Archive by Author

The Tales of Genji!

22 Jul

Burned by the apparent indifference of the nobleman she fancies, the haughty narrator of the Kagero Nikki – written at the same time as The Tale of Genji and almost certainly by a woman that book’s author knew – moves from one bitter season to the next. “Spring came,” she tells us, “and the song of the thrush, and I murmured to myself some words from an old poem: ‘Spring renews everything, and only I grow old.’”

The line is remembered offhand, taken from a kokinshu by an unknown author, and our unhappy narrator picks it up as easily from her memory as a 21st century teenager could fasten a line from some band to a sudden realization. It’s a little moment that illustrates a salient feature of Genji: the Heian era of Murasaki Shikibu produced perhaps the most intensely allusive literature in human history.

Every well-born character in Genji speaks in cultural references, and the marvelous evocation here is of a universal language. Not only does no character ever hear a snatch of some old poem and say, “I don’t know that one” (as virtually any well-educated person today would say, if, for instance, somebody quoted a snatch of Spenser),but Murasaki Shikibu herself never slows down to assume less than exquisite comprehension on the part of her readers. The most obscure corner of shinkokinshu is offered with an almost blasé confidence, the knowing wink that is the book’s most persistent stylistic feature.

The characters not only seem to know every line of Japanese and Chinese poetry ever written, but they all swim effortlessly in the sea of verse, ready at any moment to craft a couplet to fit the moment. “The Fireflies” has such a moment, a grace-note little pause during which Genji finds himself quite comfortably alone with the lady ensconced in the northeast pavilion of his house. His ardor has cooled toward her – they sleep apart, at his suggestion – but they share an intimacy just the same. And as happens so often in Genji, they express their intimate comfort in punning lines of extemporaneous verse … the mildly salacious ribbing of old friends, couched in allusions each is certain the other will appreciate.

It’s an appropriately literary prelude to the astonishing discussion that follows! The rains close in on the palace and fill the place with ruminations. We can easily picture Genji wandering, restless, from wing to wing – and when he comes to the Akashi lady’s quarters and finds them strewn with writings and drafts and copy books, he affects disdain at the allure of “magnificently contrived wonders.” How can we take this as anything but Murasaki Shikibu’s reflection on her own craft, especially since the lady from Akashi can’t help but compare some of those old tales of adventure to her own story, no less complex and amazing. How can we not read an entirely knowing layer of double allusion into Genji’s subsequent defense of the very literary device he himself inhabits, the long and intricate tales that are so different from official histories? Tales, he tells us with a fun lack of irony, give us the “rewarding particulars”:

Not that tales accurately describe any particular person, rather, the telling begins when all those things the teller longs to have pass on to future generations – whatever there is about the way people live their lives, for better or worse, that is a sight to see or a wonder to hear – overflows the teller’s heart.

For better or worse – virtually Genji’s motto, and Genji’s. Surely her readers smiled.


The Constant Lover

20 Jul

We’ve been rough on Genji in these posts, and certainly not without reason. “Shallow” has been a word that’s come up a few times. And yet I wonder if we’re not selling him short. He may not be an altogether likable or even relatable character, but I think he’s without question a great one.

In chapters like The Tendril Wreath and The Warbler’s First Song we find a more seasoned man, secure in his position in the government and without any particular rivals, something of a king of the jungle. That would naturally lead to a certain amount of self-regard; yet what’s striking is Genji’s long memory for heartbreak. The Tendril Wreath carries us back to the tragedy of the Twilight Beauty. Yugao is still vivid in his mind. We know, too, that even now he thinks constantly of Fujitsubo. Loss of love affects Genji indelibly, far more than any of his “collection”, as people joshingly call the women he keeps. The modern perspective would attribute this to the loss of his mother as a child. But whatever the psychological implications, the profound manner with which Genji suffers loss, and then goes on with his life, gives him a stature and grandeur that no one else will rival in this book.

He goes on is a respectable way, “tactfully caring even for women who meant little to him.” The Warbler’s First Song is an utterly charming tour through the wings of his palace, giving us brief and indelible glimpses of each of the women installed there. Genji is alternated bewitched and bemused and, in the case of our comic foil the Safflower Lady, embarrassed by their appearance and conduct. Yet he is never deeply involved with them, never more than an extraordinary visitor. His mind is on the women who are gone from him.

