The Tale of Genji, Part I

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.

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78 Responses to The Tale of Genji, Part I

  1. N@ncy says:

    Read your comments on Jillian’s blog about When I Whistle. Sparked my interest to take a closer look at your book selections and found this one. It has been recommended to me so often, but modern Japanese literature seems so difficult. I have put this one on my list along with WIW.

    • Jenny says:

      I think those comments were Teresa’s, but I’m delighted to have you here! This, of course, is not modern Japanese literature, but 11th-century. Still, I’m having enough trouble with it!

  2. dicameron says:

    I think going into Genji cold is a tall order if you know nothing about Japanese history and culture. You may get more out of it if you read around it first to get some context.
    I’m sure you know the basic history of Japan as far as its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world goes. This meant that Japanese arts, values, culture and behaviour evolved to extremely idiosyncratic heights, with no reference to the outside world, foreign influences, or knowlege of what was going on in the rest of the world at the time.
    With nothing to do but plot, fight rival warlords and obsess about power, the upper classes took poetry, tea ceremony, appreciation of nature to what seems to other cultures a bizarre level.
    The references which to us are obscure and impenetrable would have been well understood by the readers of Genji, who after all mostly lived in the same hot-house world as the author. Their knowledge of poetry would have been taken as read, as it was crucial to social standing and in being part of the world described.
    The novel was never written for anyone who didn’t share a great knowledge of the world it describes – the idea would never have occurred to the author. The only way to get past this I would think is to read around the history and culture but even then I think I’d try not to get too hung up on the names and titles. For me, the point of it was to glimpse the rarified and utterly unique world Japan was at that time, and to marvel at its subtlety and absurdities.

    • Jenny says:

      This is very helpful! I usually resist that “window into another world” way of reading, because to me it seems exoticizing. I prefer to find ways I can understand the novel from inside, as it were. But that’s limited, of course, especially when the culture the novel was written in is so unique, as you say so well. I will try to read up a bit about Genji’s world, and see if it helps.

      • dicameron says:

        The history of Japan around this time and in later centuries is absolutely fascinating – you will probably find it more absorbing than Genji! There are some excellent books about the history of the geisha and maiko for example that give you all the background to a lot of the arts that these women personify and represent the absolute pinnacle of.

      • Jenny says:

        Thanks so much for the encouragement — it is a world with which I am not at all familiar, so I will really enjoy learning more.

  3. No names, and the titles change throughout? I think this book would simply be too difficult for me. But even though the information about women is horrible, it’s a reminder of how far we have come, isn’t it?

    • Jenny says:

      I read an article by the translator about rape in Genji and understood it better, but I still can’t really get over it (in the sense of fully understanding it.) It’s been one of the most difficult parts for me.

  4. Danielle says:

    This sounds amazingly challenging, and I find your post really interesting as I have thought of reading it as well and wonder now if I could have even gotten as far as you have. Despite its difficulties it seems you are getting more of it than maybe you think you are. I’m afraid I’m not going to be any help to you, but this is a help to me as I am just now getting into reading Japanese literature. Good luck reading the second half!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Danielle. I have about 350 pages left, and I have managed to find a part that was genuinely moving! Though I also found a part that was totally, blankly puzzling, so I’m not sure I am getting what I should. We’ll see how it goes!

  5. For me this really is the book that never ends. I started reading it about 3 years ago and have made it through about 54 chapters, but it is really hard work. I have to study each chapter for a long time to understand what is going on and that seems to get harder as the book progresses (there is less information about the later chapters on the Internet). I will make it to the end of this book one day – just out of determination, but I’m not sure all those hours of study are justified.

    • Jenny says:

      I noticed that, about there being less information about later chapters! Maybe everyone ran out of steam! Good for you for doing all the study. I am sure I am missing a great deal of information that you have taken in.

  6. Deb says:

    I’m amazed (and impressed) that based on all the obstacles and impenetrables you have encountered, you are still reading the book! I know it’s considered a classic, but if in order to read the book with any comprehension at all (as opposed to just reading the words) you have to take a mini-course in 11th century Japanese history, I think you have to ask yourself if it would be worth the effort. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be valuable to learn about the era of the book, I’m just wondering if you could find something more accessible to read. Oh well, I’ve said before I’m very much in the “life’s too short” camp when I find a book that doesn’t grab me.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, sure, I’ve got stacks of things that are more accessible to read! But I’ve found before that books that are considered major world classics are usually in that category for a good reason, so I wanted to stick with it. There is much that is beautiful and elegant about this book, and much that is inaccessible to me, both.

