Our Summer of Genji

1 Sep

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?

—Steve Donoghue

Genji in Midair

30 Aug

The commander, who had awaited [Kogimi] eagerly, was confounded by this inconclusive outcome.

The conclusion of The Tale of Genji is, like poor Kaoru’s tryst with Ukifune, left inconclusive, and that opens the door to the sort of whimsical (or, perhaps in some academic quarters, quite contentious) guesswork that attaches to so many great works of literature that have been passed down through the Telephone Game of time. Arthur Waley believed that the novel was finished and left ambiguous intentionally. Others have maintained that the novel is finished except for a few missing pages, which would account for the fact that it seems to stop almost mid-sentence. Edward Seidensticker speculates that Murasaki Shikibu simply kept writing until the day she died, and indeed, that she would have gone on adding to her tale for as long as she could have. But Seidensticker also thinks that the title of the final chapter, “The Floating Bridge of Dreams,” is so curiously out of keeping from the other chapter titles, and so much more overtly mystical, that it suggests a kind of premonition on Lady Murasaki’s part. (Royall Tyler, in the introduction to our volume, diplomatically presents both arguments, and also writes that the origin of the final chapter title is a matter of debate, because it does not appear in the chapter itself.)

Because the question is unlikely to be definitively answered, readers have the freedom to choose the interpretation they like best–the one that seems most sympathetic to their understanding of the novel. Surely many will join Waley in deciding that Lady Murasaki intended her life’s work to conclude abruptly and ambiguously–perhaps the way a dream might.

For my part, I find Seidensticker’s version the most genial. It seems to me entirely plausible that Murasaki Shikibu has no concrete plans to end her tale, that she meant to follow along with Niou and, especially, Kaoru for the lengths of their lives; and if eternal life had been granted to her (and not the evil kind, like what the Sybil at Cumae got), she would still be unraveling the story of a shiningly beautiful yet maddeningly refractory descendant of Genji seducing Japanese pop singers and Honda heiresses.

Such an interpretation provides an almost miraculous solution to the ageless novelistic dilemma of how to end novels. Never is the artifice of storytelling more apparent than when the story gets wrapped up, for the obvious reason that real finality doesn’t happen in our lives until we’re unable to appreciate it. The Iliad solves the problem by ending at an emotionally cathartic moment not far past the middle of the epic; The Odyssey provides another template: a homecoming.  Many books since have tried to suggest a sense of open-endedness, of life continuing beyond the last page; of circularity, of the story you’ve read repeating itself; or by having all the plot elements converge with such startling perfection that you don’t care if it doesn’t reflect reality.

I like to think that The Tale of Genji eliminates the problem entirely by never intending to end. I agree with Steve that Kaoru is something of a pale shadow of Genji; but give Murasaki Shikibu another 20 chapters with him, and I’m fairly certain we’d be as loyally attached to this character as we were to Genji.

Which other books can say this? Which other books end in midair, the characters in ageless freeze-frame, and leave us believing that if its author could come back and snap her fingers, her tale would continue as though it had never paused?

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

Crying as Geese Cry

23 Aug

The room was furnished very simply indeed, and it felt sadly quiet and empty.

If the experience of reading The Tale of Genji has shown anything it is that a great work of literature does not end with an epoch or at the terminus of an empire. We have throughout been trying to balance our understanding of these characters as entirely relatable people and as people defined by the customs of their time. But in the chapters The Law and The Seer, custom, propriety, and decorum are scaled back to the barest minimum; the vast networks of characters and their complex interplay are brushed away like cobwebs; the stylistic virtuosity–the cunning parallelism, the perfectly modulated irony, the humor slyly leavening the sadnesses–is ratcheted down. Almost nothing remains except the job of watching Murasaki and Genji die.