Very early in the novel, in despair over this or that, Genji was apt to make pronouncements about the vanity of earthly things and his desire to renounce the world and become a holy man. He sounded callow and preening at the time. But those sentiments are beginning to acquire real gravity. At the acme of his life, Genji is starting to retreat from it.

And then, just as I try to defend him, in the chapter Butterflies he goes and pulls a Woody Allen with Tamakazura, which Lady Murasaki sums up with the immortal line, “He had a very strange way of being a father.” Hard to achieve greatness with a libido like that, but he might pull it off yet.

Genji at the Pass!

16 Jul

What on Earth are we to make of “At the Pass,” Chapter 16 of our ongoing epic novel?

All our previous chapters have been miniature novels, sometimes ranging far and wide in terms of time and location, always playing with deceptive simplicity on some very complex chords of human behavior. Then we come to Sekiya, and what do we get? A traffic jam narrowly avoided and a bunch of sour grapes.

Genji’s still here, but more than in any previous chapter, we see him through the perceptions of others, and it’s a bit jarring – he feels like a secondary character, even while he’s front and center stirring all the action. Not that there’s much action: Genji goes on a pilgrimage to Ishiyama at the same time that the new Deputy Governor of Hitachi (and his wife, our old friend the lady of the cicada shell) is traveling to the city; both men have huge retinues and worry about the chaos that will ensue if they simply meet on the road – so the Deputy Governor’s party pulls aside to let Genji pass. Murasaki Shikibu of course doesn’t fail to provide her customary grace-notes:

It was the last day of the ninth month. Autumn leaves glowed in many colors, and expanses of frost-withered grasses drew the eye, while a brilliant procession in hunting cloaks embroidered or tie-dies to splendid advantage strode on past the barrier lodge.

Genji naturally reminisces about the lady, and sends her a note. She sends back a clever and slightly annoying response – a characteristic note that only prompts Genji to further reflection. In the meantime, the woman herself is having a rough time: her husband dies, and although with his last breath he urges his children to be kind to her, there’s tension (our author is the soul of discretion, but still, it’s easy to guess that the lady might not have been the easiest person to live with). When she starts to receive amorous attention from other highly-placed men, she of course finds it intolerable. After one particularly cloying such set of attentions from the Governor of Kawachi, she abruptly decides to become a nun (he’s outraged, and our author discreetly passes along the fact that people considered him boorish for it) – and boom, the chapter ends.

So: what to make of it? Sam Sacks has (rightly, I think) pointed out that this is as much The Tale of Genji’s Women as it is The Tale of Genji – and certainly the focus here bears that out. Is the underlying message supposed to be that the attentions of most men pale in women’s eyes to those of Genji? That life without him is a largely pallid and stale affair? Or merely to usher one of Genji’s many spent paramours offstage as quickly and neatly as possible?

Steve Donoghue

The Women’s Tales

12 Jul

It’s been perceptively commented that Genji doesn’t have much of an inner life, and this would make him a fairly boring character on which to hang an 1,100 page novel. So it makes sense that as this novel progresses, Genji himself tends to drift further and further in the background of the narrative.

The chapters instead devote themselves to the many different women that Genji pursues with varying degrees of distraction and cynicism. He’s still the catalyst of nearly all the action, but he’s so capricious and unreflective that he’s like a lightning bolt or some other act of God — he happens to these women, and the rest of the chapters are about how they cope with the consequences.

The myriad ways they react to the calamity of one of his visitations is, for me, one of the richest aspects of the book. Each of the cast of Genji’s conquests stand out by virtue of subtle character studies, a feat that’s even more impressive when we remember that these women really do very little, except wait around for Genji to visit again. (When they are active, like when the Rokujo lady goes to a purification festival to get a peek at Genji, things end catastrophically.)

The Safflower Lady, first seen in chapter 6 and revisited in the short ‘Waste of Weeds’ chapter is a case in point. This is Lady Murasaki at her most didactic and Emily Post-like:

The pleasure of old poems has to do with enjoying picking ones with appealing topics and authors, ones simple to understand. Trite ones everyone already knows, written on solemn utility paper or puffy Michinokuni, are a perfect bore, but these are what [Suetsumuhana] spread before her on the rare occasions when she looked at any at all. She shrank in embarrassment from chanting scriptures or performing devotions, as so many people do these days, and she never touched a rosary, even though no one would have seen her anyway. Such was her prim mode of life.