  7. cbjames says:

    While you have read more of it than I have, I’m going to agree with dicameron’s comment above. I think she’s nailed the book. It really was written with a very small audience in mind.

    I read The Pillow Book several times before reading Genji, which really helped me. It’s much easier to access and my copy had copious and fascinating footnotes. It’s too late for you to start there, but you may still enjoy it.

    I basically read Genji as a series of short storiess, each chapter is nearly self-contained as I recall. I never made any attempt to follow the characters through the book since I knew I’d never be able to do so. I also never tried to identify with any of it, or to view it through modern eyes. There’s no way either of those approaches would work for me and I think both are inappropriate for the book.

    While the women in the book do have a terrible time of it from a modern perspective, they are the winners in the end. For all of the oppression they faced, all of the limitaions placed on their lives, they are the ones who created the two lasting works from the period, The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book. Name one male writer or artist from the period. You can’t and I bet you dollars to donuts that no one in Japan can either.

    I also think it’s good for us to read books that really challenge us. They are the 10 K marathons of reading. I fully expect to go back to Genji and finish the book sometime soon. While it is difficult, there are so many wonderful things in it.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for this profoundly encouraging take! I’ve read the Pillow Book (and loved it), and you’re right, I did find lots of her witty and charming ideas applicable here. But mostly, I love what you say about the women being the winners here in the end. I will look at it that way and see if I find it less depressing!

      Oh, and I don’t mind reading challenging books. I just don’t want to read them and feel like I never got what I was supposed to get. Another angle, like yours and dicameron’s, was what I wanted.

    • I just reserved The Pillow Book at my library. I’m looking forward to doing a little homework so I can tackle Genji.

    • Great advice! I read “The Pillow Book” around the time I was reading excerpts from “The Tale of Genji” (this was about two years before I read the whole thing) and I agree it’s a good introduction to Heian literature. Besides the fact that Sei Shonagon was hilariously tart-tongued, she had the distinct advantage of being Murasaki Shikibu’s contemporary–and, one gathers, frenemy. I recall there are references to Murasaki in the Pillow Book, which gives the reader added insight into court intrigue and makes the Imperial world more vivid and real. (It also makes clear that the Japanese invented tissues, since Shonagon talks about them and their post-coital use quite a bit!)

      • Jenny says:

        I don’t recall any names in the Pillow Book (though it’s been a while and I could be wrong!) but Lady Murasaki did make (scathing) reference to Shonagon in her diary. It’s clear they were rivals!

      • You’re probably right–I haven’t read either book in their entirety in years. But I was always amazed that these two literary women (who couldn’t have been more different) knew each other. By the way, have you heard of “The Confessions of Lady Nijo”?–it was discovered and translated in the 70s and is a fascinating (and much easier to read) memoir that takes place slightly later than Genji, at the very end of the Heian Period.

  8. The book you want – the answer is always another book – is Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince.

    The answer that is not a book, something I learned from John Crowley, is to treat the foreignness of the book like you do when reading a fantasy novel. Kinda what C.B. said. His challenge is a trick, by the way, since the name of the (male) author of The Tale of Ise is unknown.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know whether the Crowley answer sits very well with me. (The book answer, as always, does.) “What great world-building!” — only it was a real world, for those who lived in it. I’m not sure I want to think of the Heian Japanese as, say, elves: impossible others living in a world I know today.

      • I will expand the Crowley answer. The idea is not to pretend that Genji is a fantasy novel but rather to read it using the tools you bring to a big world-building novel. You likely need the same patience or “keep this in reserve” mentality with the strange names and the back-story history that will only be explained if you read The Silmarillion.

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, I see. Sorry, I wrong-footed it, not for the last time. Yes, patience (it also did take me quite a while to read The Silmarillion.) Though I would likely never have gotten through Tolkien if there weren’t names in it at all. Thanks for the expansion.

