The Tale Continues!

28 Jun

“People soon enough will be passing on our tale, though I let our dream
sweep me on till I forget what misfortune now is mine.”

Genji and Murasaki drawing sketches

After a somewhat episodic and character-forming first few chapters, The Tale of Genji has begun to achieve a narrative coherence; a tapestry has emerged that is extraordinary not only for the number of different threads woven together, but for the apparent ease and smoothness of the production. There’s a huge cast and an immense amount going on at all times, but the story never feels rushed or crammed together, It always makes time for sidelights and diversions, and the gentle, relaxing irony that colors it all.

The most important events are contained in the chapter Young Murasaki, and reflect on another. Genji carries on an affair with Fujitsubo, her, the beloved wife (or mistress?) of his father’s who helped rear him after his mother died, and eventually, to their consternation, she becomes pregnant (and gives birth to a boy who looks shockingly like Genji). At the same time, Genji comes across a ten-year-old relative of Fujitsubo’s who so closely resembles her that Genji impulsively decides he must have the girl, and bring her up to be his ideal wife.

The parallelism throughout the chapter is striking, though the most curious contrast may be a matter of decorum. Genji’s affair with Fujitsubo is referred to so obliquely that, when I first read the book in the non-footnoted Seidenstricker translation, I completely missed that it happened. It’s fascinating to learn that the word ‘see’, like the Biblical ‘know’, had sexual connotations. Fujitsubo’s position is such that gossipy bedroom details about her would be completely unacceptable.

On the other hand, we get all sorts of halfway comic and halfway horrible details about Genji’s ‘seduction’ (and eventual abduction) of Murasaki, from their (chaste) nights in bed together to their love of playing dolls. This is all something of a scandal, too (even Genji knows he’s acting outrageously), but it’s one that the book revels in. The darkness and light of these twin storylines is fascinating.

But they are only part of all that’s happening. Ongoing throughout there is political drama (Genji’s rivalry with the Kokiden Consort, who controls the Heir Apparent), a complex friendship (Genji’s love and hijinks-filled rivalry with To no Chujo), a dissolving marriage–and of course, more women! We have the pitiably ugly Safflower Girl who lives in the sad ramshackle house (the details of that pathetic setting are Whartonesque) and gives all the wrong gifts, the amorous cougar The Dame of Staff, the horribly violated intended to the Heir Apparent, the rancorous Rokujo lady and her daughter, the mysterious High Priestess of Ise, and then Asagao, the lady of the bluebells. “On the whole,” we are told in the usual sly understated way, “[Genji] was not one to forget any woman he had ever known.” We will have to be on our toes to keep them all clear in our minds.

What else has stood out to you in these chapters. A great deal is happening now. What has stayed with you the most? And how are you feeling about our sinful main character?

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8 Responses to “The Tale Continues!”

  1. Dee Brown June 28, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    One thing we haven’t mentioned, I don’t think, is the very frequent references to Genji’s beauty and the role that plays. His beauty is so often mentioned that the author even comments that she is remarking on it perhaps too frequently, but it is so awesome that she can’t help herself. In the minds of the folks then, and in my experience even to a certain degree today, to those people for whom reincarnation is a given, beauty is much more than skin deep. It reflects numerous auspicious past lives. This belief gives a person enormous power and leverage perhaps even on a subconscious level. Genji uses this, sincerely or not it is hard to tell, when he wants to “see” a woman. Several times he has said something to the effect that he feels so drawn to that woman, they must have been together in a past life. Does anyone know if that the author is making fun with that kind of statement or not?

    The other interesting thing about beauty is the two sons of Genji being born so beautiful that perhaps something untoward would happen to them so special prayers and precautions were made. Does anyone know the belief system around that?

    • Royall Tyler June 28, 2010 at 7:17 pm #

      To me, Genji’s assurances to women, of the kind mentioned by Dee Brown, are expressions in a Buddhist world of the same feelings that lead men in ours to say things like, “Fate must have brought us together” or “We’re just made for each other.” Whether such utterances are sincere or calculated is often a matter or perspective. But I doubt that the Tale’s narrator (not to be confused with the author) is making fun of Genji when she has him say things like this. Men really do talk this way sometimes, don’t they?

