I couldn’t resist the siren call of the literary festival in Morges called Le Livre sur les Quais this weekend, although I should have been working and packing for an upcoming business trip. But who can resist a boat trip on Lake Geneva in the company of the wise and witty Tessa Hadley?
The tent where books, authors and readers meet each other was constantly full, even at lunch time, but I forgot to take pictures of the authors I did get to see.
To arouse your envy, here’s a short list of authors I spoke to (some of them I also got to see later in panel discussions): Christos Tsiolkas, Ben Okri, Petina Gappah, Michelle Bailat Jones, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Dinaw Mengestu. And not just English-speaking ones: Yasmina Khadra, Alain Mabanckou, Metin Arditi, Romain, Slocombe, Gregoire Delacourt, Joseph Incardona (who actually remembered me from last year – I was very flattered). The pictures I did remember to take at the panel discussions are not very good, unfortunately.
Sadly, I did not get to see any of the Greek writers who were the guests of honour at the festival: Petros Markaris, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Yannis Kiourtsakis, Takis Theodoropoulos. Nor did I have enough time to go back to the tent and meet the following authors who are very much on my TBR list: Peter Stamm, Emilie de Turckheim, Sophie Divry, Mathias Enard, Hadrien Laroche.
In its sixth edition now, the festival is becoming perhaps just a little too big to be able to see everyone and attend all the sessions you would want (many of the most interesting ones were concurrent). To me, however, it’s an unmissable event in my annual literary calendar. And when the sun comes out, it’s even more beautiful.
A good book haul ensued as well – all with rather lovely dedications. Meanwhile, a little part of Morges will be accompanying me on my business trip: Michelle Bailat-Jones’ ‘Fog Island Mountains’ will be coming with me to Japan, where it is set.
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)
I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.
These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.
Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)
Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:
‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’
I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable: my favourite characters in her Moomin series.
I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.
The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.
I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.
So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with C denote crime fiction titles, W is for woman writer)
1) Books in French:
All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.
Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C
Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit – the alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues C
Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz – Ukrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain C
Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories
Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil – finally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade – plus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid. C W
2) Books in German:
Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord – third case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude C
Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland
Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe – the dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species W
Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation W
Friederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events C W
3) Books on ereader
Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?
Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale
John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – the return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa C
Sara Novic: Girl at War – child survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later W
Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel – debut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize W
Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)
Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship
Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night – the first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W
Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America W
Wendy Cope: The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope) W
Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).
The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?
Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?
Sarah Ruhl is a distinguished American playwright, nominated for many prizes, recipient of quite a few (including the MacArthur Fellowship). She is also a wife and mother and in this book of ‘mini-essays’ she talks about theatre and audiences, life, art and the challenge of combining the two. It’s a real book of ‘cabbages and kings’, with topics ranging from the most trivial to the most profound and I was tempted to underline some quote on nearly every page. One of my favourite essays (No. 60) is entitled ‘Is there an objective standard of taste?’ and consists of the single word ‘No.’
The opening essay ‘On Interruptions’ is longer, very funny, but will provoke a wry grimace as well in any parent struggling to be creative. It incorporates actual interruptions:
The child’s need, so pressing, so consuming, for the mother to be there, to be present, and the pressing need of the writer to be half-there, to be there but thinking of other things, caught me —
Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son, William, who is now two, came running into my office crying and asking for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit.
She could be describing my life, even though my children are older now and therefore expressing higher-level demands and being quite vociferous about my ‘neglect’.
In the middle of that sentence my son came in and sat at my elbow and said tenderly, ‘Mom, can I poop here?’ I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and how it needs a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing.
Her conclusion is beautiful, though painful to hear at times for stressed-out parents:
…tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.
It’s not all about motherhood and the tortured artist, however. There are many astute observations here about the theatre, life and the stage, whether we’ve lost the ability to wait, the dangers of digesting too much ‘surface’ and not diving deeper, living in a culture where ‘the talk about the art often takes up more time than the experience of the art’?
I love blogging and Twitter, that’s no secret, but I do hate the mediation of experience through iPhones and the like, so this passage in particular spoke to me:
The age of experience is truly over, we are entering the age of commentary. Everyone at the event was busy texting everyone else… and a general lack of presence was the consequence… We are now supposed to have opinions before we have experiences. We are supposed to blog about our likes and dislikes before a piece of art is over. Will we evolve out of the ability to make art? Will events need to have more violence for audiences to enter them purely, to compete with the gaze of commentary?
This book will be one I dip into again and again, reminding me of that nervous tension and fragile balance between the known and the possibilities, reality and our ideals.
After a couple of failed attempts, I’m delighted to finally be able to feature one of my favourite crime reviewers here. Bernadette is joining us all the way from Australia, the land that book publishing forgot, as she humorously says on her blog Reactions to Reading. In an effort to improve international knowledge of Australian crime fiction, she also runs a blog called Fair Dinkum Crime and you can find her on Twitter too.
