Some Thoughts on Translations of Genji

It’s been a few years since I last reread Genji, but I’m vicariously living through the experience as two of my literary friends on Twitter read it for the first time in English and French translations. Yee @hdinguyen11 (check out her book blog here)  and Knulp @KnulpTanner, who has a book blog in French, are comparing notes on their respective translations as they go along. It’s such fun to read their tweets and to add my tuppence worth of additional info and comparisons to the (possibly far too many) translations that I own. I wrote the article below for the Asymptote fortnightly newsletter back in 2018, but it’s not currently available anywhere online, so I thought I would share it here on my blog, with big thanks to Yee and Knulp for reminding me of it!

Scenes from the Tale of Genji painted by Tosa Mitsuyoshi, of the Tosa school in Osaka. Dating from the second half of the 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period).

Written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu roughly 1000 years ago, The Tales of Genji (Genji Monogatari) is considered the oldest novel in the world. It is perhaps also the longest novel in the world, more than 1200 pages, 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, while 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 (therefore, there are some inconsistencies, time lapses or overlaps), much like a feuilleton in a newspaper in more modern times.

When I first encountered Genji Monogatari as a student, our Japanese professor told us: ‘It’s the kind of book that everyone talks about, but very few read properly.’ This is in marked contrast to the 13th century poetry anthology of Hyakuninisshū, which is widely known and often quoted in contemporary Japan (thanks in part to the card game based on its tanka poetry, which is traditionally played on New Year’s Day). Why should that be the case? It cannot be solely because of the obscure allusiveness to classic Chinese poetry typical of the Heian period, for the poetry anthology too contains many such examples, including the author of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, herself.

It could have something to do with the sheer length of the story, which is not for the faint-hearted. However, the main reason undoubtedly is that until the early 20th century there was no adequate translation of it, not only in English, but even in modern Japanese. The 11th century saga remained part of the cultural legacy of Japan, but the refined, almost effeminate aesthtetics of the Heian court fell out of favour in the period of warring clans and samurai codes which followed. It would be like English readers trying to tackle Chaucer in the original.

It wasn’t until 1912 that Japanese modernist poet, feminist and social activist Yosano Akiko published an abridged version of Genji translated into colloquial Japanese. This was the result of a lifetime’s infatuation with the work: she had read it countless times by the time she turned twenty, wrote biographical studies of Murasaki Shikibu, produced a series of lectures and a scholarly commentary of the text. The latter was sadly destroyed in a fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but she published a full translation in 1938. While it is perhaps surprising that such a resolutely modern, unconventional woman as Yosano Akiko found common ground with the confined women of the Heian court, waiting patiently for fickle lovers, she somehow found a voice that would speak across the centuries to both men and women of her day.  Both her translations are still in print and transformed the fate of Genji.

It was thanks to her earlier version of the modernised Genji that we have the first complete English translation of the work. A partial, unsatisfactory translation attempt was made by Baron Suematsu in 1882, but that sank without a trace. Then Orientalist Arthur Waley discovered both the original and Yosano’s translation in the 1920s and there is something of the flow and verve of Yosano in his own work. As a confirmed Sinologist, Waley was also familiar with many of the classical Chinese poems that are being referenced in the text. Last but not least, the translator was an admirer of the artistic and literary style of the Bloomsbury group. We see all of these influences at work in his creative, some might even say idiosyncratic translation.

Waley skips any bits he finds too dull or obscure. He has no qualms about rearranging names, sentences, even paragraphs and themes to make the book more palatable to an English audience. He tries to capture the spirit of the beauty of the original prose, rather than sticking to it literally. The flowery style may on occasion veer towards sentimentalization and prettification. It seems to capture an echo of an earlier period much like the pre-Raphaelite painters captured the medieval spirit in a new style that had little in common with the original.

There is also a paternalistic bias which jars with the modern reader – the translator’s voice intervenes at times, giving us his value judgements rather than Murasaki Shikibu’s voice: ‘This chapter should be read with indulgence. In it Murasaki is still under the influence of her somewhat childish predecessors…’ Yet in spite of his imperialistic tendency to judge other cultures through the prism of his own, his translation helped perceptive readers to see beyond mere ‘exoticism’. Virginia Woolf reviewed Waley’s translation in 1925 and saw instantly that this was far more than ‘cranes and chrysanthemums’. Genji is about universal human nature: ‘how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; how the grotesque and the fantastic excite him beyond the simple and straightforward; how beautiful the falling snow is and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy’.