  9. Rebecca H. says:

    I was just going to mention The World of the Shining Prince, but Amateur Reader beat me to it. I haven’t actually read the Morris book, but I’ve heard it’s good! I read The Tale of Genji a while back and did okay with it, but it was very slow going. I just read it very slowly and absorbed what I could about the culture described.

    • Jenny says:

      Several people have mentioned the trick (if it’s a trick) of reading this book very slowly. I am probably reading it much too fast! I’ve got the Morris book on my list, now, and I expect it will add a great deal to my understanding.

  10. aartichapati says:

    Wow, I admire your persistence, Jenny! I have never read this book, but I can blindly agree with the comment above about reading around the era and culture before reading the book itself. Though I don’t know if that will help with the titles! My general rule of thumb is to power through things I don’t understand and hope that it makes sense later. This seems like it would not be much help in this situation, though…. are there Cliff’s Notes somewhere that you can read for summaries?

    • Jenny says:

      My rule of thumb is the same as yours, but this time it didn’t help — I kept getting loster and loster. There are a few summaries of early chapters on the internet. I’m not sure if there are Cliff’s Notes of this one; I haven’t looked (ah, pride!). I really should.

  11. E A M Harris says:

    There is a book called The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby which is a historical novel based on the life of Murasaki. It describes and explains a lot of the life of the court and goes into how and why she wrote Genji. Its a shortish quick and lovely read and I think it might help you understand Genji better.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for the suggestion! I didn’t know we actually knew anything about the life of Lady Murasaki, so this would be interesting.

  12. Very interesting books.,and excellent post.Don Duixote.is an amazing tale.Regards

  13. I’m working up the courage to marry Middlemarch.

  14. more like you are not supposed to get it but make it mean what you want

  15. Hi. My interest in “The Tale of Genji” is sparked by the notion I took away from something else that Iris Murdoch, whose work I’m currently studying, was interested in the book. It figures. Murdoch herself, though not writing as much about only women suffering from society, was certainly alive to the issue. But I’d like to recommend something else from Asia, though from another part: have you ever heard of “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” from China, I believe? It’s about life in an Asian court (I’m probably wildly off as to dates, so don’t expect it to be exactly similar). And of course, I’m not meaning to suggest that all Asians are the same–nothing so insufferably ethnocentric! I’m just suggesting the read because I think there are some minor similarities that might provide a way into the culture you’ve described as at the center of “The Tale of Genji,” which I’ve never read. Having warned you ahead of time of my own lack of knowledge of the book, I’d like just to say that I read a two-sided version of “The Dream of the Red Chamber”: on the left-hand side of the page, there was a literal English translation from the Chinese, and on the right-hand side of the page, a reworked and therefore understandable translation into modern English. Putting the two together at difficult junctures enabled me to see something of the culture emerging from the differences between the two, even just linguistically based as the re-tellings were. I may be way off target here, of course, but the tale YOU tell of Genji strongly reminds me of the similar court in “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” which is equally circumspect, though not perhaps as violent-sounding. Hope this is helpful, or at least interesting.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for this comparison. I read The Dream of the Red Chamber (under the title The Story of the Stone — I actually mentioned it in my post!) a few years ago, and absolutely loved it. It’s an 18th-century work, and I think much more modern than this, which makes it easier in some ways. But I agree that there are many comparisons between the two. I appreciate your thoughtful comment!

  16. I haven’t read The Tale of Genji since college, but as I’m the only person I know (except for my professor and fellow students in my Harvard Medieval Japanese Literature class), I’m going to throw in my two cents anyway. First, as another commentor said, it’s imperative that you understand the social context in which Genji takes place. For that, I would recommend a basic text in Japanese history, the classic being Reischauer & Craig’s “Japan: Tradition and Transformation.” Second, forget about comparing Genji to European novels, no matter how confusing the names and titles. The structure and confines of the Imperial Court have no western equivalents, so it’s best not to search for them elsewhere. As for seeing Genji’s relationships with women through “modern eyes,” you do realize the action took place 1100 years ago, don’t you? The concept of marital rape didn’t take hold until the late 20th century in any country, so you can hardly transpose the idea to the 12th century. Finally, rather than obsessing over the details, you should enjoy the beauty of the language–which, after all, is the reason Genji is still read. A stylisic triumph when it was written (in Japanese kana, rather than Chinese characters), it deserves to be considered the world’s first novel. Let the words wash over you–which is what I did, and I still managed to get an A in the course.