Murasaki Shikibu renders these chapters with a painful plainness, sparsity, and candor. Murasaki dies as she lived, quietly and gracefully: “That summer she felt increasingly faint in no more than the usual heat. She did not suffer in any particular way; she simply went on growing weaker and weaker.” It would actually be an almost ideal way to die, except that she is too aware of what will happen to Genji when she goes. So even their happy moments are almost unbearable. She is otherwise a little bit evanescent in her sublime acceptance of what is coming; we are likely to relate to Genji, who has never been much of a Buddhist, and can’t rid himself of the same wish, that she simply didn’t have to die.

Her death scene illuminates the contrast behind her acquiescent nature and Genji’s worldliness, but it is also simpler and more expansive than that; it shows a woman succumbing to death while the man who loves her tries anything he can to keep her alive:

“What is the matter?” Her Majesty took [Murasaki’s] hand and watched her, weeping. She really did look like a dewdrop that would vanish soon. Countless messengers clattered off to order more scripture readings. She had been like this before and still revived, and Genji, who suspected the spirit, spent the night ordering every measure against it, but in vain. She died with the coming of the day.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding her funeral is as anticlimactic as the rest of Genji’s life, and its all shown with heartbreaking frankness. The smoke from her cremation is a meager wisp; the great figures in the funeral march totter and lean in ignoble poses. Genji becomes increasingly confused and listless; he stares off into space, consumed in “vacant dreaming”; he becomes too distracted to carry out his resolutions to comport himself properly. Murasaki Shikibu grants him one last night of lovemaking with Chujo, but mostly he is only amused by his grandson. The chapter becomes so stripped down that it begins to actually count the months and days as they pass.

But eventually the nearness of death gives Genji a little courage as well, and he finds his integrity in the end by doing what he did with such consummate beauty and perfection in life: observing forms. “He decreed that everything on the first day of the year should be done exceptionally well. They say that he prepared superb gifts for the Princes and Ministers and equally generous rewards, according to rank, for those below them.” And with those preparations made, Genji dies.

The Kids Are All Right

15 Aug

Torii Kiyohiro, "Flower-Like Lovers Under a Partially-Closed Umbrella"

In his last post, Steve notes the appeal of Genji’s walk-ons. Agreed; having passed the halfway mark, I find that much of the book’s appeal for me lies in the characterizations, the beating hearts beneath the chrysanthemums and poetry. So much of the time’s ruling aesthetic depended on contrast for balance, and the highbrow/lowbrow contrapositions in Genji—the essential baseness of so many culturally rounded characters—is what gives the tale a lot of its vivacity.

Throughout the book Lady Murasaki shows a sensitivity to the nuances of adult relationships from both sides of the ceremonial screen. In “The Maidens” she also demonstrates, for better or worse, a working knowledge of teenagers. The idea of an adolescent in power, a boy king, always has the power to fascinate latter-day Westerners, and I find I have a certain affection for Genji‘s imperial youngsters. In a culture where young men routinely acceded the throne after coming of age at 12, it can’t have been uncommon for the local ruler to be caught up in his own hormonal storms as well as court politics—presumably that’s what all those advisors were for. Murasaki gives us glimpses of the boys and girls beneath those ceremonial robes, and their rough edges have a real charm.

On the one hand His Majesty, Reizei, is almost too good to be true, a mature and level-headed young man at 13. When he learns the secret of his paternity from a guilt-ridden monk, he looks long and hard in the mirror, weighs the matter carefully, and considers abdicating and making Genji a Prince. All of which tips Genji off to the fact that His Highness somehow knows he’s Genji’s son. But the two do no more than circle each other politely, Reizei being reluctant to open that particular can of worms. Perhaps the office of Emperor has grown him up, or maybe he got his natural reticence from Fujitsubo, but either way he’s an exemplary young man throughout.

Genji’s legitimate son Yugiri, on the other hand, is about as typical a teen as they come. He has no conflict when it comes to his own paternity: Genji is his father and he’s just unfair. For starters, there’s that detested light blue robe. When Yugiri comes of age, Genji decides to hold him back a bit and advance him only to the sixth rank, rather than the fourth. His reasons are sound (although oddly similar to the theory these days behind keeping a boy with a fall or winter birthday in kindergarten an extra year):

For the moment I prefer not to make too much of a grown-up of him too soon…. For various reasons I would rather have him spend some time at the Academy. With two or three more years before he begins his career he will come naturally to be capable of serving His Majesty, and by then, you see, he will be a man.