Despite its flaws, Waley’s attractive translation raised the profile of this Japanese classic so much that when Japanese novelist and short story writer Tanizaki Junichirō attempted his own translation into modern Japanese, he admitted that he was heavily influenced by Waley’s work. While Tanizaki and Yosano’s translations are the most literary, there have been other modern Japanese translations, for example the more erotic version by Funchi Emiko and the most accessible one, the everyman’s edition by Buddhist nun Setouchi Jakuchō. Contemporary scholars of Japanese literature recognise, however, that it was Genji’s surprising success abroad which led to its enshrinement as the ‘greatest Japanese classic’ in its home country.

The second complete English translation of Genji was published by Edward Seidensticker in 1976 and could hardly be more different from Waley’s work. Seidensticker resolutely sticks to a pared-down, understated style, with relatively few footnotes. As such, it is very readable, clear yet faithful to the original. His treatment of the 800 or so poems which appear throughout the pages of Genji has provoked some ire from purists: he renders them as couplets. It may not be true to Japanese poetic form, but at least he keeps them distinct from the main text, unlike Waley, who turns them into dialogue.

Royall Tyler’s translation in 2001 consciously attempts to return to the original Heian text and mimic its highly elliptical style. For instance, he does not use place or chapter names to identify the characters – an unspoken convention that all translators have resorted to for the sake of clarity. Instead, Tyler sticks to identifying them by their titles with elaborate ceremonial indirectness. This makes it difficult to follow, since those titles constantly change over the course of the book, as characters get promoted or fall out of favour. The endless hesitations and circumlocutions may be closer to the original style, but they feel old-fashioned and heavy-handed. The poetry sticks to the Japanese form but sounds a little pedestrian. For those who would like an insight into the intricacies and dramas of the Heian period, however, there is much to learn from the encyclopaedic footnotes.

Finally, the most recent translation is the 2015 version by Dennis Washburn, who tries to find a middle ground between clarity and as literal a translation as possible. The strength of his translation lies in its psychological depth and a modern sensibility to the different voices, which is in direct contrast to Waley’s. Washburn allows these often introverted, opaque characters to muse about their life and regrets, without judgement or sense of superiority. In his interpretation, it becomes clear just how much the characters are torn between the fleeting appeal of material, secular culture and a desire to escape worldly attachments.

To demonstrate just how different these translations can be, and why none of them can be considered the definitive translation, let us look at just two examples:

  • Chapter Five: Wakamurasaki

Genji visits a Buddhist monastery in the mountains and encounters there the love of his life, Murasaki, who is but a little girl at the time.

Arthur Waley: “Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall–audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.”

Edward Seidensticker: “Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.”

Royall Tyler: “Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.”

Dennis Washburn: “Genji was feeling ill. It has started to rain, bringing a cooling breeze. Moreover, the water in the pool of a nearby waterfall had risen with the spring runoff, and the roar was clearly audible. He could just barely make out the sound of sleepy voices reciting sutras, a sound that sent chills through him. The atmosphere of the place would have affected even the most insensitive of people, and, coupled with his preoccupation with both Fujitsubo and the girl, it prevented him from getting any sleep at all.”

In this passage, Waley comes across as charmingly entertaining, Seidensticker as pedestrian, Washburn as a little too emphatic, while Tyler’s version seems both respectful to the orginal and the most seductive to modern readers.

  • Chapter One: Kiritsubo

However, the test I always give to any new translation of Genji is to read the first paragraph of the opening chapter, which is fiendishly difficult to render comprehensible to a modern reader. The chapter describes Genji’s mother and the circumstances of his birth. In this case, it seems that Waley is the most gossipy and entertaining, Seidensticker the most unobtrusive and clear, Tyler the most instructive, while Washburn is once again too long-winded.

