The Tale Begins!

15 Jun

In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor….

And with that dream-like invocation, welcome to the Summer of Genji! If you’re new to the site, the plan is simple. Between now and August 30, we’re going to read and discuss Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th century masterpiece The Tale of Genji. You can get a sense of the reading schedule above, and order your copy from the links on the right, or email us anytime with questions at scott_esposito AT or openlettersmonthly AT And throughout it all, add your voice to the discussions kicked around here!

And with our own little opening out of the way, I can get back to the book’s–which is surprisingly morbid! Can anyone think of another book of this stature that starts with a death? Poor Genji’s mother makes it all the way to page 5 (of 1,120 pages) before shuffling off the mortal coil, and if it weren’t so immediately sad, it would be almost comical to find a poem so early on that begins “Now the end has come.”

My own story-telling assumption is that you can’t portray grief very effectively if the readers have only known the dead and mourning for 5 pages. And yet grief, and fear of further grieving is the strongest emotion here, especially in the scenes of the Emperor who has lost his favorite consort:

He struggled in vain to control himself, despite his resolve to betray no strong emotion. A rush of memories even brought back the days when he had first known his love, and he was shocked to realize how long he had already been without her, when once he had so disliked her briefest absence.

That’s extremely good, simple and sympathetic, and it worked on me even going into the book cold. (There’s also the great, telling detail of the Kokiden house, the rival faction to Genji’s mother, blaring music as the Emperor is trying to mourn–political jockeying giving no respite to the grieving. And I always like knowing who the bad guys are at the start of a book.) Even Genji, the Shining Lord, is death-haunted; he’s so beautiful that people dread the gods are going to steal him back.

Of course, this first chapter also has a wedding, in the more traditional style of beginnings. It’s not a very happy one, though….


8 Responses to “The Tale Begins!”

  1. Elaine Corwin June 15, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    I’m assuming Dickens’ “Marley is dead..” isn’t what you have in mind as far as stature is concerned (or length for that matter). It is what I first thought about when you asked the question. In a sort of very convoluted way, I think both Genji and Scrooge are looking for solace and redemption. Genji just has a bigger stage so there’s more expansion of depth and the story becomes broader in scope. It’s early on. I may change my mind about this later when I’m farther along.

  2. Chris Kern June 15, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    The first few chapters are probably the most difficult to read; they’re kind of disjointed.

    The highlight of the first chapter is Myobu’s visit to Kiritsubo’s mother; you have to feel sorry for her too since her grandchild is about to get taken away and put in the palace.

  3. kubla June 15, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    I found the discussions in the first half of the second chapter particularly interesting. They were basically about courtship etiquette: how do you court this or that woman in view of both her personality and her social status in relation to yours. It reminded me of the medieval European text, The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, which has a good many sample dialogues. The same is true of the Kama Sutra. Despite its reputation as a sex manual – where it’s rather quaint – it devotes more attention to courtship etiquette.

    I have no idea whether the medieval Japanese had such a treatise, but I suspect Genji will be giving us many lessons on courtship etiquette.

    Notice that he get’s married as a young adolescent and the marriage is arranged. But his wife plays almost no role in the story so far. For what it’s worth, the heroine of a well-known (and rather good) anime series, Ai Yori Aoshi, has the same name as Genji’s first wife, Aoi. I can’t believe that’s an accident, especially since Ai Yori Aoshi deals with the subject of arranged marriages.

  4. samsacks9 June 16, 2010 at 1:02 am #

    Elaine, A Christmas Carol is a good call! But the more I think about Genji, the more I think the story is set up as a kind of foundling tale. We know both of Genji’s parents, of course, but neither have any real parenting role, and so to some extent Genji is that perfect figure who seems to emerge from nowhere.

    And I love the start of the second chapter, too. There is a Romance of the Rose quality to it–but the jokey, tale-spinning nature of it made me also think of the Decameron.

  5. Lauren June 16, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    It’s important that Kiritsubo be out of the way fairly quickly– what matters is the impression she leaves on the Genji. We get to see much more of her than he does, comparably! Her death is what sets the story in motion.

  6. Lauren June 16, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    *On Genji*, not on the Genji!


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