      As far as I know, the fear that too beautiful a child will be taken by jealous supernatural powers is continuous with the “changeling” motif of world folklore. Its psychological roots, for those deeply attached (in any land, any time) to a small child, are easy to imagine. In a lighter but still somewhat anxious mood we often say that something is “too good to be true” or “too good to last.”

      Regarding “see” in the language of the Tale: it isn’t simply equivalent to the Biblical “know.” It’s more like our “I hear those two are seeing each other.” The person who says this may assume, not necessarily correctly, that the relationship in question includes sexual intimacy. However, the speaker isn’t making an issue of sexual intimacy in particular. The case of Utsusemi is unique because the meaning of “see” there is so sharply defined by the context. (For one thing, Genji can’t see her because they’re in the dark.) Elsewhere in the Tale, though, “see” (frequent the company of) does not necessarily include sexual relations.

  2. Chris Kern June 28, 2010 at 8:09 pm #

    Is this up to chapter 8 now? (Things seem to be a little behind…)

    One highlight of Chapter 7 is when Genji gets to see his child for the first time. I love the flood of adjectives that denote his conflicted feelings over seeing his illegitimate son.

  3. Stephanie June 30, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    I’m enjoying much of the book when reading it, but struggling a little to actually get involved in it, so I found this sum up kind of helpful in that it highlighted some of the elements that suggested we might be going somewhere. I’m trying to be open to the book for what it is and the pleasures it offers, but so far it’s feeling a little like it’s almost all diversion and episodes.

    As a result, what I found most compelling about the most recent section was the returned focus on the now Empress and Genji’s feelings about her and their past relationship (and now the son). Also, the promise of an ongoing story with the hints of future political struggles (Genji and the mother of the Heir Apparent maybe) and, of course, the Murasaki thing, weird as it is.

    There’s also another reference to Genji’s taking Yugao’s daughter off to be raised (secretly), and even though there’s no suggestion that that has anything to do with the Murasaki story, the fact that in both cases there’s the secrecy from the actual father’s seemed interesting and puzzling. It also raised some discomfort or worry that I have, as an uninformed reader, about what the status is of these various women involved in the affairs and their children. Some of them are married, of course, but for the others, like the one Genji’s friend tells about who disappears, I’m wondering what happens if they don’t just conveniently die of love.

  4. Chris Kern June 30, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    The first time I read the book it took a while to get into it. The “episodic” feeling of the narrative is mostly in the early chapters. Once you get to about chapter 18 or so the story has a much clearer narrative progression (parts still seem somewhat episodic, though). I think it was around chapter 23 or 24 when I really got hooked and after that I couldn’t put it down.

    Women were in a pretty perilous situation in the world of the Tale; this is most clear in the case of Suetsumuhana (the “safflower princess” of chapter 6). If a woman loses all of her support from relatives and has no husband, she’s in trouble. Not all women seem to have fallen into this state — the Rokujo Haven apparently does fine despite her husband being dead.

    • Scott June 30, 2010 at 5:08 pm #

      Thanks Chris, that is encouraging to hear. I’m enjoying it so far, but like Stephanie it has been a little hard to get involved. Knowing that the progression will become clearer as I keep going makes the remaining page count a little less daunting.

      That sounds more negative than I meant – there have been a lot of great moments, they just feel isolated from each other at this point. Granted I’m still so early on that this all may be premature.

      • Royall Tyler July 1, 2010 at 3:15 am #

        Episodic, somewhat disjointed: as Chris says, yes, especially in these early chapters. It’s likely that the author didn’t realize at first what she was getting into. Chapter 4, for example, may easily be a story that she wrote before the tale even got under way and that she edited in later. There’s a well-established theory that she did NOT write Chapter 1 first, but only later on in order to introduce and tie together what she had already written. There’s also a theory that she wrote some of the early chapters quite separately and interpolated them among the others later. Speculative suggestions for her actual first chapter include Chapter 2 and Chapter 5. In the 12th-15th centuries it was widely believed that she wrote Chapters 12 and 13 first (in a rush of inspiration) and filled in the rest, in both directions, from there. What remains of her diary complains that the most powerful nobleman of the day swiped from her room her fair copy of what she had written up to that point (no one knows how much that was) in order to give it to one of his daughters, who was about to marry the heir apparent. Could that fair copy have been appreciably from what later centuries inherited? Much about the composition of the tale remains unknown.

  5. Scott July 1, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Fascinating, thank you. I’m really enjoying all the background information/analysis everyone is adding via the blog. I

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