Arthur Waley: “At the court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of the very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them. This her position at Court, preponderant thought it was, exposed her to constant jealousy and ill will; and soon, worn out with petty vexations, she fell into a decline…”

Edward Seidensticker: “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…”

Royall Tyler: “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…”

Dennis Washburn: “In whose reign was it that a woman of rather undistinguished lineage captured the heart of the Emperor and enjoyed his favour above all the other imperial wives and concubines? Certain consorts, whose high noble status gave them a sense of vain entitlement, despised and reviled her as an unworthy upstart from the very moment she began her service. Ladies of lower rank were even more vexed, for they knew His Majesty would never bestow the same degree of affection and attention on them. As a result, the mere presence of this woman at morning rites or evening ceremonies seemed to provoke hostile reactions among her rivals, and the anxiety she suffered as a consequence of these ever-increasing displays of jealousy was such a heavy burden that gradually her health began to fail.”

Which of those translations do you prefer? And do you think you might be tempted to tackle Genji yourself, if you haven’t already done so? Let’s start the Murasaki Shikibu fan club [I was going to say the Genji Fan Club – but that is in fact the entire plot of Genji Monogatari, one might say!].

 

January in Japan: A Locked Room Mystery

Soji Shimada: Murder in the Crooked House, transl. Louise Heal Kawai

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Meredith. Go and see what other Japanophiles have been reading and reviewing.

The Pushkin Vertigo series has a predilection for the more classic type of crime fiction stories. They’ve published Margaret Millar, Frederic Dard, Leo Perutz, as well as the famous Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac that gives its name to the whole imprint. So I knew what to expect when I ordered myself Shimada’s locked room mystery, although the author writes in many different sub-genres, often including horror or supernatural elements. Indeed, this book is more comic than scary, although grimmer than you would expect cosy crime fiction to be. It most closely resembles a Golden Age detective story, with all the clues (including drawings) painstakingly laid out for the reader to match their wits against the renowned sleuth – who in this case only enters the story in Act Three.

Kozaburo Hamamoto is a wealthy company director who has built himself a strange house on the northernmost tip of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. It is called The Crooked House, because all of the floors are uneven and sloping, there are staircases leading to some floors but not others, and the master bedroom is in a leaning glass tower accessible only by a drawbridge. There are plenty of guest rooms, but some of them are filled with all sorts of creepy collectors’ items such as life-size puppets, masks and automatons. Hamamoto has invited several guests, including one or two of his business partners, to spend Christmas 1983 with him and his daughter. There are some tensions between the guests, but nothing too untoward. Nevertheless, after the first snowbound night, one of the guests is found dead in apparently impossible circumstances, in a locked room, while all the other guests seem to have an alibi. The police is called in but they are unable to solve the mystery and, after a couple more deaths, they decide to send for the private investigator Kiyoshi Mitarai. Initially, he does not impress either the guests or the police with his exuberant style, but of course you underestimate the super-sleuth at your own peril.

This has all of the required nods to the classic country house mystery, similar to the recent film Knives Out, and it is about as plausible as the film too, and entertaining. Clues and red herrings are liberally sprinkled throughout the text, and avid armchair investigators may be able to solve part of the puzzle (I defy them to figure the whole thing out, though!). However, I did find the repetition and the insistence on carefully going through all the materials and clues a bit tiresome. I was far more interested in the psychology of the guests and their interaction, but there wasn’t quite enough of that to satisfy me.

There are some descriptions of the desolate snowy plain and the ice floes in the sea around the house, but overall this is not as atmospheric as I would have hoped from a Japanese writer.

There are many references to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Poe and many other Western writers, as well as links to Japanese classics which might be less obvious to readers in the English speaking world. There is a lot of flamboyant posturing and presenting of a ‘masked face’ to the world which is reminiscent of Kabuki theatre. None of the guests (or hosts or household staff) are exactly what they appear to be at first glance. And, because this is the modern world of 1983 after all, there is lot less prudish reserve in describing some of the things going on between the guests.

An intriguing (but at times tedious) read, with a rather far-fetched solution. Entertaining enough, especially on a winter’s evening, but the motivations were murky and so, overall, it was not terribly memorable.

January in Japan: Short Stories by Women

I cannot remember where exactly I came across this rather lovely little bilingual collection of short stories by Japanese women writers, translated and edited by Angus Turvill and sponsored by The Japan Society in the UK . Probably the London Book Fair, but it is available for purchase (mostly online). The collection features Kuniko Mukoda (gone far too soon), Natsuko Kuroda, Kaori Ekuni, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Aoko Matsuda. I had only read Mukoda in the original a long time ago and in translation only the last of these authors, Matsuda’s novella entitled The Girl Who Is Getting Married (translated by the same Angus Turvill).