    • oops–I mean “as I’m the only person I know who has read it”

    • What an excellent bit of advice and referral! I’m guessing you deserved that A–and perhaps since there are parts of the world even today where the concept of marital rape is slow to take hold, the horror of some parts of what I’m hearing described can be seen as a basis for the ultra-realistic modern or contemporary novel. I’ll know more when I’ve had a chance to read this book–probably weeks after the rest of you have stopped discussing it, unfortunately!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for your comment. I do think it’s very difficult to read any sort of literature without our own biases getting in the way: we as readers are products of our own era, place, and culture, whether we like it or not. “Realizing” that Genji was written 900 years ago doesn’t always help me see things through his eyes! Thanks for the recommendation of the text, though the Ivan Morris book that others have been recommending looks perhaps more engaging. And I agree with you about the language (i.e. the details.) It’s elegant and lovely, and worth allowing it to wash over me.

      I don’t think the notion of rape is as black-and-white as you do, but I’ll probably discuss that in another post.

      • Though I know that the notion of marital rape is still not totally condemned in our contemporary world, and though I know (now) that the book was a classic of medieval Japan, still I agree with Jenny in that I believe it’s not a totally black-and-white issue. That is, though a medieval warrior caste/aristocratic class might value strict warrior-like behavior, there are still books in the world in which members of such a caste may be seen to behave with laudable gentleness toward an inexperienced or initially unwilling mate. Herein lies the difference between enticing seduction and rape. In particular, I would like to read the book someone above recommended entitled “The Tale of Murasaki” to find out why Lady Murasaki spilled the beans on what was happening. Of course, you know I’m fantasizing about her being an early feminist expose writer (I can’t figure out how to write the acute “e” at the end of “expose”); anyway, that would make me very happy, were I reading the book.

  17. Betsy says:

    I took a Japanese lit class where we read excerpts from Genji. I found it really difficult to get through even short sections because there is so much to keep straight. But it does contain some fascinating insights into life in Lady Murasaki’s time. Good luck!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you! It has been fascinating. I think part of my problem is that I would rather be inside the story than looking in through a window, but that may not be possible with this text. Thanks for stopping by!

  18. yiotta says:

    I only read Tale of Genji incidentally, by way of purchasing a beautiful book in an art museum store where the story unfolded (literally) into one very, very long picture scroll. I found the story only mildly interesting as I came away just feeling the claustrophobic and microscopic world of the narrator was too self absorbed but maybe I just didn’t register the nuances. I loved the scroll.

    On the other hand, with or without pictures, The Story of the Stone/Dream of the Red Chamber was a book I’ve read several times because I felt I was able to glean more meaning with each reading (probably won’t read it again though, too much other stuff online) and how universal some of its characters are, like the “perverse” nature of Lin Daiyu–while not necessarily of the same nature, you can encounter a lot of people who deal with their own demons (whether consciously or not) and see how it impacts their lives and the lives of those around them.

    Red Chamber affected me on a human level whereas Genji was just a mildly interesting read.

    • Jenny says:

      I would be fascinated to see Genji as a scroll! That sounds exquisite. I agree that I connected much better with The Story of the Stone than I have with Genji, but I am sure that it’s my fault, not the work’s fault. If I knew more about the culture, the connection would be easier. I did love The Story of the Stone — so multi-layered and twisted and fascinating. I’d love to see it more widely read among Westerners.

      • yiotta says:

        I just think sometimes, even if a book is praised to the heavens, it just won’t connect with everyone.

        It seems almost anybody who has read Stone/Red Chamber has been sincerely affected by it one way or another (it definitely has its detractors) so to me, it has universal appeal despite or maybe because of its rich storytelling presenting a distinct time and culture.

        I can respect Genji for its claim to being the “world’s first novel” especially as one written by a woman during a time when women were simply seen as decorative and a means to perpetuate the species (the latter part fits any culture, of course) but I feel that part of its appeal is that it gives a glimpse of a rarified world almost like how so many revere royalty, whether it’s true blue blood royalty, or celebrity type royalty.

