Shikibu: The Tale of Genji

October 3, 2019

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu
Translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker
(Everyman, 1993) [c.1000]
1224 p.

The Tale of Genji
A Reader’s Guide
William J. Puette
(Tuttle, 1983)
196 p.

A thousand years ago, at a time when European high culture had precious few ornaments in its crown, and was slowly emerging from a long time of trial, a woman in the Japanese imperial court wrote this intricate and refined story about the world in which she lived, a world worlds away from anything known in the West at that time, and quite different in tenor from even the high cultural achievements of Western antiquity.

The Tale of Genji has been called “the first novel”, and indeed Murasaki Shikibu’s careful tracing of psychological complexities and social niceties are worthy of Henry James, but it’s not clear that the designation is quite apt. The book lies wholly outside and antecedent to the tradition of the novel. Though it has roots in Japanese literary traditions, it stands apart as a staggeringly ambitious, in both scale and subtlety, attempt at literary realism. It is, I am told, considered a great classic of Japanese literature, and I am not surprised; had we something of comparable vintage and comparable greatness we’d consider it a classic too.

Although it is sweeping in scope, with over 400 characters, at least a few dozen of them having some claim to being central, the story mostly follows Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji”, a son of the Emperor and a concubine, whose parentage makes him a rather minor member of the imperial court. We follow his many romantic dalliances with ladies in and around the court, his marriages (for this court is determinedly polygamous), and then, as the story progresses, the lives of his children, for whom he does his best to provide, a faithful if distant father. A convenient prècis of much of the story might be this:

It was a difficult world, which refused to give satisfaction. Among his ladies there was none who could be dismissed as completely beneath consideration and none to whom he could give his whole love.

The setting of the story, the Heian court circles, is one of immense delicacy and refinement. Manners are impeccable, conversation is elaborate and polite, voices are hushed. Women remain veiled from sight behind screens. Letters, carefully written and scented with perfumes, are exchanged quietly. I was startled when I realized that most of the social action of the story takes place at night, when all is a play of shadows and light.

This delicacy carries over to the prose, at least in the translation I have read, by Edward Seidensticker. (There are now, I believe, four English translations available.) The voice Seidensticker gives Shikibu is fragile and minimal, smooth, and emotionally stable. I actually found myself turning the pages of the book gently and with unusual care, so as not to ruffle the placid surface, nor disturb the mood with something so rough as a rustling page. As time went on, and I night after night returned to Genji’s tale, I found myself looking forward, with real appreciation, to entering that quiet, carefully managed world again, as though I were entering a poem.

And thoughts of poetry are fitting, for though the story itself is told in prose, the pages are sprinkled with short poems — about 800 of them, I believe — which characters compose for letters or, spontaneously, in conversation. These poems are of a particular type, the tanka, consisting of 31 syllables, and have a literary effect not unlike that of the haiku. Seidensticker in his translation converts these poems into two English lines, confessing that much of the wordplay and poetic resonance is inevitably lost. They are often magnificently oblique, it being a kind of impoliteness, it seems, to come right out and say what one means.

I can perhaps give an impression of the style by providing a short example. This passage begins with Genji entering a room where a woman, Chujo, has been sleeping, whereupon they exchange poems:

Chujo was having a nap in one of the east rooms. She sat up as he came in. A small woman, she brought a sleeve to her face, bright and lively and slightly flushed. Her thick hair, though somewhat tangled from sleep, was very beautiful. She was wearing a singlet of taupe-yellow, dark-gray robes, and saffron trousers, all of them just a little rumpled, and she had slipped off her jacket and train. She now made haste to put herself in order. Beside her was a sprig of heartvine.

‘It is so long since I have had anything to do with it,’ he said, picking it up, ‘that I have even forgotten the name.’

She thought it a somewhat suggestive remark.

‘With heartvine we garland our hair — and you forget!
All overgrown the urn, so long neglected.’

Yes, he had neglected her, and he was sorry.

‘The things of this world mean little to me now,
And yet I find myself reaching to break off heartvine.’

There still seemed to be one lady to whom he was not indifferent.

The rainy Fifth Month was a difficult time.

Suddenly a near-full moon burst through a rift in the clouds. Yugiri chanced to be with him at this beautiful moment. The white of the orange blossoms leaped forward in the moonlight and on a fresh breeze the scent that so brings memories came wafting into the room. But it was only for a moment. The sky darkened even as they awaited, ‘unchanged a thousand years, the voice of the cuckoo.’ The wind rose and almost blew out the eaves lamp, rain pounded on the roof, and the sky was black once more.

