The Proper Young Man

28 Jul

Juxtaposition is Lady Murasaki’s simple but most deeply effective narrative technique. We’ve seen her employ it from nearly the start. Genji’s entanglements with Fujitsubo and Murasaki were placed side-by-side, the contrast emphasizing the former’s forlorn grace and noble bearing and the latter’s childish effervescence. We had thought Aoi a brittle harridan, but in “Heart-to-Heart” the story of her death is combined with a story about the Rokujo Lady, who is virtually unhinged with jealousy. Aoi seems pure and innocent in comparison to this Fury, and the Rokujo Lady, too, alongside the dying woman, seems to possess a singular strength of passion.

Genji is perhaps the only regular character who has stood alone. There has been To no Chujo, of course, but the two have struck me as being fairly similar, friendly rivals whose lives run on parallel tracks. But as Genji’s son Yugiri begins to come of age and develop a personality all of his own, I’ve started to develop a better appreciation for Genji himself, and his behavior in the early chapters in the novel become, in retrospect, even more remarkable.

The evocative chapter “The Typhoon” begins with Yugiri accidently snatching a glance at Murasaki. That single vision, her “the breath of her enchantment” and “her devastating smile” send his adolescence into overdrive, and suddenly he can’t think of anything but her — and what the other women installed in the palace may be like.

Genji has tried to prevent Yugiri from ever seeing Murasaki for a simple reason: when he was a boy and he saw Fujitsubo, he fell madly in love with her and pursued an affair that nearly destroyed them both. Genji is certainly right that seeing Murasaki will have a powerful effect on Yugiri, but it turns out that he need not worry much beyond this. Yugiri, we’re told, is an “always proper young man,” serious and deliberative — “it never occurred to him to entertain any culpable ambition.” Later in the chapter Yugiri overhears his father pitching woo to Tamakazura (in truth, Yugiri is becoming something of a peeping Tom), and his reactions encapsulate his character. He views the lovemaking with “mingled pleasure and revulsion” and he finds himself “ashamed of his own thoughts.”

Yugiri’s feelings of guilty lust and self-consciousness would seem perhaps normal and unremarkable in a fifteen-year-old if they didn’t contrast so strikingly with his father. For the first twenty chapters of this book we’ve read of Genji bursting through screens to chase after women, getting drunk and bedding the first woman he could find, heedlessly pursuing anyone, no matter their age or rank or relation to him, so long as she inflamed his desire. Yet it’s hard to appreciate how brazen he really was until we see someone with his same beauty and privilege and opportunities, who nevertheless can’t bring himself to do more than moon over the alluring women all around him.

In “Thoroughwort Flowers” Yugiri has his own chance to seduce Tamakazura (Genji’s own subtle method has been to walk into her bedroom, whip off his robe, and grab her). He makes a faltering declaration of love that leaves her repelled. “Why did I have to go and say all that?” he asks himself, rather adorably. Yugiri is still extremely young, and yet this sort of self-reproach has never existed for the extremely improper Genji. His poor boy has got a libido like his father’s, but a superego all his own — it’s going to prove to be a painful combination.

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2 Responses to “The Proper Young Man”

  1. pam July 28, 2010 at 8:02 pm #

    Told you. ;)
    He worked it like a rock star as a young man. As he should have. And then life goes on.

  2. Dee Brown July 29, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    As we watch Genji grow older and more filled out as a character, though keeping the same passionate core with somewhat less testosterone, we also are privileged to watch the ladies age. The narrator hints at some of the hardships these ladies must go through just to be ladies: all the clothes, all the impossibly correct behavior, “giving her service meekly and all too respectably…”,
    “she had her hair washed and was feeling refreshed…” It seems that when they get into their thirties, many of them have really had enough of all that and just want to cut that floor length hair off and be left in peace to pray.
    Can you imagine hauling around floor length hair for your life? How often did they wash all that? My neck pains to think of it.
    It is a wonderful thing that they have a respectable way out – taking the tonsure.
    Genji is typically selfish for not allowing the Lady of the East Wing that refuge, but it would be out of character for him to agree at this point, and he goes on being his mixture of endearing and annoying traits.

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