        But maybe I’m just being too lazy and not trying hard enough.

        Good luck on your journey to Genji enlightenment…

  19. vwcheung says:

    This is so helpful as I too have tried reading Genji but it was highly frustrating. Thanks!

  20. husysweet says:

    I really enjoyed reading a tale of Genji.The book is a gift and a window to see a way of life that is in the past.By the way I thought in every five minutes a Woman is being raped in America and in India it is every 3 minutes.

  21. David J Centner says:

    I think a good introduction to that world is “The Ink Dark Moon,” which contains the poems of women poets of the Heian period. The introduction is really perceptive. It is interesting, too, that women in that period were writing in the vernacular, while men were writing in Chinese. It is like sixteenth century Spain where women were expected to be equally confined and have no agency.

    • Jenny says:

      This sounds like a wonderful recommendation. Like CB James says above, it’s the women who are passing on the culture, despite the limitations on their lives. I’m delighted for the tip.

  22. Sarah says:

    I love it that you’re reading something that challenges you so much! Although it isn’t nearly as distant from my own culture, I found Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” to be a slog after a while, as it requires more erudition and familiarity with 19th-20th century German philosophy than I have (or am likely to acquire). I’m rather disappointed in myself that I gave up after about 550 pages, with 150-200 yet to go, but I’d lost the thread and it had become little more than following on the most superficial level, which got boring. Usually, I try harder. I read books that were far beyond my years when I was a child, which I have never regretted, as it taught me so very much. I think I was well into my 40s before I finally decided that I could stop reading a book I truly didn’t like. I guess that having proved to myself that I can read the tough stuff, I’m more willing to acknowledge that sometimes life really IS too short to waste, especially since there will never be enough time to read all the things I want to, anyway.

    I started “Don Quixote” a few weeks ago and enjoy it a great deal. Also came across Guy du Maupassant (sp.?), whose name I’d heard but had never read, and find some of his stories marvelous. I think I’ll hold off on 10th century Japanese literature for a bit. So glad you’re willing to stick with the struggle — and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for your take on the benefits of sticking with a book that’s a struggle for you. I think the middle ground between “if it’s not immediately entertaining, abandon it” and “you should be able to appreciate every book, no matter how inaccessible” is fairly broad; it will depend on background, starting point, experience, and many other factors. Your own projects sound wonderful!

  23. veraersilia says:

    You seem to have encountered culture shock through literature – it is an opportunity to try to enter into another mindset …. I have not read Genji but I have had Japanese friends and learned a lot from them; even though they lived in the US and had adjusted well to this mindset, they still reacted in different ways to things..
    It is not the time lag but the culture lag that gets to us. I also could never finish the famous Magic Mountain, although I read and re-read The Buddenbrooks by Mann – and that is a ponderous book to wade into …

    • Well put! I grew up in Japan and, though I’m American, experienced culture shock when my family moved (I won’t say moved back, because I was born in Asia) to the United States. I’ve also witnessed extreme culture shock first-hand in friends–the worst case being a young American in Tokyo who, when confronted with a language she couldn’t speak or read, simply shut down. Those who confront new cultures (and their literature) open-mindedly seem to do the best; what’s deadly is to constantly compare foreign cultures to one’s own.

      • Jenny says:

        @underthehollywoodsign: yes! This is just what I teach my students, for the most part, though I would differ a little with you about not comparing cultures. I think comparison is healthy, fascinating, often extremely productive, and a sign of a complex thinker. There are, after all, entire established departments of comparative government, literature, economics, etc. What’s really deadly is constantly allowing one culture to come out ahead. :)

    • Jenny says:

      @veraersilia — your comments on “culture lag” are precisely what I was getting at in my post. I think that a book written so far in the past and in a culture so different from my own is going to present difficulties of comprehension, even if the style were as similar to modern Western style as Mann’s is (which Murasaki’s is not!) I revel in literary culture shock — seek it out — and am glad for helping hands over the difficult bits.

