Unreliable Genji?

11 Jul

As Scott recently pointed out on his own blog (a fun place for readers, so you should check it out – he’s a smart young whippersnapper!), Murasaki Shikibu wastes no time in raising the question of authorial presence in her book. Right there in the first line, she sets her story in the reign of a certain emperor and then makes that winking little aside wondering whose reign it could possibly have been. As Scott points out, we immediately get the sense that our narrator is playing with us a bit (and given the immensity of the text, isn’t that an appreciated welcome?  Imagine if Moby Dick opened with a similar device – “Call me Ishmael – just don’t call me late for supper!” Ba-Ding!), intruding herself with a sarcastic giggle nto the story she’s telling.

But adroitly, and always discreetly. And she keeps doing this throughout the book, making me wonder if it was a standard gamut of Heian Japan – did the women writers who so heavily populate the era do these little winks and head-bobbings in some sort of deference to the male hierarchy?

After all, it doesn’t take too much reading in Genji to realize that Murasaki Shikibu is in complete control of her narrative; this is not a pea-brained dilettante like Sei Shonagon – this is George Eliot, this is Virginia Woolf, or most aptly (although the lament is that so few readers today will know it), this is Olivia Manning:  a writer who makes no mistakes, who knows exactly what she’s about and considers it important that her craft be perfect.

And yet, so many of her authorial interventions are self-deprecating. That opening wink at her readers might be mistaken for setting a frivolous tone, and in Akashi, when she’s describing the slightly inebriated night-talk that Genji has with the old man, she makes an astonishing admission. Tyler’s translation has it this way: “Having got wrong everything I have written, I must have made him [the old man] seem even odder and more foolish than he was.” And in our next chapter, The Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi, at one point she interrupts herself with an abrupt “Oh, yes!” to tell us about a change of Ise Priestesses – an impetuous, seemingly spontaneous self-correction that’s meant to look like the one thing it certainly isn’t: a writer in imperfect control of her story (in the Seidensticker translation, it’s even more stark; he renders the line as “I had forgotten”).

What’s going on here? There’s nothing like it in Western cultural epics; Homer pauses to implore his Muse to help him relate the epic tidings of his tale – but he never suggests he’s doing it poorly or wrong. Virgil too invokes the Muse to guide his art – but he’s sure of that guidance, and he expects us to be sure. Outside of comic literature, I can’t think of a similar example until the 16th century, when Ariosto, spinning his gargantuan Orlando Furioso for the court at Ferrara, would occasionally slip in asides about his own inability to tell his story (legend has it that he would leave open his manuscript of the work in progress, inviting passing lords and ladies to jot down a few lines of their own to continue the tale).  If there’s any kind of useful parallel here, is it perhaps the elaborate court setting of each that’s responsible? Ariosto made his asides so as not to seem overly masterful in the presence of his social superiors; was Murasaki Shikibu also trying to strike a humble note, despite being the greatest writer of her age?

–Steve Donoghue

2 Responses to “Unreliable Genji?”

  1. samsacks9 July 11, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    I like how she often expresses regret about not being able to convey certain scenes or sentiments, because there were no witnesses, or various poems and letters have been lost. It may serve to make the story seem lifelike, an actual chronicle of real people; likewise, an historian will bemoan an absence of sources. Even though it’s technically an authorial intrusion, it kind of makes us forget that Murasaki Shikibu is the author; she’s pretending to be more of the faithful but erring transcriber.

  2. Scott July 12, 2010 at 8:30 am #

    Thank you for the kind words, Steve!

    samsacks comment reminds me of the part early on in Don Quixote when, in the midst of one of the first true battles, the narrator suddenly stops, claiming the notes he was using to record the history end at this point. He then proceeds to explain how he was eventually able to find the rest of the history, but it is several pages before the story proceeds. Fortunately, the authorial intrusions aren’t quite that bad in Genji!

    One thing that I keep considering during all these asides is if there is a consistent element to them. I haven’t seen one so far, but I may just be overlooking it. Is there a certain subject so taboo that she must claim a lack of information on it, or that she must excuse as being too boring to record?

    It seems that at certain times she claims she cannot share something with us, but then later in the text she gives very specific details on that same subject. Is my observation here accurate, or is there a subtlety to it that I’m missing?

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