The stories are presented in parallel text format, although of course it is not intended to be an absolute literal translation. Nevertheless, it makes me feel curiously powerful to be able to check the original Japanese on the left against the English on the right, especially when the original includes phonetic transcription of all the kanji characters that might prove a bit of a struggle to this rusty scholar of Japanese! It also includes a fascinating discussion of translation choices at the end, which demonstrates just how tricky translation can be.

The stories all take place in different settings – town, country, seaside, past, present. In all but one of them, the main character is a woman, at different stages of their life, and in scenarios that will sound terribly familiar to women outside Japan too. From the young girl shunned by her classmates in The Ball by Kuroda, to the young worker profoundly tired of ‘friendly working environments’ in Planting by Matsuda, from the mother mourning the loss of her stillborn infant in The Child Over There to a lonely older woman finding some kind of connection with the younger generation in Summer Blanket. What is very Japanese about these stories, if we can make any cultural generalisations, is the subtle, slant way of telling things. None of that ‘drumming home the point’ that we often get in what I like to call the MFA class of contemporary American short stories.

Having said that, my favourite story is probably The Otter, the one that follows the most typical Western-style short story format. (It was written in 1980, shortly before the death of the author in a plane crash). It is the only one where the main protagonist is an elderly man, whose pride and joy is his garden, a rare thing in an urban environment. He likes to sit on the veranda and admire it at dusk. He has been resisting his wife’s suggestion that he should sell off part of the plot of land to a developer to build a block of flats. But then he has a stroke and his wife takes matters into her own hands.

Throughout the story, Takuji compares his wife to an otter – he feels real affection for the energy with which she tackles most things, how lively and captivating she is. How easily she proffers little white lies to the travelling salesmen who come knocking at their door. In Japanese the word for otter is ‘kawauso’ (which is written throughout the story in hiragana rather than any kanji – significantly so, because kawauso also sounds like ‘kawaii + uso’ – which could mean ‘cute lies’). But then he remembers a painting entitled The Otters’ Carnival:

Otters are wanton in their destructiveness: they sometimes kill more fish than they can possibly eat, and lay them out on display. That kind of display is sometimes called an otters’ carnival.

In layer after layer of recollections, almost a list of the things he admires but also finds a little frustrating about his wife, he begins to realise what shaky foundations his life has been built upon.

Stories that felt like a breath of fresh air. I was transported to a Japanese seashore, was wrapped in a light summer blanket, and planted away my fear…

What I Really Read on the Beach – Summer Reads

There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…

Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.

Image from olimpia.rs

Crime

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?

Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home

Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…

Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest

Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal

The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.

YA literature

Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.

G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box

Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.

Paul Gallico: Jennie

Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.

#EU27Project

This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.

Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)

Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?

Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)

This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.

Spain – Javier Marias: The Infatuations (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.

Women in Translation Month

Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!

 

 

 

In the Spirit of Reunification (of Books)

Yesterday I finally braved the loft again and got down a new set of book boxes. Sadly, quite a few boxes ended up with heavier boxes on top of them during 5 years of storage, so the books are not always in pristine condition. (Fellow booklovers who are equally obsessive about book spines remaining uncreased, corners unturned and therefore hardly ever lending books for fear of damage will understand my dismay!)

Small sample in a dusty bundle...
Small sample in a dusty bundle…

Spread out on the floor...
Spread out on the floor… with a nudge from my bright green slipper

From the English collection: one of the funniest books about anthropologists and one of my favourite Barbara Pym novels; Sylvia Plath’s rite of passage, the Metaphysical poets (which we were not allowed to study at university during Communist times).

From the Austrian collection: the stories of Arthur Schnitzler and Elias Canetti’s first volume of memoirs (given to me as a present by a friend who said it was his favourite book).

From the French collection, a charming coming-of-age story by Colette (perfect summer reading) and a grim childhood memoir by Herve Bazin (required reading in French class, but nevertheless memorable rather than sheer torture).

One of my favourite Romanian poets: Ion Pillat (I don’t think he’s ever been translated) – a lyrical nature-loving poet.

And finally a book that I haven’t read (there aren’t many of those in my loft): Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, because I was translating a Romanian writer at the time who kept referring to Pessoa and was writing in his style.