But all the boy’s peers have moved up in rank, and while he used feel superior them, the tables have turned. His grandmother, Her Highness, tries to intervene on the his behalf, but to no avail. Genji’s response is infuriatingly parental: “He has a very grown-up complaint against me, I see. Ah, foolish youth! It is his age.”

Was there ever a better recipe for a spoiled teenager than a boy with a dead mother, a largely absent father, and a doting grandmother who does most of his caretaking? Genji sees this and sends Yugiri off with a tutor, and you can almost here the boy’s sullen (and, for effect, probably breaking) voice:

The young man chafed at being shut up this way all the time, and the more he did so, the more he detested his father; for were there not others who rose high and held distinguished office without ever having to suffer this way?

The tutoring pays off, and Yugiri passes his examinations with ease, in spite of all that suffering. When it comes time to find him a bride, however, a new problem comes to light: It seems the boy and his cousin, To no Chujo’s 14-year-old daughter Kumoi no Kari, have been taking their childhood intimacies a little too far. This is a scenario straight out of Endless Love—remember “the love every parent fears”? The two share adjacent rooms at Her Highness’ house, and while the indulgent women there chuckle and look the other way, apparently some serious slumber parties have been going on.

Genji and To no Chujo have always kept a friendly rivalry at a slow simmer, and the children have known each other all their lives. His Excellency treats Yugiri with avuncular fondness—“I see so little of you these days! What keeps you so hard at your books?”—until he catches a bit of whispered gossip from giggling gentlewomen. Not only are they discussing Yugiri’s relationship with his daughter, but they’re laughing at him—“He thinks he knows best, but there’s a father for you.”

His Excellency is furious with his own mother, Her Highness, for not keeping better track of what was going on under her roof, and announces that he’s taking the girl home. And with this, relations all over the palace erupt. Her Highness is hurt and insulted, sorrowful at losing the girl she raised and angry at her son. To no Chujo is livid at being the butt of gossip, not to mention the prospect of his daughter being “spoiled.” His older daughter, the Kokiden Consort, has recently returned home herself in disgrace. Kumoi no Kari quails at the thought of being married off to someone else. Yugiri, of course, is outraged and miserable—these grownups just don’t understand! Yugiri’s nurse helps engineer a final night together for the star-crossed couple, but to add salt to his wounds he overhears his darling’s nurse bewailing his low ranking—it’s that hateful light blue robe again—and like every spurned teenager since the beginning of time, “he wallowed in the misery of his own creation.”

Yugiri redeems himself, of course, by growing up. And even in the wake of infatuations with Tamakazura and Murasaki, his love for his childhood sweetheart never waivers. By “New Wisteria Leaves” he is 18 and has acquired some of Genji’s shiningness, a “noble grace.” To no Chujo relents and gives him Kumoi no Kari’s hand, and they finally get to spend an honest night together.

He returns home the next morning, sleepy and satisfied, and Genji is as proud a papa as you could want. But he’s still the father of a teenager, no matter how respectable. And his first question to Yugiri, “Did you do your letter?”, still sounds a lot—to this former mother of a teenager, anyway—like “Did you write your thank-you notes?”

Kashiwagi’s Cat

14 Aug

Woodblock cut by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In the midst of all the more serious goings-on that still engage us in “Spring Shoots” parts 1 and 2, surely we can pause a moment for the sake of Kashiwagi’s cat?


Animals abound in world literature, of course, but in the two thousand years prior to the Tale of Genji, they’re more often than not treated as automata, as devices fit for making larger points about the human condition, rather than as individuals themselves. Domesticated pets who are loved for their own personalities and idiosyncrasies are rare in world literature prior to the Middle Ages – instead, we usually get exemplars of one kind or other. Perhaps the two most famous in ancient Western literature are Odysseus’ dog, whose prompt expiration after waiting twenty years for his master to return is set up in grim contrast to all those loutish suitors lounging around the palace, and more to our point here today, Lesbia’s sparrow, whom Catullus envies for its freedom to nestle between her bosoms the way he’d like to do. The fact that the bird has had so much of the intimacy the poet craves is the only reason the animal rates a poem.


