Because of the hurly-burly of its ever-expanding plot and the seeming endlessness of its cast (obviously worried that his readers won’t be able to tell the players without a scorecard, Tyler provides one at the beginning of every chapter; earlier English translators didn’t consider this necessary, and although it’s mighty damn useful, its presence always gives me a twinge of depression)(there’s no pleasing some people, I suppose), there’s an element of Tale of Genji that tends to get sidelined, but it’s an element that meant everything to the book’s author: beauty. As in building a garden or constructing a perfect evening or (although this would not have been on our author’s mind) orchestrating a military campaign, so too in spinning a vast narrative: vigor is called for, yes, and cleverness is the measure of inventiveness – but there must also be elegance. The perfect grace-note of the Japanese garden is the tiny pocket of seemingly unconsidered perfection that must be found, stumbled upon, during the enjoyment of the main spectacle.
So it is with Genji, over and over again, and it can often serve as an adjunct to character, a reminder that our young hero, a beautiful creature himself, is also a creator of beauty, a magnet for it. It’s true that Genji often, almost inevitably, creates misery and havoc in the lives of people around him, always without meaning to (there’s a hilarious example in the next chapter) – but he’s also the most beautiful thing that’s ever entered those people’s lives, and that has its grace moments.
One of those lovely moments happens in Akashi. On a quiet evening, “with the whole vast sea before him,” Genji takes out his koto and begins to play. The sound intermingles with the curl of the waves and wafts up over the swaying pines, enchanting everybody who hears it (we get that inadvertent harm-causing, that Genji-effect, even here, when we’re told old people wandered out into the cold sea-breezes in response to the sound) – including Genji’s old host, who brings out other musical instruments and slowly, hesitantly (and wordlessly, of course) offers Genji the prospect of a quiet, friendly evening of music and conversation.
The interlude is lovely. The two men play for each other, praise each other, and talk about their lives and hopes while the moon sails overhead and the sea-breezes refresh everything. The old man couldn’t have planned the evening (although he improvises with the best of them once it’s underway), and Genji couldn’t have foreseen it (the difference in their social standing makes what the old man is doing technically rude, although Genji, who admits that the whole time he’s been at Akashi he’s felt like he was in some kind of dream, doesn’t mind). “These notes rang out across the sea,” we’re told in Tyler’s lovely phrasing, “while depths of leafy shadow here and there surpassed in loveliness spring blossoms or autumn colors, and a moorhen’s tap-tap-tap called up stirring fancies of “the gate favored tonight.” (Tyler notes that the soft, insistent knocking sound of the moorhen’s call will signal for our author’s readers the door-knocking of a hopeful lover; the figure crops up in the next chapter too, although more lasciviously)
The purity of the moment can’t last, of course – not in Genji’s world, or in the world of Genji. But it’s a wonderful little pause just the same.