It’s taken me three months, but I’ve finally vanquished the monster that is The Tale of Genji in the Royall Tyler translation. I started it back in April together with Akylina from The Literary Sisters, but we both realised it would take far longer than a month to do it justice. Tony Malone has also been reading it and will have a post about it shortly on his blog, but I loved his comment that Genji’s modern-day equivalent would be a spoilt rock star, concessions being made because of his elevated god-like status.
I broke off my reading in the previous blog post at Chapter 10, where Genji gets his first taste of hardship, as he is sent into exile following an ill-advised love affair with the daughter of one of his political enemies. He has to leave Murasaki behind and he suffers from loneliness and some strange dreams, as well as humiliations and a raging storm. However, life is not all bad and he becomes entangled with his neighbour’s daughter, who will bear him a daughter. In time, she will become Empress, but even before that Genji returns from exile and is elevated by the new Emperor (his secret son) to the highest possible status.
This is when the snobbery of the age becomes apparent – or should that be Genji’s own sense of self-importance? Because he now becomes all too acutely aware that Murasaki, for all her qualities and the love that he bears her, does not have the rank and influence to become the wife of such an elevated person as himself. It’s almost unbearable to read about Murasaki’s pangs of jealousy when he spends night after night with Lady Asagao, or develops decidedly unpaternal feelings towards a young girl he has been entrusted with (to raise her as his own daughter). Finally, he marries the Third Princess, daughter of the retired Emperor (under some pressure from the latte), and soon lives to regret it, when she takes a lover and has an illegitimate son. In the midst of all this furore, Murasaki falls desperately ill and is possessed by an evil spirit. When Murasaki dies, Genji becomes an empty shell of a man, dreaming only of retiring to a temple.
In between all these soap-opera dramas, there are plenty of charming scenes of domestic and courtly life: descriptions of archery contests, processions, poetry competitions, moon-gazing evenings, coming-of-age ceremonies, kite-flying and football amusements, concerts. These scenes must have seemed aspirational to readers and perhaps created a centuries-long ideal of sophistication and culture which never truly existed at the Heian court.
The first time I read Genji, I too fell under the spell of all these courtly events and the carefully planned poems the protagonists all send to each other. This time, however, I was more interested in the cosy scenes of intimacy: Genji and Murasaki chatting together in bed, the children squabbling, Genji playing with the youngsters, the gossipy ladies of the entourage.
The philosophy of the age is summed up by Genji’s son Yugiri, who initially seemed a dependable, serious and loyal man, but later makes two women very unhappy. This induces some self-reflection in Genji and awareness of the less than stellar way he has treated Murasaki in the past. Here is how Yugiri justifies polygamy or having a mistress (or several):
What must be unique is a husband who seeks no diversion elsewhere, even after he reaches a certain level of prominence, but remains as tremulously faithful to his one and only wife as a hawk to his mate. People must be laughing their heads off at me. It is hardly to your credit, either, that you command such loyalty from anyone so dull. What really sets off a woman is to stand out among a range of others…
I’ll be completely honest and admit that I still love the last chapters of Genji (45-54, the so-called Uji chapters) more than the rest. Genji has died, all of a sudden, and after his life and loves had been described in such minutiae over hundreds of pages, his death is dispatched with incredible alacrity. We have one blank chapter, entitled ‘Vanished into the Clouds’ (which evokes the void he leaves behind) and then we hear just this:
‘His light was gone, and none among his many descendants could compare to what he had been.’
The story now turns to his descendants, the more sober and thoughtful Kaoru and the impulsive, stubborn Niou (both of these names refer to the distinguished and unique fragrance that seems to surround them). They both fall in love with two sisters who have been brought up by their pious and world-weary father in Uji, at that time a good few hours’ away from Kyoto. With a much smaller cast of characters and deeper psychological insights, I feel these chapters show a much more mature author at work. There is an overarching sadness, the result of the conflicting desires: for human connection and love, and for Buddhist renunciation and not being too tied to the material world. There are some who contest the authorship of Murasaki Shikibu, but on the whole it is accepted that she probably wrote the whole epic (and possibly more, which has since been lost).
So, does this mammoth novel deserve its place in the pantheon of world literature? Of course it does! Find the translation that best suits you, read a little at a time, enjoy the language and the poetry, do some calligraphy or origami or write a haiku inspired by them. And don’t get too het up about the plight of women. The past is a foreign country; the Japanese past doubly so…
But then why have I struggled so much with this rereading of Genji? Not just because life is much busier now than in my student days, nor that I’ve been much less captivated by the stories of court life and Genji’s wild pursuit of women. I believe it’s also because of the translation. Royall Tyler’s translation may be the most accurate and encyclopedic to date, but it also makes for very hard work. I simply did not get on with: the endless titles, instead of sensibly picking just one nickname (like Kaoru or Niou) and sticking with it throughout; the hesitations and many circumlocutions (which may be closer to the original style, but feel very old-fashioned and heavy weather); the lack of poetry in both the prose and the tankas liberally scattered in the text. The whole meaning of certain passages changes, and the Seidensticker translation feels more modern and feminist. Let’s compare:
He is inclined to think little of anyone he gather might give herself too easily. The yielding woman, quiet and unassuming, who sensibly winks at one thing and another and resigns herself if she feels a little hurt, is the one who actually inspires truly lasting devotion. Once a couple’s mutual loyalty begins to crumble, mud soils the clear waters of her Tatsuta River, and all that she shares with him is lost. (Royall Tyler)
It is said that he prefers not to spend his time with women who come at his beck and call. Then there are women who take things as they are. What the world does is what the world does, they say, and they do not care a great deal whether they find husbands or not. If someone comes along who is neither entirely pleasing nor entirely repulsive, well, such is life. They make good wives, rather better than you might think. And then the bank begins to give way, and what is left is a muddy Tatsuta. You must have heard of such cases – the last of the old love gone down the stream… (Seidensticker)
Or here is the same tanka in the two versions:
No brush but your own has marked the steep mountain trails buried deep in snow wtih footprints, while back and forth letters go across the hills. (Tyler)
Along the cliffs of these mountains, locked in snow,
Are the tracks of only one. That one is you. (Seidensticker)