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 …