way. It never fails to surprise me and lead me from one discovery to another. August 9, 2017 at 12:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Jeremy.

      Mishima’s style is very different, but he also describes the tensions and the sense of loss that come with major changes around us, so he’s also worth reading. August 9, 2017 at 5:08pm Reply

  • Gabriela: I will definitely purchase this book. I have read Akira Yoshimura and loved it so I guess I should try another Japanese writer. Thank you Victoria. August 9, 2017 at 5:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t read Akira Yoshimura. Which of his novels did you read? August 10, 2017 at 4:22am Reply

      • Gabriela: On parole, very touching, about the human condition and our limits. August 10, 2017 at 4:59am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much. I’m going to order it. August 10, 2017 at 8:43am Reply

  • Sherry: Thank you for the recommendation. The books sound like wonderful reads for the summer. My favourite Japanese writer is Haruki Murakami. Not sure if it’s because of the culture there are definitely similarities in their ways of describing surroundings, it was so beautiful you could almost picturize it and felt what the characters were experiencing. I was fascinated by his stories and in his later books the characters were all somewhat out-of-this-world yet there is always something you can related to. I had trouble put the books down once started. I finished the Norwegian Wood on an overnight train ride…. fond memories August 9, 2017 at 9:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t read any of Haruki Murakami’s novels, I’m not even sure why when I love so many other Japanese writers. Norwegian Wood is the one I planning to start with, although people also recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

      Another modern writer I love is Minae Mizumura. She has a crisp, elegant style and is a sharp observer. August 10, 2017 at 4:26am Reply

      • Ann: I second Minae Mizumura. A True Novel is my favorite book of this year. Wonderful story and characters. I love the way houses are so important to her…..they seem to have their own personas. August 11, 2017 at 2:09am Reply

        • Victoria: She really does! Have you read her newest novel, Inheritance from Mother? The houses are also important in it. August 11, 2017 at 3:31am Reply

          • Ann: Next on my list! Thank you so much for your blog, love the combination of books and perfume….food for thought. August 11, 2017 at 4:46am Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you very much, Ann! 🙂 August 11, 2017 at 6:07am Reply

  • Hilde Deplanter: One work I would like to put on this list is “Le bureau des jardins et des etangs” by Didier Decoin. Set in Japan in the XII century it is a wonderful and surprising story: it starts as a lovestory but evolves into a tale about endurance and a perfume contest at the iperial court.It is written with great detail and love for all things Japanese… August 10, 2017 at 4:34am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. It sounds beautiful. August 10, 2017 at 8:55am Reply

  • Alicia: Some time ago I started reading Spring Snow, and felt enchanted by the elegance if the descriptions, the vividness of the images, and in brief, the beauty of the writing. Peculiarly,the more I advanced in the book the more I disliked the main character. Something very similar happens to me each time I read Madame Bovary. I admire the writing, I have no doubt that it is a towering masterpiece, but I dislike intensely Emma Bovary. Instead my friend, Mario Vargas Llosa, adores her more than he does the book. August 11, 2017 at 6:09am Reply

    • Victoria: I disliked the main character from the very beginning, but what drew me was the character of Satoko and even the rest of the characters painted less distinctly, perhaps. Her actions are far more courageous than Kiyoaki’s.
      The first time I read Emma Bovary, I was living in a place I very much disliked and wanted to leave, so Emma’s plight and her disappointed expectations resonated with me. August 11, 2017 at 7:29am Reply

      • Alicia: The characteristic thing with Emma is that she was never happy with her circumstances, because they could never match her childish romantic fantasies. Flaubert had read Don Quixote, who became mad reading books of chivalry. Emma becomes drunk reading love romances. She needs thrills and, unlike Don Quixote, she has no spiritual ideals. Emma is completely unable to truly love. Berthe, her poor child, gets no attention whatsoever from her. It is this egocentric narcissism, her incapacity to real care for those who most needed her love that I find so distasteful. The novel is a marvel of characterization. We feel as if we have known her in person. but she is a person I would not invite for tea at my home. August 11, 2017 at 6:11pm Reply

        • Victoria: All of us have fantasies that are not grounded in reality (some more than others, of course), and not all of us are exalted personalities with strong spiritual needs. Moreover, as a woman Emma would be much more caged in the mandatory responsibilities of getting married, producing a child and taking care of the household. I understand your point, and I mostly agree, but I still feel more sympathy and frustration than pure revulsion towards the character of Emma. August 12, 2017 at 3:30am Reply

          • Alicia: Victoria, as I said, Mario Vargas Llosa would agree with you. It is not a matter of being right or wrong. I dislike Emma, very much, but I feel compassion for Anna Karenina (one of my favorite novels ever). Both are extraordinary creations, and so lifelike that one talks of them as persons one likes or dislikes. In both art triumphs. August 12, 2017 at 5:02am Reply

            • Victoria: I do too. (The character I detest in that novel is Levin, but that’s another topic.) August 12, 2017 at 5:59am Reply

  • Aurora: There were books by Mishima in my parents’ bookcase (I don’t think he ever suffered an eclipse in France) and I don’t know why I never picked one up and now your post about about him nudges me to take action. Like Proust he seems obsessed about lost worlds and the importance of memory and that is truly beguiling. Enjoy La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Victoria, it’s an immersive experience! August 13, 2017 at 12:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t it? Once you fall into Proust’s rhythm, the effect is hypnotic. Not unlike Mishima’s, in fact. August 19, 2017 at 7:22am Reply

  • Kate: Spring Snow is one of the most stunningly beautiful works of prose I’ve ever read. I read it over twenty years ago and some of the images are still with me. It is like very good poetry. Mishima was a genius but a deeply disturbed and damaged person, I believe. It’s hard to reconcile the beauty of his writing with the grotesque manner of his death, and his horrifying politics.

    But as Dryden wrote ‘great wits are sure to madness near allied, / and thin partitions do their bounds divide.’ August 16, 2017 at 6:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I agree. It’s quite extraordinary and yet harrowing despite its exquisite beauty. August 19, 2017 at 7:24am Reply

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