The second part of Wakana gives us an animal-story that starts out as an exact parallel of that poor sparrow. In the previous chapter, the antics of a certain unfortunate Chinese cat had allowed Kashiwagi to get an unimpeded glimpse of Onna San no Miya, and the glimpse has only strengthened his hopeless fixation on the poor girl. To pursue that fixation – and because no other avenue seems open to him – he makes a fully Catullan identification of female and feline: he sets about to obtain that Chines cat.


Fortunately for his purposes (though perhaps not so for the welfare of the empire), the Heir Apparent is an ardent cat-lover and facilitates the exchange. Kashiwagi makes sure to act nonchalant about the whole business, even going so far as to make the preposterous assertion that some cats actually have “souls” (Tyler’s more spiritual rendering of Seidensticker’s equally-unlikely “beginnings of rational faculty”) – but then the classic Murasaki Shikibu touch happens: Kashiwagi and the cat come to like each other. The grand plot of the burgeoning love affair goes trundling forward, but now another relationship has developed off in one narrative pocket:

So he had the cat at last, and he got it to sleep with him at night. By day he caressed it and fussed over it. Soon it was no longer shy, and it curled up in his skirts or cuddled with him so nicely that he really did become very fond of it. He was lying against a pillar near the veranda, lost in thought, when it came to him going Meow! Meow! Ever so sweetly.


My, we are eager, aren’t we!” He smiled and stroked it, then gazed into its eyes:


“You I make my pet, that in you I may have her, my unhappy love: what can you be telling me, when you come crying this way?”


This is destiny, too, I suppose.” It meowed more endearingly still, and he clasped it to him.

This is colored intriguingly differently in Seidensticker:

He kept it with him at night, and in the morning would see to its toilet and pet it and feed it. Once the initial shyness had passed it proved to be a most affectionate animal. He loved its way of sporting with the hem of his robe or entwining itself around a leg. Sometimes when he was sitting at the veranda lost in thought it would come up and speak to him.


“What an insistent little beast you are.” He smiled and stroked its back. “You are here to remind me of someone I long for, and what is it you long for yourself? We must have been together in an earlier life, you and I.”

And even more poetically in Arthur Waley (who enhances – or perhaps adds – the pointedly Catullan echo found in neither of the others):

The cat lay close by him all night, and the first thing he did in the morning was see to its wants, combing it and feeding it with his own hand. The most unsociable cat, when it finds itself wrapped up in some one’s coat and put to sleep upon his bed – stroked, fed, and tended with every imaginable care – soon ceases to stand upon its dignity; and when, a little later, Kashiwagi posted himself near the window, where he sat gazing vacantly before him, his new friend soon stole gently to his side and mewed several times as though in tenderest sympathy. Such advances on the part of a cat are rare indeed, and smiling he recited to the animal the following verse: “I love and am not loved. But you, who nestle daily in my dear one’s arms – what need have you to moan?” He gazed into the cat’s eyes as he spoke, and again it began mewing piteously, till he took it up into his lap …

Despite the odd fact that all this pet-fondling is happening to a cat and not a dog, it’s an undeniably charming interlude. And perhaps it’s just as well it’s not a dog – who can forget the harrowing incident related in the Pillow-Book of Sei Shonagon, when one of the court ladies, on a lark, sets the beloved dog Okinamaro to chase just such an excessively pampered feline? The cat shrieks and flees, but the dog, proud of his accomplishment, is promptly beaten for the commotion he caused – beaten so badly that his own ladies don’t at first recognize him when he comes creeping and cringing back to them the next day. Better to be an allegory, all things considered.


–Steve Donoghue

Genji Extras!

