The Tale of Genji Readalong (1)

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.

"Ch5 wakamurasaki" by Tosa Mitsuoki - The Tale of Genji: Legends and Paintings. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Ch5 wakamurasaki” by Tosa Mitsuoki – The Tale of Genji: Legends and Paintings. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

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…

(Seidensticker translation)

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…

(Tyler translation)

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.

Kano Chikayasu scroll of Genji, from
Kano Chikayasu scroll of Genji, from

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…

20 thoughts on “The Tale of Genji Readalong (1)”

  1. Fascinating post, Marina. It’s funny how our attitudes towards certain types of behaviour can change over time.

    Interesting comparison between the two translations. Looking at the passage you’ve quoted, I prefer the flow and rhythm of the Seidensticker (even if it may not be quite as true to the original as the Tyler).

    1. Do you know, it just occurred to me that there is some similarity between Ross Poldark and Genji? In a way, we all swoon over the handsome man to whom all these things are permissible, but we still tut-tut and hope for his redemption and changed behaviour.

  2. I’m most fascinated between the entirely different ‘feel’ of the translations whilst being relieved that our man gets his commupence (love that word, I need to use it more!)

  3. What a fascinating post, Marina Sofia! And I couldn’t help reflecting on the difference that translation makes. It really is important. And what a way to look at life in a different time and place, too. There’s so much there about social structure, the role of women, and a lot more…

    1. I’m curious to see what our third participant (who is reading the Waley translation) makes of it. Amazing how dependent we are on the translators for the ‘tone’ of the book.

  4. Thank you so much for participating, Marina! I never expected the two translations to be so different. And it’s so interesting, how your view of the text has changed through time. Sadly, I have fallen behind schedule, since I find Tyler’s translation quite hard to go through quickly.

    1. It does require a lot of extra reading, doesn’t it? It’s best to leave a few months for Genji, rather than just one month. I think I only managed to get through 9 chapters in 1 week because I had read it before, so it seemed more familiar. After a while, the many ladies start to blur…

  5. I often find when re-reading something after years (decades, in my case… almost centuries!) that my attitudes to it have changed. If asked, I’d say my views haven’t changed much since my twenties, but a re-read often proves that they have, considerably sometimes. I find the age differences in Dickens and Austen much harder to cope with than I once did, for example, now finding Mr Knightley a bit creepy rather than swooningly romantic.

    1. Yes, now that you mention it… Or Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, or in Villette… I’m not saying they don’t happen, and that they can’t be happy ever after, but it just feels less romantic now.

    1. The Waley translation is the one that sounds really gossipy. The Tyler one just sounds a bit wishy-washy for the time being. I’ll have to read more and get to my favourite chapters to be able to make a proper (if subjective) judgement.

  6. I still have my Genji time pencilled in for July, but I’ll be watching your progress with interest – oh, and for the record, I’m going with Tyler 😉

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.