Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Tale of Genji--Review

Three weeks. That's how long it took me to read "The Tale of Genji" (or at least as far as i had decided to go before before I started the book); the time I spent reading the novel, plus "The World of the Shining Prince", PLUS the decisions I had to make on which translation I should read meant that I spent about five weeks altogether in Japan. I knew when I put "Genji" on my list that it would throw off my entire schedule, and that I would be scrambling to catch up for months. I also knew that I could read nothing else while I read the book, as anything easier (which means just about any novel published) would entice me to never return. No, I had to keep my feet on the (exquisitely tasteful) gravel paths of ancient Kyoto until I finished.

First, the translation I chose. I knew, from living in Japan and speaking rudimentary Japanese, that the language presents a great many difficulties for translators in the modern era. For example,  it's considered rude, or at least too forceful and direct, to use personal pronouns in Japanese--just as it is in many European languages. Unlike Romance languages, however, there are no different verb endings. How do you know when someone is talking to you, then? Well, it's implied; you just have to know. What I didn't realize, however, until I read the immensely helpful "The World of the Shining Prince" was that the vocabulary of Japan, even court Japan, of a thousand years ago, was quite impoverished by modern standards; words were used over and over again in a way that would be grating and dull to the modern reader, as each word was used for many different meanings. Morris illustrated this problem with a long passage in which a word for comfort/customary/convenient etc, was used in a dozen different ways by Murasaki. This is why "Genji" poses such problems for the translator.

I originally chose the Arthur Waley translation. It was supposed to be more poetical. Well, perhaps it is, but after a hundred pages, there were still more than a few jarring colloquialisms and not nearly enough footnotes; it wasn't worth it to me to stay for just a few more artful descriptions of the wind sighing in the pine branches. So I switched to the Royall Tyler translation. Much better! There were footnotes (at least a half dozen on every page) lots of cute little drawings PLUS (most helpful of all) a dramatis personae for  every chapter. Genji has hundreds of characters, most of them named by their positions, or perhaps by one thing they've done ( there's one woman is called the Cicada Shell for decades merely because she dropped her shoulder scarf ONE time when she was fleeing from Genji) and Murasaki keeps tracks of them for generations; their names, ages, and ranks in society all correct as they slowly inch up the bureaucratic ladder before tumbling off into the oblivion and death. She makes Jane Austen and her punctilious delineation of a Surrey cotillion appear like a slacker; she makes the Washington D.C. bureaucrats, with their obsession over grades, steps, and ranks, seem like amateurs. Yes, Murasaki (from a grade four family, just missing the creme de la creme upper three ranks of society) was serious about the meticulous depictions of her world, and I needed Tyler's help every time I turned the page.

So what is "The Tale of Genji" about? Well, it's about the emperor's son, who was born of a beloved, but not quite good-enough concubine, and the women he loves, and how he makes his way in his society. Genji's perfect: handsome, the best writer of poetry; the best distiller of perfumes. (Morris points out that this obsession with scent is probably unique in world culture). Presumably, he is also the best administrator, but we see little of that. Yes, he is the original Mary Sue. I'd give him the test that I gave "The Bone People"'s Kerewin,  but most of the questions don't seem to be pertinent; besides, I know that he'd pass with flying colors. Murasaki seems quite taken with her hero, even when he indulges in behavior (raping, stalking, borderline pedophilia, a severe case of the  Oedipal complex) that a modern reader would find objectionable. Women are continually forced into sex with Genji, which is odd when most of the time they spend their time talking behind screens to even their brothers and fathers. At one point, when one of these women asks why he is doing what he is doing (namely, seducing--OK, raping her),  Genji replies coolly that a woman in her position must submit; to be true to her nature, she must do no less for any man. All right, then! Yes, for much of the world, things have changed, but Murasaki writes with so much matter-of-factness--if not downright approval--that  I had to keep checking the title page to make sure that a woman wrote the book.

And what a world it is. People go into mysterious declines; are possessed by spirits. The auspices are bad and someone is forbidden to travel south until the augers tell him or her otherwise. Women trail their six feet long hair (tastefully thinned at the tips) across the nightingale floors. People are judged by their handwriting (a major theme) or by how well they have chosen their note paper to suit the seasons. It's a weird world; a claustrophobic world, where a long day's walk is an epic journey, and the rain seems to always be dripping from the eaves.

 And the people, who often seem as strange as if they came from another planet, still often behave as people do today. As Genji matures, and grows less brash, and becomes more contemplative, the book takes a melancholic turn. I often felt a bit depressed, too, as so much of Kyoto and Japan has changed so utterly, that famous landmarks of Genji's time have, as Tyler's remarks too often note, have disappeared so entirely that scholars aren't even sure where they might have been located. The things these people worried about, the places they lived, all gone, gone, gone.

There is a plot--of sorts.  It's long, and convoluted, but all I can say, is what goes around, comes around. The end is surprisingly sad, and it has much to do with the Murasaki of the book. Yes, it's interesting Murasaki seems to have interjected herself into the story, (or at least gave Genji's favorite her name), and is  responsible, in some way, for his death.

I stopped reading "The Tale of Genji" after the shining prince  dies--or at least after Genji's household affairs are settled and I was sure he wasn't going to be brought back from the dead, or return from the spirit world. In Murasaki's world, you never know. The book goes along for another 300 pages to recount the further adventures of Genji's son and grandson. But I had had enough. I had read enough to appreciate the novel; I didn't need to read anymore. As I said to some of my GR friends, I was glad to have read the book, and I felt as if I had accomplished something, but I didn't feel as if I could recommend it.  It was a real "Stockholm Syndrome" book for me, a book so long and difficult that I feel that I lost a bit of perspective, and don't feel as if I can really judge the work.

The Tale of Genji,  Murasaki Shikibu  Royall Tyler, Translator


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