10 Aug

The extras who populate any large-scale epic always generate undue curiosity in me. It’s obviously not what the writer intends – emphasis is always given where they feel emphasis is due – but it happens to me regular as clockwork just the same.

I read such epics for the main currents of their drama and plot, of course – I’m not capricious. But along the way, I always find myself daydreaming about the lives and experiences of characters who sometimes inhabit only a few lines of text, characters about whom the books’ authors clearly wish me to feel no curiosity at all. In this writers are akin to directors, who routinely cast extras specifically for how unobtrusive they are. If you’re pouring all your creative heart’s blood into your main and secondary characters and their travails, the last thing you want is for the audience to be pointing to the left of your leading man at Male Passerby #5 and asking “Who’s THAT?”

I sympathize, but I can’t help myself. During the sweeping battle-swath scenes in the Iliad, when Hector or Achilles is mowing down opponents with wild abandon, I’m told just enough about those opponents so that I want to know more. I realize that virtually all of those names and tag-lines accumulated in the text as traveling bards needed to please their audiences with quick mentions of famous ancestors or local legends, but when I read that Asios Hyrtakides got speared to death because he was too proud to dismount and face the Greeks on foot like all his Trojan peers – Homer actually calls him a moron – I want to hear his story.

Then there’s the great undersung (and sometimes jarringly Genji-like) prose epic of Anthony Trollope’s “Palliser” novels: in the last volume, The Duke’s Children, we get the detailed and engrossing loves and complications of two of the Duke of Omnium’s children – Lord Silverbridge and Lady Mary. But of the third child, the younger brother Lord Gerald, we learn hardly anything substantial in the course of the whole book in part titled for him (and don’t even get me started about the Duke’s mysterious disappearing second daughter!). Is it wrong for me to wonder how Lord Gerald made his way in the world, a world so fundamentally changed from that in which either his father or his mother grew up? Perhaps, but I wonder even so.

Likewise in War and Peace, or The Mahabarata, or Lord of the Rings, where I can’t be the only poor soul who’s devoted more energy to wondering about poor Radagast the Brown (‘Radagast the bird-tamer! Radagast the fool!’) – wondering if there can possibly be such a thing as an inconsequential wizard. It’s a mania, but these writers are partially to blame: even what they only negligently create has the power to compel.

Certainly this odd little reading trait gets an inordinate workout in The Tale of Genji, where minor characters in their scores and hundreds crowd around the doings of the great and the mighty. We see it in Spring Shoots, in which the old retired Suzaku emperor is so pathetically desperate to make a good match for his Third Princess that he ignores – and admits he ignores, the old rascal! – his other daughters. Murasaki Shikibu tells us just enough about these poor young women to make some readers wonder what their lives must have been like. We don’t get the impression they’re great beauties (in fact, though the text is as painstakingly courteous as always, we don’t get that impression about Onna San no Miya either), and quite unlike their sister, they have hardly any prospective husbands. But the real shiver of their personal tragedy lives in two telling, Darwinian lines: “To her alone he gave not only his favorites among the precious things and furnishings of his palace but the least trinket of any interest at all. The remainder went to his other children.”

I can’t help but wonder about these unfortunate young women. As far as we know, they’re guilty of no crime other than of which so many children stand accused: having the wrong parent. Did they like their privileged sister? Did they ever perhaps covet one of those least trinkets? For that matter, did they covet their father’s affection, only to watch it brusquely given elsewhere? And what about those paltry few suitors of theirs? Imagine the awkward moments, with each of those men knowing full well the unloved Cordelia they were seeking. Did they persevere, regardless? Who tells that story?

It’s as easy to ask the question as it is to answer it: we would only want Murasaki Shikibu to tell it – it wouldn’t be the same from anybody else, but her eyes are turned elsewhere. There’s a bit of disappointment in that, but I’m used to it by now.