Here are some excerpts from the Japanese collection against a background of bins:

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Ugetsu Monogatari is one of the lesser-known classical works of 18th century Japanese literature. A collection of spooky stories, it is perhaps better known as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The flowery cover is actually the paper wrapping that you automatically get at the time of purchase in Japanese bookshops for all your paperbacks. It covers Banana Yoshimoto’s Tugumi, which I haven’t looked at since I was a student (and probably won’t be able to read anymore). Finally, we were very excited to read Norwegian Wood with our Japanese professor during our student days, but this is the English language translation. And what a beautiful edition it is too, with its two small volumes encased in a golden box.

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Alas, alas, only a small part of the books have descended from the loft and we are already running out of space!

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Reading in June

Longest days, shortest nights of the year, so plenty of time for reading in June –  not much time for anything else in fact! It’s the kind of month where I can’t hear myself think, let alone write, we were all so busy with end-of-year stuff. So reading it is, to feed that relentlessly hungry gawp in myself.

#TBR20 Challenge is going well:

#TBR3 Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (also re-reading challenge)

#TBR4 Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch

#TBR5 Wendy Cope (ed.): The Funny Side

#TBR6 Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night

#TBR7 Liad Shoham: Tel Aviv Suspects

#TBR8 Ever Yours: Essential Van Gogh Letters

#TBR9: Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs

#TBR10: Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills

#TBR11: Jeremie Guez: Paris La Nuit

#TBR12: Muriel Spark: Loitering with Intent (also a rereading challenge)

#TBR13: Friederike Schmoe: Fliehganzleis

#TBR14: Fouad Laroui: L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

These last two will be reviewed shortly, or as soon as holidays and children allow.

Review copies:

Cath Staincliffe: Half the World Away

Hakan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak

Ruth Ware: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Maggie Mitchell: Pretty Is

Pascal Garnier: Boxes

The One That Got Away:

Etienne Davodeau: Les Ignorants

Some other facts and figures:

18 books read in total, of which 7 can be legitimately classified as crime fiction/psychological thriller. My Crime Fiction Pick of the month (a meme initiated by Mysteries in Paradise) is Witness the Night, although I was also very impressed with Tel Aviv Suspects and Paris la Nuit.

3 books in German, 4 in French, 7 translations (from French, Swedish, Russian, Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese). I haven’t done so well in my Global Reading Challenge, with only Kishwar Desai bringing me to a new country, India. I still have to read books set in Africa, Oceania and South America, and find something for the 7th continent. 9 by women authors, 9 by men. And I am only 3 reviews behind!

1 poetry, 1 graphic non-fiction book, 2 rereading challenges, 1 auto-biography/letters.

Doing the #TBR20 challenge is having a very calming effect on me. Although I’ve still been doing a fair share of reviewing, it has felt much more within my control. I’ve felt much more freedom in the selection of my next book, plus there is such satisfaction to be had when you make a dent in your messy book pile!

Having said that, though, I must admit that I’ve cheated slightly and borrowed some books from the library. I haven’t actually started reading them yet, as they are for the duration of the summer holidays. So I will start them once I’ve completed my #TBR20 – that’s still within the rules, right?

Coming up for the #TBR20? A female French writer, for a change – Sylvie Granotier’s latest. One of my favourite German crime writers, Jakob Arjouni, and The Neck of the Giraffe by Judith Schalansky. Blood Jungle Ballet, set in American Samoa. I may have a change of heart for the remaining two books of the challenge, so I’ll allow myself (and you) to be surprised.

And those library books? The latest Vargas Temps Glaciares, a fictionalised biography of Isadora Duncan (one of my childhood heroines) by Caroline Deyns and Carrère’s L’Adversaire (couldn’t resist, after hearing the neighbours’ story of the real-life event which it’s based upon).

The Tale of Genji Readalong (2)

Apocryphal drawing of Murasaki Shikibu, dating from the 18th century, from Wikipedia.
Apocryphal drawing of Murasaki Shikibu, dating from the 18th century, from Wikipedia.

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.

Genji with his family, from artelino.com
Genji with his family, from artelino.com

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.’

Lady Murasaki writing, from Wikipedia.
Lady Murasaki writing, from Wikipedia.

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).

Calligraphy of the Heian period (12th century), from the Indiana University Library.
Calligraphy of the Heian period (12th century), from the Indiana University Library.

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)

 

 

 

 

Fire Flowers and the War in Japan

fireflowersEuropa Editions are a reliable source of translated fiction, but more recently they have also started publishing a small number of books written in English. One of these books is Ben Byrne’s debut novel Fire Flowers, set in the apocalyptic landscape of post-war Japan.