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?
I guess I can thank (or blame?) a combination of my mum and the librarian at our local branch of the Mechanics’ Institute (it didn’t become a Council operated public library until I was a teenager). Mum always took my brother and me along on her weekly trips to the library, so from early on I became as voracious a reader as she was. Early on I read the Famous Five and Bobbsey Twins, although apparently I derided these at an early age declaring them not to be criminal enough. I then moved on to Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew, but it wasn’t long before I’d exhausted the kids’ stuff. So Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nero Wolfe and Dick Francis followed. I’ve dabbled with other genres over the years – including a pretty intense horror phase in my teens – but I always make my way back to crime fiction.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
I used to say I give anything a go but that’s not really true anymore. If it ever was. I avoid some subjects all together – gangsters and mafia storylines top of the list – and am very choosy these days about reading books featuring serial killers. I guess it’s still possible that someone will come up with a new take on that trope but most of what I see is derivative and boring. I also avoid books that feature ‘too much’ gratuitous violence. I know that defining ‘too much’ is subjective but I am heartily sick of reading about the hacked up bodies of women (‘cos in the types of books I’m thinking of it is almost always women who are tortured and mutilated).
Other than the above-mentioned things, I try to read a mixture of subgenres but my heart will always be won over by a story with a point. I love a good yarn, and even more one that explores some political or social issue. Books that show me some aspect of life I am unfamiliar with or take me into some part of the world I’ve never been to (even those close to my backyard) or make me think differently about a topical subject are the sort of thing I look for these days.
What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?
I’ve had a really great reading year so far but if pushed to choose just one I’d have to say Malla Nunn’s Present Darkness is the most memorable. Malla Nunn migrated to Australia from South Africa many years ago (lucky for us) but she sets her books in the country of her birth in the early days of apartheid. Present Darkness is the fourth book in her series and while I’ve thought its predecessors all excellent this one was her best yet. It does exactly what I was talking about earlier – it really gives readers a glimpse of the day-to-day grind and fear and inhumanity of being a black person living under that regime. Plus it’s a helluva yarn.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
I’ve spent way too long thinking about this question. Way, way too long. The likelihood of me actually being stuck on a deserted island after having had an opportunity to select some books to take along is really, really tiny. So I know my answer doesn’t actually matter. But still…
For a while my answer was going to be Dick Francis. I have a soft spot for this author, partly due to him being one of my mum’s favourites. For years each time he had a new book out, we would both get hold of a copy and compare notes as quickly as we could. The other part of my fondness is due to the global availability of his books. When I was young and un-arthritic I did a fair bit of backpacking and the biggest problem was finding something to read (I am woefully monolingual). Even when travelling there is lots of down time but in a pre-Kindle world you couldn’t carry a dozen or more books. I have scoured newsstands and second-hand stalls in many countries of the world and can report that if you’re looking for something to read in English in some far-flung part of the globe you can just about guarantee to find novels by Barbara Cartland and Dick Francis (or at least you could in the late 80’s and 90’s when I was abroad). As I’ve never been a romance reader, I always opted for the Francis books and I am eternally grateful to his global appeal.
But I have read them all multiple times so think I would want something a bit fresher on my island sojourn. It is tempting to opt for a long series that I’ve never started – maybe Ed McBain’s 87th St. precinct novels for example – but what if I don’t like even the first one? How depressing to be stuck on an island with plenty to read and no motivation to do so.
So after way too much thought I’ve decided to opt for the novels of Reginald Hill. I’ve read enough of them to know that I like his style a great deal but some would be completely new to me and even those that would be re-reads are still fresh enough. If I were allowed two series/sets of authors I’d throw in the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I’ve only read 2 or 3 of these and very much want to read them all. But there are only 10 and they’re very thin. Not bulky enough for a long stint on a deserted island.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
I’ve just put all six books shortlisted for this year’s Petrona Award on hold at the library. In recent years I have thoroughly enjoyed expanding my reading horizons via the explosion in translated crime novels from across the globe. But I have a soft spot for this award named in honour of a fellow crime fiction lover who passed away far too soon. Her love of good quality crime fiction in translation has been ably honoured by the previous shortlists and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into this year’s selection.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I love historical fiction and not only the kind that involves murder. I think the book I’ve recommended most over the years is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders: plague, a strong female character, a not so subtle dig at religious hypocrisy – what more could you ask for?
Thank you so much, Bernadette, for your very amusing and candid observations; it’s certainly been worth the wait. I love the fact that all of my interviewees seem to assume a lengthy stay on a deserted island and are very much afraid of running out of reading material. As for me, I’d be terrified that I get rescued too soon and don’t have enough time to read everything!
What do you think of Bernadette’s choices? It reminds me that I certainly must read Malla Nunn, about whom I’ve heard such good things. You can see previous respondents in the series here and for future interviewees: well, you know the drill… Please let me know if you’d like to participate. I’m always eager to hear your recommendations.
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…