In her magisterial exegesis The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji, Norma Field describes her study as a “record” of her attempts to become a “’scholar’ about the Tale of Genji,” and of the need to situate, or “triangulate”—a term she borrows from novelist John Gardner—oneself as a reader in relation to a text that comes to us with an insurmountable amount of historical and cultural distances. The distances between ourselves and the Genji are vast, and many of them are, in fact, rather insurmountable—as they would be with any other text, albeit it in different ways; and before many of us begin reading the Genji—or begin re-reading it—I would simply like to raise some questions in regards to genre and translation, and suggest that rather than working against such fissures in our own provincial knowledges, we should let such distances provide a certain degree of obfuscating clarity to allow the text to retain some its alterity (even though this is perhaps only an ideal approach. I fear that most translations may make the possibility of such an alterity impossible). The question of genre, I would like to argue, is a place from which we can begin to question our reading practices for such a text.
I would like to suggest that a certain “ethics of reading” can only arise through the constant awareness of a critical distance between ourselves and any text. This is why I always hesitate to use the term “novel” to describe the Genji. I feel we do the text a great disservice by describing it as the “world’s first novel” or when we use any term that may domesticate or efface the very differences that make, for me at least, the Genji such a compelling read (while also being fully aware that we should be careful not to fall into a crass exotification of the text either; after all, reading is never an innocent practice). In terms of genres familiar to most contemporary Western readers, the Tale of Genji is perhaps closest to a romance or an epic; but a novel it’s not (and perhaps we should simply use the transliterated Japanese term, monogatari). To call the Genji a novel is an anarchonism of the most problematic kind, and one that seeks to further domesticate and homogenize the differences that make the text as powerful as it is. It also fails to convey the historical and social dynamics—the rise of a literate, European middle class, for example— that gave rise to the novel.
Simply consider the Proustian analogy that many others have drawn (a rather Borgesian reading by which the later text—the À la recherche du temps perdu—becomes the touchstone for the earlier) in an attempt to relate to the text. Harold Bloom in his Genius, to give but one example, writes of how Murasaki Shikibu “conducts an almost Proustian search for lost time.” Rarely, or never, have I read a critic refer to Proust as being a disciple of Murasaki Shikibu’s, but we are meant to understand and read the Genji as a text that is in some oblique way “Proustian,” whatever that means. Such an approach, while perhaps a necessary means by which Western readers can triangulate themselves in relation to the Genji, needs to be considered and critiqued. Such readerly positions need to be complicated and problematized, especially since we should be more than ever conscious and sensitive to how the West has come to represent and speak of the East. I simply ask that before we sit down to read the Genji we consider our positions as readers in relation to a text that we may have little or no tenable means—other than “translation,” of course— through which to relate to.