The story is told from alternating points of view of the four main characters. Satsuko Takara is a good girl, devoted daughter and sister, who believes her family was killed in the incendiary bombing of their neighbourhood of Asakusa in Tokyo.  Her brother Hiroshi, badly scarred by fire, is likewise convinced his sister died. Her boyfriend Osamu dreamt of becoming the Japanese Tolstoy or Oriental Zola, but was forced to go and fight in New Guinea and was presumed dead. Finally, American bomber pilot turned photographer, Hal Lynch, is wracked with guilt at the part he played in the war.

In the rubble, despair and confusion that is defeated Japan, it all becomes a story of survival. The author does not spare us the details of ruins, famine, smallpox, the taking of Philopon (the so-called ‘courage pills’, formerly used by kamikaze pilots, now used to make up for lack of food and hope). Hiroshima is described as a pulverised wasteland, a vast expanse of reddish-brown dust. One little girl survives the atomic bomb and comes all the way to Tokyo by herself, joining Hiroshi’s little band of children.

Satsuko is forced into prostitution ‘for the sake of her country’ at the so-called comfort stations provided for the American occupying forces. Hiroshi heads a gang of street children and goes underground, living off petty theft and hustling. Osamu tries to recreate his dream of a writer’s life, even though at present he is pandering to the public’s need for comfort, titillation and pornography. Finally, Hal Lynch uncovers information about the long-term consequences of radiation sickness in Hiroshima, things which are covered up by the American military and politicians.

Two thirds of the way through the book, Hal and Satsuko finally meet – you just knew it was going to be a love story, at least partially. Brother and sister also finally reunite, but there is no traditional happy ending. There are hints of the Cold War already starting.

There is much to like in this book: it is well researched, atmospheric, and very ambitious. Perhaps it tries to pack too much in (a common enough failing in a debut novel). It seeks to provide a fresco of a whole country through the fate of these four people – and for the most part, it succeeds, although not always in a very smooth and uplifting way. There are several excellent passages and scenes, which just about manage to steer clear of sentimentality. One of my favourites is the scene of carol singing with a group of elegant old ladies in kimonos – Japanese Christians who are now for the first time allowed to celebrate Christmas.

And then this bold young man and these delightful, wrinkled women whose country I’d helped raze to the ground, well, we all stood there outside of a ruined train station as flakes of DDT floated down from the sky like snow, and then, God help me, we began to sing ‘Silent Night.’

The book provides an interesting alternative view of Japan after the war, something that has not been as widely portrayed in literature as post-war Germany, for instance.

In memory of my long-defunct BA thesis on reflections of the war in Japanese literature, here are some Japanese modern classics on the same topic. (I’ve followed the Japanese convention of surnames first, followed by first names for the authors)

settingsunDazai Osamu: Setting Sun

One of my favourite Japanese writers – or writers of any culture, full stop. The story has a similar premise to Fire Flowers: it’s the story of a small, formerly aristocratic family – sister, brother who has been away fighting in the Pacific, and their mother. They are forced to move to the countryside, work the fields, figure out a new place for themselves in a society they no longer understand or want. It is such a subtle and painful reading experience, so rich in symbolism and steeped in uncertainty and regret. What Ben Byrne spells out loud and clear, this book implies, alludes to, conceals. Fire is a powerful image in this book as well, but it’s not just destructive – it has a multitude of meanings.

firesonplainOoka Shohei: Fires on the Plain

This book reminded me of The Heart of Darkness. It is less about life in Japan and more about the life of a Japanese soldier who deserts the military and attempts to survive in the jungle in the Philippines. It’s a powerful indictment of the idiocy and pointlessness of war.

 

Noma Hiroshi: Zone of Emptiness

Another story told from the point of view of a sensitive young soldier caught up in Japan’s relentless war machine. Soda is a slightly naive and idealistic soldier who is trying to rehabilitate his friend Kitani’s name. Kitani has spent two years in a military prison for a petty theft which he did not commit. The book is a wholesale denunciation of the brutality, corruption and narrow-mindedness of the military regime in Japan at the time, but it also raises important questions about what in the Japanese psyche is so attracted to this ideology of strength through cruelty.

