Gretel Ehrlich once compared the “sense of time” in The Tale of Genji to a long scroll unfolding, and that experience of it has only been heightened by deliberately reading the novel sprawled over the course of an entire season (my guess would be that without such a plan, Genji readers tend to gorge themselves, requiring far less time but perhaps savoring somewhat less). The summer was just starting when we began the journey, and through three long, hot months the tale unfolded (naturally, the book’s many hot days jumped off the page, although I’m fairly certain cold and blowing snow are mentioned more often).
“A great poem makes us experience a moment,” Katherine Mansfield once said, “and a great short story makes us experience an epiphany, and a great novel makes us experience an entire other life.” 2010 marks my fourth time all the way through The Tale of Genji (Ehrlich claimed to have read it twenty-five times), and more so than any time before, I take Mansfield’s point. The slow accretion of minute detail, the at times inching progression of the plot’s various strands, the subtle, masterful ways we come to know the various characters, which almost perfectly mimics the piecemeal way we come to know actual people in our lives … all these things combine to make the experience of reading the book feel very much like living an entire other life.
All these things, and one more, perhaps the most important: nostalgia. More than any other epic of comparable size, The Tale of Genji is forever folding back upon itself, recalling its own earlier incidents with an increasingly pointed sense of longing. How seldom our main characters are ever happy! How often, either in conversation or by themselves, they pine (in prose and verse) for lost things – many of which we’ve previously experienced with then, and hence lost with them as well. The past is always alive to these characters (they comment frequently on how sweet even the process of remembering is) – the verses of a thousand years are at their fingertips, ready to be skillfully adapted and commented upon, with the adaptations and commentaries in turn remembered and adapted by the following generations.
The process is seductive and infinitely self-replicating: we’ll all remember not only Genji but the Summer of Genji we shared. And what better point (Genji, with his usual unconvincing false modesty, might have called it “by chance quite fitting”) to acknowledge all those who’ve joined us on this journey? So our thanks to one and all – to Scott Esposito and his writers at The Quarterly Conversation, to Lisa Peet of Like Fire and the rest of the participants at Open Letters Monthly, to our superb translator Royall Tyler, whose comments guided our footsteps, and of course to all you readers who’ve followed along and often joined in. As summer ends we close Genji and move on to the endless other lives awaiting us, but how not to treasure those memories of bright days and our shining prince?