–Steve Donoghue

Of whom the reader knows nothing

8 Aug

Although every new chapter makes it clearer that we’ve picked the right translator for our Summer of Genji (I keep alternating between noticing the herculean work Royall Tyler put into his version and noticing the arresting, often otherworldly beauty of the results), massive and pivotal chapters like “Spring Shoots” I & II naturally tempt the thoughts to wander down roads not taken. The temptation grows even stronger since Tuttle Publishing has recently re-issued Arthur Waley’s groundbreaking 1921-1933 Genji translation in a very solid, very pretty fat paperback. Translating this bewilderingly subtle and complex book for an English language audience is a forbidding task, and Waley was the first to come anywhere close to a complete edition – these are reasons to esteem his work, regardless of the work of others.

The charge most often leveled against Waley is that he pruned as he went along, and it’s impossible to deny. Defending him is another matter: no doubt his intentions were good – this was a huge and alien work to his 1930s audience, after all, and at every turn in the book you can see him always making the readerly decision, always taking the narrative down smooth pathways with manicured lawns. Murasaki Shikibu rather exuberantly doesn’t do that, and Royall Tyler has chosen to echo her odd narrative ways as closely as possible. The result is assuredly greater translation fidelity – but let’s be honest here: when characters from six chapters ago are being identified only by their epithets or imperial titles, when everybody’s being identified that way for long stretches at a time, it’s exceedingly easy to lose your way.

Take “Spring Shoots I” for example: His Eminence Suzaka is planning on retiring from the world of court and devoting what he’s sure will be the last days of his life to monastic contemplation in the quiet severity of a hillside retreat (perhaps not entirely severe, since he’s having it custom-built for his arrival, but again, we’re talking about good intentions). He decides to go out with a great New Year’s party, to which all the highest nobles of the land are invited – including, as Tyler dutifully translates, “Their Excellencies of the Left and Right.” To which he appends the footnote: “Of whom the reader knows nothing.”

Which might be well and good for him to clarify, but from a reader’s standpoint, it’s easy to see why Waley decided to omit the reference completely, rather than retain it and add a footnote: those almost anonymous Excellencies have no bearing on anything whatsoever, and although the import of their titles is lost on the reader, the presence of those titles adds just that little bit more to the title-fatigue that can sometimes afflict Tyler’s translation. Waley took them out, almost certainly because he saw that leaving them in added nothing to the scene – a philistine’s decision, perhaps, but one for which a weary reader might thank him.

But the danger in such solicitude is that it can be carried too far, and here’s where Waley’s real guilt comes in. In his translation, events move right on to His Eminence taking the tonsure in preparation for his departure from the world, and it’s only when we read Tyler’s version that we see this is an economy too far: there’s a pretty little moment Waley excises.

The Empress has sent Suzaku a poignant gift: a comb-set he had once given her, when she, too, was embarking on a new life (in her case, in service to the Emperor Reizei) – the gift catches the attentive reader’s breath, for we have seen that earlier moment and can’t help but feel touched now. The quiet delicacy of the moment is so noticeable that Waley must have seen it, and the reader wonders why he left it out – until the comb-set’s box is opened and the inevitable poem is found within. His Eminence is pleased and sends a brief poem in response – two hopeful little notes sounded in the midst of the chapter’s rather somber concerns, a wonderful little exchange between two characters, but Waley almost certainly left it out because of the poems themselves. There’s not a stitch of verse in the Waley Genji, and perhaps it’s Tyler’s footnote that explains why: “The language of the poem, as of Suzaku’s reply,” he tells us, “is distinctly felicitous.”

He has to tell us this because he can’t show us: his own rendition of the verses in question, though pleasant enough, is not ‘distinctly felicitous’ (hence the need to tell us at all) – and perhaps, given Murasaki Shikibu’s prowess, no English translation could be. Certainly in this case Waley must have thought so, and rather than hamstring the pretty little moment by failing to do full justice to the poetry at its center, he chose to leave the whole thing out.

Ultimately, this is Tyler’s greatest strength as a translator: he’s willing to expose his readers not just to the full beauty of Genji but to its full risks as well. His translation is less courtly than that of Waley (who succeeded admirably in turning The Tale of Genji into a traditional English ‘triple-decker’ novel and well deserves his sterling new edition on that score alone), but it trades a measure of tranquility for the thrill of the real, as its hero so often does.

