Coming Back to Genji

16 Jun

I’m a second-time reader of The Tale of Genji. I first read the book (cobbled together out of mixed volumes of the Seidensticker and Waley translations) in fifteen-minute, twice-a-day bursts on the New York subway, with background accompaniment provided by the wheels squealing over the old tracks, and blind accordion players passing up and down the aisle. The twice-a-day pattern continues now that I am reading Genji for the second time, although my public transit system of choice these days is Washington DC’s creepily dim, post-apocalyptic bunker of a Metro, caught in a perpetual hush.

Back in New York, I loved The Tale of Genji, and hated that I loved it. It was about people who appeared to lack both moral and practical sense, were bound by the conventions of a be-numbingly complicated caste system, and spent inordinate amounts of time judging other people by their clothes. Even when they managed to be charming, most of the characters – Genji himself in particular – were only so in the service of being odious in some other respect. It was rather like high school. It was very like New York.

The fact that a 10th-century Japanese soap opera reflects a culture beset by much of the same materialism, hyper-attentiveness to fashion, and lack of sexual prudence that characterizes American high schools says quite a bit about human nature. Throw in a great deal of poetry, some ghosts, inbreeding of such a degree that monstrosities ought to result, a lot of parties, and characters that marry studied indirection to heaps of indiscretions, and the result is . . . a curiously relaxed feeling. It is not that nothing happens in the Tale of Genji – lots does – but time moves rather funnily in its universe. Ten years go by in a paragraph. Three characters’ circular conversation about past girlfriends goes on for pages and pages.

Well, it’s summer, when time moves a bit oddly in general. It’s a time when we have time to slow down and smell the roses. Perhaps even time to compose allusive haiku about the roses, haiku which we will write with supremely distinguished brushstrokes on perfumed paper, to be included in a secret letter to a lady with whom we are not so secretly doing the horizontal kabuki, and who just so happens to be currently favored by our older brother (who happens to be the emperor). Time enough to read The Tale of Genji, for a second time even.

At any rate, I’m happy to be here with so many other distinguished readers, and looking forward to discuss the book. I hope that we enjoy ourselves in our languor.
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4 Responses to “Coming Back to Genji”

  1. Dee Brown June 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Dear Genji readers,

    There was a passage that particularly intrigued me and I am hoping that one of you is knowledgeable about Japanese history and can explain the context to me. The passage is “Her letters were lucidity itself, in the purest Chinese. None of this Japanese nonsense for her.” Do any of you know why it was that Chinese was considered so much more cultured and when that mindset changed?

    Hopefully soon Genji will have more to recommend himself than his astonishing good looks.

  2. Chris Kern June 16, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    Chinese was considered cultured probably because China had a much more “developed” culture at the time and Japan imported a lot of cultural, religious, political, etc. elements. Written literary Chinese had the same status in Japan as Latin did in Europe, and I don’t think this really changed significantly until quite late, possibly as late as the 19th century.

    Of course, that particular part of the story is a parody; normally a woman writing Chinese was considered unladylike, and the scene of this “learned” woman teaching the guy Chinese would have had a comic effect.

    (I did my Master’s thesis on the 4 stories in the second chapter, so if you have any other questions about that part I can probably answer them…)

    • Dee Brown June 18, 2010 at 9:55 pm #

      Thanks very much for your reply, Chris. It must be quite fun to understand the humor and innuendos going on. I would never have recognized that story as a parody, but since you said that, I think I may have gleaned a few other joking tones. Are the parodies and humor all in good fun or is the author taking a measured bite at the societal norms of the day?

  3. Chris Kern June 19, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Unfortunately it’s hard to say — at least from what I’ve read, we just don’t know enough about the culture to say for sure. It’s possible that the entire Rainy Night Conversation, from beginning to end, is a satire. My personal view is that the Chief Equerry is probably intended to be fairly level-headed and we’re meant to take his contributions more or less at face value. But I think that To no Chujo (the Secretary Captain) is supposed to come off as a buffoon.

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