‘The voice of rain at the window,’ whispered Genji. It was not a very striking or novel allusion, but perhaps because it came at the right moment Yugiri wished it might have been heard ‘at the lady’s hedge.’

‘I know I am not the first man who has had to live alone,’ said Genji, ‘but I do find myself restless and despondent.’

The two poems set off by line breaks are in the tanka form, but the other poetic fragments (three of them in this section) enclosed in quotation marks are allusions to extra-Genjian poetry, with which Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been intimately familiar, and with which she expected a comparable familiarity in her reader.

*

By almost any measure, The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece. Like many great achievements, it is not easily enjoyed; much is asked of the reader. I have already mentioned the many characters, the mastery of whom is complicated by the fact that the same character is often referred to under several different names or titles; most of the names, in fact, seem not to be proper names at all, but names of flowers, which characters have adopted as monikers. Seidensticker errs in the direction of greater naming consistency than do some translators, and this was a mercy. Even so, I found it difficult to keep track of all Genji’s lady friends, most of whom ended up blurring together in my mind. The great exception to this rule was Murasaki, his concubine and greatest love (but this relationship posed difficulties of another order, for Genji first fell in love with her when she was only ten years old).

Then, too, the story cannot be said to have a superabundance of narrative momentum. Much is revealed by the existence of a scholarly dispute about whether the chapters were composed in order, for although there are narrative threads that span the life of Genji, and a legion of recurring characters, the story is somewhat episodic, each chapter being only loosely tied to its neighbours. There is also a dispute about the story’s ending: intentionally abrupt or unfinished? Without any claim to expertise in literary conventions of the period, I feel confident saying that a modern reader is going to find the ending abrupt in an unfinished kind of way.

Finally, the book’s overall effect seems to me marred by a tremendous disruption in the narrative that happens about 800 pages in. Remember how in Les Miserables there is a narrative gap in which we transition rapidly from young Cosette to adult Cosette, and are introduced to a new set of young revolutionary characters, and so many things have changed that we are tempted to put the book down? The problem here is similar, for we leave behind Genji and focus instead on the romantic escapades of Kaoru, a son of one of Genji’s nephews. Granted, this part of the story has certain resonances with the story of Genji’s own youth — in some sense, it could still be read as being about Genji — but I found it difficult to make the transition, and I confess I didn’t read the last chapters of the book as attentively as the first.

*

Many of the difficulties of the book were ameliorated for me by keeping William Puette’s A Reader’s Guide on my bed-table. He provides a brief introduction to the historical setting, describes the poetic traditions which Genji draws on, provides lists of characters and clues to their relationships, comments on the relative strengths of the English translations (only Seidensticker and Waley, those being the only two available at the time the book was published), and, best of all, he gives chapter-by-chapter summaries of the story. I found the book helpful, a valuable safety net, and am not sure that I would have persevered without it.

It is natural, I think, having finished a novel that competes in scale with War and Peace, to speak well of it; the alternative is to admit that many precious hours of life were wasted. Determined to be unswayed by such thoughts, I will, nonetheless, speak well of The Tale of Genji, and allow its long-standing reputation to justify my praise, rather than the other way around.

6 Responses to “Shikibu: The Tale of Genji”

  1. Avery Says:

    I actually like the Uji chapters best — they keep us in the world of the Heian period but change the social situation so dramatically that we begin to see aspects of Genji’s personality in retrospect that were not apparent when we were reading. It is an unusual literary device, in that the name of Genji scarcely reappears, and some claim that it is the work of a different author (which seems unlikely), but it kept me hooked.

  2. blah deblah Says:

    So much for “first world problems.”

  3. Craig Says:

    I just finished this and have to agree that Genji fatigue is a real, definite thing, not helped by the fact that a lot of the chapters in the end are much longer. And can’t recall reading a book where I so much kept thinking about what book I was going to read next. But I have to say it was worth it. And while I do not believe that I will ever read the book through again, I’m pretty sure I will pick it up just to glance at some of the poems scattered throughout.

    Is there any other book so filled with sadness and tears, with the evanescence of things, with gifts.

    And if there was a soundtrack in my head while reading, it is not to the seven-stringed koto nor even the thirteen-stringed, but to Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.


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