It’s clear that our author can’t abide this poor woman — she’s dilated at great length on how unbearable it is to look at her. And yet she’s forced to relate that Suetsumuhana’s very primness impresses Genji as an admirable quality and sign of depth and seriousness, and wins her a place in Nijo. If she hadn’t been so foolishly obstinate in staying on in her ramshackle home, she would never have been rewarded with Genji’s inexplicable favors.

The mutual shallowness proves a little too frustrating for Lady Murasaki, who feigns a headache to reprieve herself from discussing this mediocrity any longer. There will be more interesting women to occupy us.

Unreliable Genji?

11 Jul

As Scott recently pointed out on his own blog (a fun place for readers, so you should check it out – he’s a smart young whippersnapper!), Murasaki Shikibu wastes no time in raising the question of authorial presence in her book. Right there in the first line, she sets her story in the reign of a certain emperor and then makes that winking little aside wondering whose reign it could possibly have been. As Scott points out, we immediately get the sense that our narrator is playing with us a bit (and given the immensity of the text, isn’t that an appreciated welcome?  Imagine if Moby Dick opened with a similar device – “Call me Ishmael – just don’t call me late for supper!” Ba-Ding!), intruding herself with a sarcastic giggle nto the story she’s telling.

But adroitly, and always discreetly. And she keeps doing this throughout the book, making me wonder if it was a standard gamut of Heian Japan – did the women writers who so heavily populate the era do these little winks and head-bobbings in some sort of deference to the male hierarchy?

After all, it doesn’t take too much reading in Genji to realize that Murasaki Shikibu is in complete control of her narrative; this is not a pea-brained dilettante like Sei Shonagon – this is George Eliot, this is Virginia Woolf, or most aptly (although the lament is that so few readers today will know it), this is Olivia Manning:  a writer who makes no mistakes, who knows exactly what she’s about and considers it important that her craft be perfect.

And yet, so many of her authorial interventions are self-deprecating. That opening wink at her readers might be mistaken for setting a frivolous tone, and in Akashi, when she’s describing the slightly inebriated night-talk that Genji has with the old man, she makes an astonishing admission. Tyler’s translation has it this way: “Having got wrong everything I have written, I must have made him [the old man] seem even odder and more foolish than he was.” And in our next chapter, The Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi, at one point she interrupts herself with an abrupt “Oh, yes!” to tell us about a change of Ise Priestesses – an impetuous, seemingly spontaneous self-correction that’s meant to look like the one thing it certainly isn’t: a writer in imperfect control of her story (in the Seidensticker translation, it’s even more stark; he renders the line as “I had forgotten”).

What’s going on here? There’s nothing like it in Western cultural epics; Homer pauses to implore his Muse to help him relate the epic tidings of his tale – but he never suggests he’s doing it poorly or wrong. Virgil too invokes the Muse to guide his art – but he’s sure of that guidance, and he expects us to be sure. Outside of comic literature, I can’t think of a similar example until the 16th century, when Ariosto, spinning his gargantuan Orlando Furioso for the court at Ferrara, would occasionally slip in asides about his own inability to tell his story (legend has it that he would leave open his manuscript of the work in progress, inviting passing lords and ladies to jot down a few lines of their own to continue the tale).  If there’s any kind of useful parallel here, is it perhaps the elaborate court setting of each that’s responsible? Ariosto made his asides so as not to seem overly masterful in the presence of his social superiors; was Murasaki Shikibu also trying to strike a humble note, despite being the greatest writer of her age?

–Steve Donoghue

Genji Pauses!

8 Jul

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.

Poor Pitiful Genji!

6 Jul

Although our gorgeous hero Genji is, in British parlance, a toff, a git, and a wanker, Murasaki Shikibu consistently maintains the expectation that he’s supposed to elicit our sympathy. In all of literature, he may be the single least sympathetic character to have such an inexhaustible (although knowingly ironic) champion, but how seldom does it work! We read of trials and misfortunes – Suma is rife with them, and they spill over to the beginning of Akashi – and we are informed repeatedly of how miserable these misfortunes make our young gallant, but we never feel sorry for him, not now, at least, not so early in the book when so many of his troubles are products of his own fatuous, privileged behavior.

We can never forget his exalted status, or how boneheadedly selfish it makes him. Yes, we say, this bad thing happened to him, and this, and this – but didn’t he deserve it all, somehow? At this point we don’t even suspect his misfortunes of being refining fires that will temper him – we’ve seen too often how little he appreciates his own luck.