–Steve Donoghue

It is because cherry blossoms fall that they are so precious

5 Aug

These pleasures had lasted all too briefly, and a night of which one would have gladly had a thousand passed blandly into day.

We have come to what I think is The Tale of Genji’s most nearly perfect stretch, the long densely woven episodes contained in Spring Shoots I, Spring Shoots II, and The Oak Tree. It’s hard to adequately describe the effect these chapters have. As Lady Murasaki notes, poems composed on the occasions of great events “generally fall flat” because there is no stylish way of repeating well-worn sentiments and phrases.

Even so, we must give it a try. The key to these chapters is that they fuse the pleasures of life and the sorrow of death with such consummate skill that hardly a line passes when you are not aware of both. The epic nature of the book has allowed it to mature and make such a feat possible. There are aging, reflective characters as well as young, impulsive one, and we have been so privy to a rich host of bygone years that the specters of the past are every bit as present in our minds as the possibilities of the future.

The conjoined nature of life and death, of joy and sadness, is everywhere. The chapter titles beckon at birthday parties and rejuvenation, but of course the double edge of a birthday celebration is that the celebrant has edged closer to death. Genji and his son have a long conversation about the comparable beauties of spring and autumn nights, and as those evocative seasons are being juxtaposed we are also aware that Genji sees his approaching death in Yugiri, and Yugiri, at the height of his powers, is filled with remorse for not better living up to the promise he once seemed to hold.

All pleasure is instantly alloyed with pain. We are told that between Genji and Murasaki, “The passing months and years had only brought those two more perfectly together, until nothing whatever seemed to come between them”; and at the same time, Murasaki is serious about taking the tonsure and vanish into a nunnery.

Murasaki, of course, is thirty-seven, and though we instinctively think of that age as a hale and hearty time, a vigorous precursor to the decline after middle age, it is an inauspicious year, the year Fujitsubo died. What bedevils Murasaki, apart from the Rokujo lady’s indefatigably malicious spirit, is the insecurity of her life. This insecurity is the result of having the endlessly erring Genji for a husband; but in a larger sense it is simply the fundamental insecurity of an existence linked to death. Just as men are fickle, wanton, and treacherous, so too is the fortune of life. As we have seen, Genji’s insights into this truth are less profound, but he still expresses quite the same thing. When he learns that he’s been cuckolded by the melancholic and Hamlet-esque Kashiwagi, he finds the solace of revenge in the long view of existence: “Never mind, though, his time will come. The sun and moon never turn back. No one escapes old age.”

The palpably transitional nature of these chapters makes their scenes of celebration even more poignant. One of my favorite passages in the book comes in Spring Shoots II, in which the gorgeously depicted Eastern Dances at once speak to the beauty of being and the forlorn fact of its terminality:

It was the middle of the tenth month; the kudzu vines clambering along the sacred fence had turned, and the reddened leaves beneath the pines announced not only in sound the waning of autumn. The familiar Eastern Dances, so much more appealing than the solemn pieces from Koma or Cathay, merged with wind and wave; the music of the flutes soared on the breeze through the tall pines, conveying a shiver of awe not to be felt elsewhere; the rhythm, marked on strings rather than on drums, was less majestic than gracefully stirring; and the place lent its own magic to the whole. The musicians in their bamboo pattern dyed with wild indigo mingled with the deep green of the pines, and the many-colored flowers in their headdresses so resembled the flowers of autumn that one hardly knew one from the other. When “Motomego” ended, the senior nobles each bared a shoulder and stepped out to dance. From dull, black formal cloaks burst sappan or grape layered sleeves, while the deep scarlet sleeves of gowns moistened by a touch of winter rain eclipsed the pines and recalled a carpet of autumn leaves. All these lovely figures then decked themselves with tall white reeds to dance just once more and bring the music to a close. One would have wished to watch them forever.

