Books

‘The Frolic of the Beasts’: A Mishima classic, roused from its long hibernation

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

Conjure in your mind an image of a “literary translator” and you’ll perhaps think of a university academic with a treasured translation project on the side or otherwise a professional translator eking out their living translating novels at the behest of publishers.

The Frolic of the Beasts, by Yukio Mishima, Translated by Andrew Clare.
176 pages
VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL, Fiction.

What you probably would not expect is a besuited corporate lawyer who, after arranging international property and finance deals, opens his desk drawer at home, pulls out a classic of Japanese literature and carries on translating it from where he last left off.

Andrew Clare has published an impressive array of translations of novels by authors such as Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, Seicho Matsumoto and Arimasa Osawa, all while putting in long hours at the corporate coalface. He’s even published his own spy thriller, “Yamato,” set during the American Occupation of Japan.

Now, Clare is launching his translation of a classic Yukio Mishima novel, “The Frolic of the Beasts,” first published in Japanese in 1961.

Earlier this month, Clare and I settled down for lunch at the St. James’s Club, in the center of Manchester, England, where he told me of his early career, first studying Japanese at the University of Sheffield, then getting an M.A. in political science from Kobe University, before training as a lawyer and working in both Tokyo and his native north of England.

“I found that when I was working at a law practice earlier in my career, my colleagues would spend their lunchtimes discussing (the soccer team) Blackburn Rovers, while I would be translating a Japanese novel,” says Clare, laughing, when I ask him where the translation bug came from.

Despite the lack of interest from colleagues, Clare pursued his passion with determination, sometimes translating entire novels by favorite authors such as Shusaku Endo before discovering he couldn’t actually acquire the translation rights.

I imagined that his translation of “The Frolic of the Beasts” must be something he had completed recently, but he surprised me by relating: “I originally translated the book 25 years ago when I was at Kobe University. I spent three consecutive summers working on it, then put it in a drawer. With every subsequent translation I published, I developed my craft as a translator and went back and honed “The Frolic of the Beasts.”

Amazingly, it was only in the last couple of years that Clare thought of getting in touch with Mishima’s estate and arranging for the translation to be published.

“The Frolic of the Beasts” is, even in Japanese, comparatively little-known, and yet highly praised among critics, which is what drew Clare toward it in the first place. It is classic Mishima terrain, describing a wilfully self-destructive love triangle between an adulterous middle-aged playboy, his long-suffering wife and a virile young man they bring into their deadly orbit.

The novel was turned into a film in Japan soon after its release, and has been translated into both Italian and Chinese since. Yet, until now, it has never been translated into English.

“I read somewhere that John Nathan started translating it back in the mid-1960s but was requested by Knopf to switch to ‘The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea’ instead,” says Clare. “If he had kept going, its international profile might have been very different.”

It’s not hard to link “The Frolic of the Beasts” with many other classic Mishima works such as the illicit, violent love of the housewife Etsuko in “Thirst for Love” or the conflicted older man-younger man relationship in “Forbidden Colors” or the existential crises of the characters in “Kyoko’s House.” But what interests Clare most is the novel’s connection to noh plays and masks.

Mishima was himself an adept author of modern noh plays, and scholars see “The Frolic of the Beasts” as a reworking of the 14th-century noh play “Motomezuka” that relates the tragic story of a young woman torn between two lovers. At various key points in the novel, characters are described as having faces reminiscent of wooden masks, and the time sequence is jumbled to create a sense, as in a noh play, of transcendent unearthliness.

“The Frolic of the Beasts” is a stimulating read and a welcome addition to the canon of Mishima translations. For a high-profile author like Mishima, it’s surprising how many important novels still await English translation; “Sunken Waterfall,” “Kyoko’s House” and “Beautiful Star” are just three examples of fascinating major literary novels by Mishima that have yet to be published in English, not to mention his hugely popular “entertainment” novels such as “The Wavering Virtue.”

As Nov. 25 marks the anniversary of the day in 1970 that Mishima took a general hostage at the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s Camp Ichigaya before stunning Japan with his suicide, it’s de rigueur to ask Clare his opinion on the incident. Does he think it politically or artistically motivated? Clare gives a nod to the political arguments, but remarks how crazy it is to think of Mishima’s actions as a “coup attempt,” but rather as driven by Mishima’s clear desire for a heroic death.

I come away from our lunch impressed by his passion for Japanese literature — he is also a collector of original manuscripts — and I wonder if many of his legal colleagues have any idea of the richness of mind they have sitting across from them in the boardroom.

Andrew Clare’s translation of “The Frolic of the Beasts” will be published by Vintage International on Nov. 27.