We’ve been rough on Genji in these posts, and certainly not without reason. “Shallow” has been a word that’s come up a few times. And yet I wonder if we’re not selling him short. He may not be an altogether likable or even relatable character, but I think he’s without question a great one.
In chapters like The Tendril Wreath and The Warbler’s First Song we find a more seasoned man, secure in his position in the government and without any particular rivals, something of a king of the jungle. That would naturally lead to a certain amount of self-regard; yet what’s striking is Genji’s long memory for heartbreak. The Tendril Wreath carries us back to the tragedy of the Twilight Beauty. Yugao is still vivid in his mind. We know, too, that even now he thinks constantly of Fujitsubo. Loss of love affects Genji indelibly, far more than any of his “collection”, as people joshingly call the women he keeps. The modern perspective would attribute this to the loss of his mother as a child. But whatever the psychological implications, the profound manner with which Genji suffers loss, and then goes on with his life, gives him a stature and grandeur that no one else will rival in this book.
He goes on is a respectable way, “tactfully caring even for women who meant little to him.” The Warbler’s First Song is an utterly charming tour through the wings of his palace, giving us brief and indelible glimpses of each of the women installed there. Genji is alternated bewitched and bemused and, in the case of our comic foil the Safflower Lady, embarrassed by their appearance and conduct. Yet he is never deeply involved with them, never more than an extraordinary visitor. His mind is on the women who are gone from him.
Very early in the novel, in despair over this or that, Genji was apt to make pronouncements about the vanity of earthly things and his desire to renounce the world and become a holy man. He sounded callow and preening at the time. But those sentiments are beginning to acquire real gravity. At the acme of his life, Genji is starting to retreat from it.
And then, just as I try to defend him, in the chapter Butterflies he goes and pulls a Woody Allen with Tamakazura, which Lady Murasaki sums up with the immortal line, “He had a very strange way of being a father.” Hard to achieve greatness with a libido like that, but he might pull it off yet.