KuroiameMasuji Ibuse: Black Rain

This depiction of immediate and long-term consequences of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima made a profound impression on me, especially since I read this around the time I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The novel was written in the mid-60s, quite some time after the bombing, and focuses once again on a family and their attempts to marry off a daughter that no one seems to want, because they believe she suffers from radiation sickness and is infertile. The way the author blends in the personal with the general (based on eyewitness accounts and surviving diaries) is exemplary – and heartrending.

harpburmaTakeyama Michio: The Burmese Harp

I’ll end with a slightly less gruelling read, as its intended audience is children or YA. Told once again from the point of view of a Japanese soldier who gradually realises he is fighting a stupid, cruel war, this time in Burma. Ironically, knowing that history has not been kind since to Burma, the author describes the beautiful serenity and spirituality of Burma and its people, the peacefulness and love of music, which contrasts sharply with aggression and obstinacy of the Japanese occupiers. The story is ironic too, since it takes place at the end of the war, when Japan has officially surrendered, but isolated troops of Japanese soldiers, stranded in different Asian locations, refuse to follow suit. The book has been adapted (twice) by film director Ichikawa Kon, although with some noteable differences.

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 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg#/media/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg
“Ch5 wakamurasaki” by Tosa Mitsuoki – The Tale of Genji: Legends and Paintings. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg#/media/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg

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 commons.wikimedia.org
Kano Chikayasu scroll of Genji, from commons.wikimedia.org

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?

From TaleofGenji.org
From TaleofGenji.org

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…

January in Japan: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida

Just about time to squeeze in one more Japanese writer for Tony’s January in Japan challenge. Although it does feel at times like Tony is reading the classics, while I am just reading the sensationalist crime fiction…

The Bestsellerish Cover - like a million others.
The Bestsellerish Cover – like a million others.

What is interesting about Japanese crime fiction though is that it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre, or at least not of the police procedurals we are used to. The focus is less on detecting the perpetrator of the crime, than on the events leading up to the crime and its aftermath. However, they are not quite psychological thrillers either. We gain a little insight into the thoughts and feelings of some of the main characters (and there is usually more than one point of view in Japanese novels), but the motivations for some of their most extreme actions remain shadowy. Can we ever truly know what makes a person do certain things? [Japanese authors seem to ask.] This lack of clear-cut answers, this deliberate ambiguity, is what fascinates me about Japanese literature, but it can have mixed results in the crime fiction genre.

So the plot is not the main point here, but here is a quick summary of it anyway. A woman is found strangled on a remote mountain pass (often associated with ghost sightings). It turns out that the young woman, Yoshino, has a secret online dating life, to counteract her boring job as an insurance saleswoman. She also claims to be going out with a popular and rich college student; in fact, she has almost started believing her own lies. But is it her slightly dangerous hidden lifestyle or her fantasies which led to her death? We might be able to guess fairly early on who the killer is, but there are a few surprises along the way, including a Bonnie and Clyde moment.

More interesting cover - which do you prefer?
More interesting cover – which do you prefer?

The book starts very slowly, with a rather dull description of the Mitsuse pass and the motorway passing through the region. But stick with it, because it does get better, although never as pacy as a Western thriller. What is most interesting about the book is the realistic, if rather depressing ‘slice of contemporary Japanese life’ on offer. We have here the collective portrait of lonely young people, stuck in dead-end jobs, unable to express their emotions, living in anonymous industrial towns with grey convenience stores and dingy love hotels. In this respect, the multiple points of view work well, as together they build up the picture of what feels like a lost generation.

Why so many glum books from Japan? Well, I think because Japanese society is still very much about maintaining a façade and about fitting in. It’s almost a cliché but the distinction between ‘honne’ (your true feelings and inner core) and ‘tatemae’ (the public face) is still alive and well. Rebellion and eccentricity, when they come, are more extreme (think Swinging Sixties but on an individual or small-group scale). Alienation is more depressing and there are fewer opportunities to meet like-minded people (although there seem to be plenty of them in the literature).

So perhaps I wouldn’t recommend this to a die-hard crime fiction fan, but to someone who wants a subtle exploration of family breakdown, ageing, alienation and rather desolate provincial life in a stagnating Japan, I would say: ‘Welcome to Anomie Central!’

For an excellent review of this novel and picture of the Mitsuse Pass, please go to the wonderful blog by Dolce Bellezza.