That luck holds spectacularly true at the beginning of the jewel-like, multi-faceted Akashi, that most quiet and melancholy of all Genji’s early chapters. Storms beat the Sumi coast where Genji is sitting out his disgrace and waiting for his pardon; there’s unprecedented wind, rain, thunder, lightning, and hail. A messenger brings him tidings that the same unnatural weather is paralyzing the city, and things get worse: lightning strikes Genji’s wing of the house, and he and his retainers are forced to huddle with the common folk in the kitchen’s flickering candlelight. But lightning doesn’t strike Genji, and the storm-waves stop just short of his door, and through the tempest come the amazing good luck of a an emissary from the far more civilized nearby beach on Akashi. Even the winds some how direct themselves to speed Genji to his new host: more luxurious, better provisioned, and with the added allure of a reclusive beauty.

One things that’s clear in these early chapters: Genji never forgets the fascination he felt in “The Broom Tree” at the idea that there might be beautiful, accomplished women out there in the world utterly hidden from the prying exposure of renown. He’s like a bloodhound now for such hidden treasures – although in Akashi he’s given ample assistance by the girl’s ambitious father (our author’s sotto voce mockery of the father’s hopes of spiritual purification are as exquisitely delicate as everything else she writes).

But I don’t care if he’s away from home or if lightning barely misses him; in Akashi my sympathies – everybody’s sympathies – are reserved for the poor girl (disturbing, at least to the modern West, that there’s doubt as to just how young she is in this chapter). Here is our Nausicaa parallel from the Odyssey, only in Akashi the pretty little princess is not humbly thanked by her storm-tossed prince but badgered, ravished, and abandoned. She knows she can’t match his sophisticated court theatrics (as usual, a world of meaning is packed into her choice of stationery); she considers her father’s hopes for her humiliating and preposterous, but what choice does she have? It’s acquiesce or throw herself (or be thrown, likely) into the sea. Despite her foolish father, she’s certain nothing can ever come of Genji’s dalliance (the book’s original audience knew her whole story and so could savor the irony, and the book’s modern day re-readers can love her all the more for her humble origins), and she’s not all that surprised when his pardon comes and he assembles his retinue to return to the city.

And can there be anything cooler or more self-possessed than the half-line of poetry Lady Murasaki quips to Genji when she learns of this rustic paragon who’s so enchanted him? It’s the withering sophistication of the city completely annihilating the fragile simplicity of the country. As far as that poor country girl knows, she’s been used and completely forgotten – now that’s what I call a trial and a misfortune.

—Steve Donoghue

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?

Symposium in the Palace!

17 Jun

Since we’ve got Chris Kern marvelously adding to the comments fields, and he’s just demurely hinted that he’s one of the foremost experts on the second chapter of Genji in the English-speaking world, it seems worth dwelling on this odd, wonderful, and uncharacteristic section. We have Genji, his flâneur friend and rival To no Chujo (the Secretary Captain), and then two fellows whom I don’t believe we’ll encounter again: the Chief Equerry and the Aide of Ceremonial.

There’s too much going on to summarize, but for much of the time we have the Chief Equerry indulging himself amongst some highborn young lads by telling stories out of school, and probably, we sense, rather romantically exaggerating the stories. (The Aide of Ceremonial tells an absurd tale about a sharp-tongued girl who smells of garlic, and is quickly shouted down.) There’s a wonderful balance in the yarn-spinning of irony (we know the men are showing off, making themselves seem tremendously experienced and world-weary) and earnestness (for Young Turks like Genji and especially To no Chujo, this sort of braggadocio is intoxicating). It’s fascinating to see their distinct reactions–To no Chujo hangs on the stories, and joins in the boasting with a fairly awful tale of his own, about knocking up a sweet, unprepossessing girl, and then neglecting her until she vanishes (he then caddishly suggests she ran off with another man). Genji, on the other hand, reacts wryly and rather disapprovingly to it all (even falling asleep at the more longwinded moments); and we discover that in part that is because his beau ideal is his stepmother.

Those character dynamics add a second layer to what was (possibly?) a traditional parlor-room-equivalent formula of telling romantic and tragic tales about lost love. I don’t think that there’s another scene quite like this in all the rest of the book, but it works very well as a formative experience for impressionable Genji, who will then go on to have his own lovelorn misadventure with Utsusemi.

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….