Back at the beginning of June, I mentioned that I was going to read two Really Long Classics this summer: Don Quixote and The Tale of Genji. I had a wonderful time reading Don Quixote, and posted about it rather a lot, so I was really looking forward to reading the other one I had planned. But it has certainly not been the same kind of reading experience, so I’d like to talk about that here.
By now, we’ve all probably heard L.P. Hartley’s famous line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The motivations of people even in our own time and culture can be obscure, so we ought to expect the impetus of those in other times and other places to be even more so. When I read King Lear or Iphigenia, I can find the why behind the what to be almost impenetrable, and I find myself concocting modern reasons for their behavior, to explain away actions that would appear utterly insane to us on the face of it. This obscurity is perhaps even deeper and more difficult to overcome when I read about the long-ago past of cultures that did not come down to be my own (as Greek or British culture did.) There’s a sort of break in continuity, or perhaps just a lack of permeation in this culture, that makes it hard for me to pick up on subtle clues in the literature. I have encountered this problem before, I know it to be my problem and not the book’s problem, and I expect to encounter it again; it’s one price to pay for the great benefit of reading world literature.
So. That said, I am having an extremely difficult time with The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki, and I would love to get some help from those of you who have read this work and can give me some advice on how to get more out of it. This book was written at the beginning of the 11th century in Japan, at the height of the Heian period, and I am just… not… getting it.
You know how people complain about Russian novels? Oh, there are so many characters, and each one has three names! Well, I’m great with names. It’s one of my party tricks. I’ve never had an ounce of trouble with Russian novels. But in this book — at least in Royall Tyler’s translation, which I understand is pretty close to the original in this respect — there are no names at all. The men go by titles (Left Commander, His Excellency, His Cloistered Eminence, The Intendant of the Gate.) When someone dies or goes into retirement, the titles all change, because people get promoted or what have you, so the Commander becomes the Counselor and the Intendant becomes the Ceremonial of War. Even Genji is a title: he’s a Genji, and someone else could also be a Genji. And the women go either by their relationship to the men (the Consort — His Majesty’s wife — changes to the Haven when she bears him a son), or by a reference to a phrase in the chapter in which they were introduced (the lady of the cicada shell, the lady of the falling flowers) or by where they live (the lady of the east wing.) Although Tyler gives a roll-call of characters at the beginning of each chapter, I find it frustratingly impossible to keep track of them and their relationships to each other. Here’s an example:
The Left Commander’s wife still felt closer to the Right Commander than to the sons of His Excellency the Chancellor. She was quick and easy to like, and she welcomed the Right Commander so warmly whenever he called that the company of the all too distant and formal Kiritsubo Consort paled in comparison, and an unusual affection grew up between them.
I have to confess that when I read this paragraph, I had no idea who any of the people were, except a vague notion about the Kiritsubo Consort, and I could have been wrong.
Then there’s the absolutely impenetrable court etiquette. A good half of the book, if not two-thirds, is about the rituals: the clothes (and the proper colors and lengths and starches for the clothes), the incense, the standing screens and curtains that hide the women, the flowers and change of seasons, the banquets and music and dancing, the exchange of letters and the paper they’re written on and the handwriting used. Whenever people speak or write to each other, they toss off tiny, two-line poems, and each poem makes an extremely oblique reference to another, older poem by a famous author, that you’re just supposed to get. Tyler footnotes all of this, of course, but it’s as if I wrote you a little note and tied my note to a palm frond and you just naturally understood that I was making a naughty erotic wordplay reference to the line in Romeo and Juliet that says “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss…” I feel totally and utterly at sea in all this. It’s all, endlessly, weeping into sleeves and regretting the fleeting nature of life.
And then there’s the narrative arc (what there is of it.) The world Lady Murasaki lived in is so foreign to me that I have a hard time even grasping what is happening. It was considered taboo for women to write about politics, so none of the shifting or drama that happens at court is described at all. We get the other side: the spectacularly good-looking and talented Genji’s amorous adventures when he’s a young man, and then, later, when he’s (somewhat) settled down, his work at building a family with several wives or quasi-wives, and the alliances and misalliances of his friends and relations at court. The narrative flows gently enough from the “shining Genji’s” point of view.
But the women! This is a world in which women have no agency at all, a concept that is not just difficult but nauseating for me to wrap my mind around. They literally do not have an opinion on anything — are not capable of giving sexual consent, for instance, a yes or a no — unless their father says so. If the woman is unlucky enough not to have a father to tell her what to say, her only chance of marriage is to be raped. If the man is diffident about doing this, she may remain single, and therefore lost in poverty and vulnerability, forever. Say what? There are many (discreet, but…) scenes of violation in Genji, and while the purpose may sometimes be condoned, the revulsion and pain on the part of the woman is made clear.
But marriage is not always better. When a woman’s husband falls in love with another woman, and brings her home, the first wife can lose status. Or the marriage can be embarrassingly unhappy. This is a world where eternal courtship, under the protection of a loving father, seems to be the ideal — but how many women can sustain such a thing? Genji himself has a long, loving marriage (with a woman he kidnapped as a ten-year-old to bring up to be his wife, and then raped when she was old enough — unbearably creepy to my eyes), but it’s spoiled in the end by jealousy, and his wife can’t ever say no. I am having a terrible time not seeing this with modern eyes.
What should I be getting out of this? Where am I going wrong? I have now read over 700 pages of Genji, and there are 400 pages left, and it’s beginning to feel like The Book That Will Never End. I know it is supposed to be one of the great masterpieces of Japanese literature. I want to come out of it feeling the way I did about The Story of the Stone –far longer than this, and I adored every volume. Help, please.