After Genji

30 Aug

Kobai the Grand Counselor has heard a great deal about the princes Kaoru and Niou – how fashionable they are, how handsome, how easily they’re cutting a swath through court society. He’s respectful, but in the privacy of his own home, he can be honest:

Ah, when the Shining Genji, as they called him, was a Commander, and I was a boy, I was just as close to him as this, and I loved him forever then. People nowadays think very highly of those two young gentlemen, who certainly deserve all the praise they get, but they are nothing compared to him. No, there could never be another one like him, or so at least it seems to me, though perhaps I am only imagining things. And if someone perfectly ordinary like me cannot recall him without a pang of sorrow, I imagine that those who were really close to him and survived him must find life very long indeed.

This temperate little outburst occurs nearly 800 pages into The Tale of Genji, and whether Murasaki Shikibu meant for it to have this effect or not, the reality is clear: we, all us readers, are in the Grand Counselor’s position. We have known Genji in all his misadventures, all his buffoonish misapprehensions and wanton self-pity, all his chronic lacks of self-control, and all his peculiar gifts for beauty as well (creating it both intentionally and accidentally). We have gone through the typical stages of his acquaintance, from wondering why on Earth we would want to know this person to finding it hard to remember there was ever a time we didn’t. And now he’s gone.

He’s gone, and the rest of the tale that bears his name is taken up by the next generation of lovestruck and lovestriking young men – mainly the princes Kaoru and Niou. About the former we’re told with perhaps withering emphasis that he was possessed of a preternaturally pleasing body-fragrance that he could neither control nor hide (the opulence of this fragrance cannot quite cover the baser scent of this young man being a bit of a prig). About the latter, we’re told that he spends an inordinate amount of time mixing and grinding his own perfumes, to compete with his friendly rival (we remember Genji pestling sample-perfumes for special occasions, but somehow we don’t remember it seeming so petty a thing). These two men have their crises to come and their lives and fortunes to pursue, and the narrative powers of Murasaki Shikibu (and whoever may have helped to continue the tale) don’t lessen.

But the book is nevertheless drastically changed, as all epics must change when a central life goes out of them. War and Peace isn’t the same book after the death of Prince Andrei, and Homer’s Iliad becomes far more muted once Hector is no longer alive to threaten the Greeks … and it’s the same here. We want to care about these two young gentlemen – and perhaps we’d come to, given sufficient time and patience of the kind we lavished on Genji. We can see from the book’s remaining pages (how slowly the bookmark has crawled forward this hot summer! How often has it back-tracked, so we could re-read something particularly savory!) that we won’t get that time – and we wonder if we’d truly have that patience. Our author is as skilled as ever, but I, at least, find myself sighing right along with the Grand Counelor: there could never be another one like him.

—Steve Donoghue

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