It was perhaps not the best book I read this year, but it came with the kind of extraneous charge few other works could match. The book was The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima, the final novel in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, completed just before Mishima launched a coup against the Japanese government.
I read the opening novel in the tetralogy, Spring Snow, four years ago, on a flight out from Japan. Since then, I’ve finished one book in the series each summer. Even as I’ve found myself in very different places, and sometimes in extremely different states of mind, I’ve followed Mishima’s brilliant and demented account of how modern Japan fell apart and was never quite put together again.
The story is told through the relationship between two characters, one of whom gets older in each novel while the other dies and is reincarnated, serving as an exemplar of the particular kind of transformation Japan is going through at the moment. Mishima was a right-wing nationalist, so I read him from a rather oppositional political stance. Yet he moves me with his obsessions: modernity, the west, materialism, sexuality, martial traditions, spirituality, love, the body, and the east, and I can’t help being touched when one of his principal characters travels to Calcutta and Benares in India.
This summer, as I read The Decay of the Angel, I became ever more conscious of the compositional history of the novel.