The Tales of Genji!

22 Jul

Burned by the apparent indifference of the nobleman she fancies, the haughty narrator of the Kagero Nikki – written at the same time as The Tale of Genji and almost certainly by a woman that book’s author knew – moves from one bitter season to the next. “Spring came,” she tells us, “and the song of the thrush, and I murmured to myself some words from an old poem: ‘Spring renews everything, and only I grow old.’”

The line is remembered offhand, taken from a kokinshu by an unknown author, and our unhappy narrator picks it up as easily from her memory as a 21st century teenager could fasten a line from some band to a sudden realization. It’s a little moment that illustrates a salient feature of Genji: the Heian era of Murasaki Shikibu produced perhaps the most intensely allusive literature in human history.

Every well-born character in Genji speaks in cultural references, and the marvelous evocation here is of a universal language. Not only does no character ever hear a snatch of some old poem and say, “I don’t know that one” (as virtually any well-educated person today would say, if, for instance, somebody quoted a snatch of Spenser),but Murasaki Shikibu herself never slows down to assume less than exquisite comprehension on the part of her readers. The most obscure corner of shinkokinshu is offered with an almost blasé confidence, the knowing wink that is the book’s most persistent stylistic feature.

The characters not only seem to know every line of Japanese and Chinese poetry ever written, but they all swim effortlessly in the sea of verse, ready at any moment to craft a couplet to fit the moment. “The Fireflies” has such a moment, a grace-note little pause during which Genji finds himself quite comfortably alone with the lady ensconced in the northeast pavilion of his house. His ardor has cooled toward her – they sleep apart, at his suggestion – but they share an intimacy just the same. And as happens so often in Genji, they express their intimate comfort in punning lines of extemporaneous verse … the mildly salacious ribbing of old friends, couched in allusions each is certain the other will appreciate.

It’s an appropriately literary prelude to the astonishing discussion that follows! The rains close in on the palace and fill the place with ruminations. We can easily picture Genji wandering, restless, from wing to wing – and when he comes to the Akashi lady’s quarters and finds them strewn with writings and drafts and copy books, he affects disdain at the allure of “magnificently contrived wonders.” How can we take this as anything but Murasaki Shikibu’s reflection on her own craft, especially since the lady from Akashi can’t help but compare some of those old tales of adventure to her own story, no less complex and amazing. How can we not read an entirely knowing layer of double allusion into Genji’s subsequent defense of the very literary device he himself inhabits, the long and intricate tales that are so different from official histories? Tales, he tells us with a fun lack of irony, give us the “rewarding particulars”:

Not that tales accurately describe any particular person, rather, the telling begins when all those things the teller longs to have pass on to future generations – whatever there is about the way people live their lives, for better or worse, that is a sight to see or a wonder to hear – overflows the teller’s heart.

For better or worse – virtually Genji’s motto, and Genji’s. Surely her readers smiled.

4 Responses to “The Tales of Genji!”

  1. Mika July 22, 2010 at 8:44 am #

    Please be more careful with spelling.

    Kagero Nikki –> Kagerō Nikki
    kokinshu –> Kokinshū
    shinkokinshu –> Shinkokinshū

  2. Scott July 26, 2010 at 9:05 am #

    Genji has made me wish I had more poetry (or prose) memorized. It’s embarrassing to realize how little of anything I commit to memory anymore.

    On another note, I love how, thanks to the footnotes, as the story continues I’m now able to pick up on the allusions to the poems that are mentioned more frequently. It’s a little thing, but it feels like I’m one step closer to the original audience, and I love that.

    • tom collins August 9, 2010 at 6:16 am #

      Coming from the editor of The Quarterly Conversation, this wish to have committed more poetry to the permanence of “by heart” is surprising, and represents yet another tribute to Murasaki’s Tale.

      That’s just to say that I share in your embarrassment. As if we’d all more or less caved in to the enormous powers of technical memory. That’s what’s embarrassing for me: not being more confident in the contemporary occurences of court scenes where memory is courted and counted upon. May this be one of the spin-offs of this summer of Genji.

  3. margarete August 4, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

    I’m just starting with Genji. Will try to catch up. another book that I would like to group read is “Infinite Jest”.
    thanks

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