I joined Akylina from The Literary Sisters in her April readalong of ‘The Tale of Genji’ (Genji Monogatari). In my case, it was a re-read, but in a new version, the more recent translation by Royall Tyler. I have previously attempted to read it in the modern Japanese translation of Yosano Akiko (at university) and in English, in the old-fashioned and charming (but selective) translation of Arthur Waley and the more precise translation of Edward Seidensticker.
Written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu roughly 1000 years ago, it is considered the oldest novel in the world. It is perhaps also the longest novel in the world, more than 1100 pages long, spread over 54 chapters. Although it has a cast of over 400 characters, there is a recognisable main character (Genji himself, the son of the Emperor by a beloved but not royal concubine) and a small core of recurring characters. There is a narrative arc (of sorts): the characters grow older and wiser, the story gets darker as old age and regrets set in. However, the chapters are believed to have been written episode by episode for distribution amongst the other ladies of the court (there are some inconsistencies or overlaps in time, therefore), much like a feuilleton in a newspaper in more modern times.
I started a little late and have only reached Chapter 10. How do I feel about rereading this? First of all, I have to admit I am not yet won over by the Tyler translation. It is undoubtedly more accurate and has many annotations and explanations, but looking constantly at the footnotes breaks the flow of the story for me. Plus, it is almost too close to the original in all its allusive, obscure glory. Compare the following from the very first chapter:
In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and the lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill…
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. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health…
The second surprise was how shocking I find Genji’s behaviour this time round. Because he cannot have the woman he has set his heart on (the Emperor’s latest consort, Fujitsubo, who reminds him of his mother), he pursues women left, right and centre, and won’t take no for an answer. Many of his actions could be construed as rape (although, invariably, the women are won over after a night of passion, and pine after his shining beauty). He tires of them just as easily, especially if they send a less than sterling poem or if their calligraphy displeases him. And he is quite rude when he is pursued by a shameless older woman. The only one he has patience with is young Murasaki – who later becomes his wife – but that may be because she is only about 9 years old when they first meet, which was a bit too much even for the Japanese standards of the Heian period.
Of course, this is the young and immature Genji that we are talking about, and he will change in the course of the book. But why was I not more shocked by all of this when I read it as a 19 year old? I suppose I was trying to be the super-cool first year student, trying so hard to demonstrate a sexual sophistication I did not possess. After all, I argued, the women in the book are also having affairs… But I’m, if anything, even more full of feminist indignation now, and the women are sitting passively in their pavilions, waiting for the night-time visits, rather than going out to seek adventure themselves. The consequences of being found out are of course much more serious for women: the best they could hope for was to have their hair cut off and be sent to a nunnery. If you are part of the imperial household, it’s even more serious: Fujitsubo is terrified people will remark the resemblance of her young son to a certain handsome prince. Genji will get his come-uppance very soon in Chapter 10 (spoiler alert!), but will he learn from his mistakes? And will it be just him who suffers, or his beloved Murasaki as well?
It’s a revealing picture of the constraints imposed upon women in Heian Japan, so I can only suspect I considered it within its particular context and did not judge it by today’s standards. And there is one encouraging example in Chapter Two: the lady of the Broom Tree, who rejects Genji’s advances despite all his efforts, entreaties and her own unhappy marriage. Such is the subtlety of Murasaki Shikibu’s writing, however, that we are left wondering if it is sense of duty or fear which motivates this lady. A sense of yearning lingers behind…