Wisteria Blossoms

4 Aug

We are reminded at every turn of the easy mastery that fills Genji; there’s hardly a Western work to rival it for endless virtuoso displays of seemingly offhand brilliance. Middlemarch comes close, but there’s virtually nothing in it that can properly be called comedy (and certainly nothing that’s actually funny, at least that the author intended to be), and likewise the tragic elements of Don Quixote seem almost sewn onto the comedic elements – there’s hardly any sense of the flow that characterizes Genji from start to finish, the musical, at times almost unbearably modulation events and characters are given, to be many things – some contradictory – at the same time. Genji is so filled with these stunning subtleties that the way we’re reading it here – slowly, over the course of a deliberate, thoughtful summer – is not only ideal but very nearly essential: in a book where a world of meaning can be implied in the opening of a fan in just a certain way, much will be lost to haste.

We’re past the half-way point by now, not only of our summer but of our “Summer of Genji,” and great, epic chapters lie before us – and yet which of us isn’t finding dozens of old chapters, characters, and scenes sticking in our memory? Just the title of Chapter 33 – Fuji No Uraba, given by Tyler as “New Wisteria Leaves” – strikes a floral chord that reminds me of the gillyflowers of Tokonatsu (“The Pink”) and its delightful, pitch-perfect portrait of To no Chujo’s newfound daughter Omi no Kimi with her impulsive behavior that’s at once so comically backwoods and so guilelessly charming. We can share her father’s affectionate despair over her even while we like her – both views of the character are encouraged, even though a lesser writer would worry they’d annihilate each other, dramatically speaking.

The beginning section of “New Wisteria Leaves” features another such bravura set-piece, the evening party given by To no Chujo ostensibly to celebrate the spectacular blossoming of his wisteria (in a charming – and yet double-edged – aside, he mentions that he favors them because of all the blossoms of spring, they’re the only ones who don’t betray admiration by immediately fading away) but really to give Genji’s son Yugiri permission to take his daughter at last.

Much wine is served at this party, and much poetry is recited (our narrator tactfully hints that the quality of the latter bore an inverse relationship to the quantity of the former, an old complaint Homer would have found familiar), and meanings and intentions are doubled, halved, folded in and in upon each other until all we can know for certain are outcomes (the boy gets the girl).

But the party itself is a perfect little fascination such as only Murasaki Shikibu (and Jane Austen, of course, the mighty exception to all literary East-over-West hyperventilating) could craft, where characters are perfectly sober but acting drunk in order to say things propriety might not let them say while sober, and where characters are actually drunk but still calculating the interpersonal balances of every single encounter to the tenth decimal. And at the heart of it all is Yugiri, the stunningly handsome teenage son of Genji.

As interesting as I think it is that we’re told repeatedly that Genji looks young enough to be Yugiri’s brother (and that they look enough alike to be almost interchangeable, a staple of comic literature here wrought in a slightly different metal), what fascinates me most is To no Chujo’s little declaration to his ladies when Yugiri first arrives at his house. Before the young man has seen his host, To no Chujo has seen him, and in addition to the usual superlatives about how good-looking the young man is, there’s a tell-tale contrast: To no Chujo points out that whereas Genji likes his ease (and by implication has always lacked a certain mental rigor), Genji’s son, equally good-looking, has studied hard and filled himself with an ethic of purpose that if anything gives him the edge over his illustrious father.

This little glimpse of Genji has the ironic secondary effect of making us retroactively cherish some of the very attitudes of his for which we were in earlier chapters so tempted to deplore him, and its edge is sharpened by the fact that To no Chujo himself has always been a bit of a sour-puss: do we believe him when he says the boy’s greater focus on his duty makes him more attractive, or do we disbelieve him and like Genji all the more for the comment?

Murasaki Shikibu’s quiet mastery allows us to do both simultaneously, and I’m luxuriating in that. It’s good to savor such exquisite inconsequentialities before diving into the epic goings-on of our next few chapters! And don’t underestimate our author: that effect too, so wisteria-like in its nature, is no doubt perfectly intended …

–Steve Donoghue