      • veraersilia says:

        Well, you see, I came to the US as a young adult a long time ago, and though I adapted very well (I came well prepared and in love with America) nevertheless I did not BECOME American. I came as an Italian, I lived as an Italian and I still AM Italian. For me it was not culture shock, rather a difference that was never bridged and that I never wanted to bridge because I would have given up my true identity. However, I gained insight into the different “possibilities of being” that exist, all valid. I was lucky also in having a job that put me in daily contact with people from all over the world, and many became close friends. Wherever I live I feel like an anthropologist who studies the natives and how they live & think.
        Well, thanks for listening. Vera

  24. vanbraman says:

    I read The Tale of Genji over a several month period. I would only read small parts at a time. It was very helpful to look at the timeline and to pay close attention to the character list at the beginning of each chapter. It was helpful for me that I had been to Japan several times and had read other books on Japanese culture. I will most likely read parts of the book again, but probably will not read it straight through again. I did have a much clearer understanding of Japanese culture after finishing the book.

    • Jenny says:

      So glad you made it through! Did you have a particular book on Japanese culture you would recommend?

      • vanbraman says:

        I don’t have one that comes readily to mind. Before my first trip to Japan I went to the library and checked out several books about Japan. That was way back in the pre-google days :-) I also bought several books while in Japan that talked about daily life in different categories.

  25. Vanessa says:

    I do not have anything to add; just stopping in to say that I’ve enjoyed the above discussion. :)

  26. shovonc says:

    Thanks. So now we know where Murakami gets it from!

  27. Smplefy says:

    I felt that way about 20th century novel.

    I was lucky enough to ready Tale of Genji as part of paired course in East Asian Philosophy and East Asian Religion class. What made the experience richer for me was that we covered Japanese literature first so there was a lot to draw on as a base.

    It’s been 25 years, but the role of family and society played a big role in the structure of the story as I recall. I still have the book on my bookshelf to read again one day.

    None of this helps, I am sure. Good luck.

    • Jenny says:

      I think you’re echoing other commenters in that knowing more about the culture will help my comprehension. Thank you!

  28. kollshi17 says:

    thank you

  29. SL: the Tale of Genji is one of my favorite books, though I’ve never finished it.

    Let me continue by recommending Arthur Waley’s translation. Victorian and culturally inaccurate Waley may be, but i find his prose gorgeous, and he smooths over some of the politicking and naming difficulties that apparently mar newer versions in English.

    About not finishing it: I got through about a third of the book back in the mid-90s, and have been too busy with my other literary preoccupations to find the time to work my way through the rest.
    That isn’t to say I don’t find the book amazing, but rather, it offers the same kind of beauty that a poem does. In a certain way, Genji may be the longest poem in existence.

    (What we’re talking about is a culture devoted to poetry…pick up one of the excellent newer anthologies of Chinese poetry to get a sense of what poetry meant to Far Eastern society.)

    The problem with this is that a poem does not necessarily have the conflict/resolution structure westerners expect in a story. It’s frustrating when the villain is just an another character working out his karma from previous existences.

    During my most recent foray into the book, I learned that Murasaki is the novel’s main character…we don’t even meet her until page, what? …200? What conventional novel would get away with that?

    Genji is about beauty, the tangible but passing moment…this is what makes it so heartbreaking (and so difficult to finish). I will keep diving in until–one day–I get to the end. RT

  30. p.s. In reading through my comment, I see that I make an implicit reference to Buddhism in my remark about karma. I just want to make explicit the link between Buddhism and the difficulties that Genji poses for western readers. There are no bad guys (and no good ones, either)… RT

  31. sakura says:

    I read the Tale of Genji in manga form (Asaki Yumemishi by Yamato Waki) and saw an animated Japanese film and even then it was still pretty confusing. I’ve been meaning to read it in English but have been dithering as I know it’ll be difficult plus it’s in translation. Saying that, my mum (who is Japanese) has the modern Japanese version edited by Junichiro Tanizaki (I think it’s over 10 volumes) and told me it’s very difficult. Good luck and I hope you do finish it. I hear that The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris is a good introduction to Heian Japan.

  32. constancepilgrim says:

    Hello! I loved your post because I felt exactly the same way when I first read Genji six years ago. It was a very hard because the cultural practices and mores are fairly awful in the eyes of an educated, liberated western woman (me!). And Genji rapes the 13 year old brother of one of the girls he pursues in a very Ancient Greek sort of way as well (and then uses him to further pursue the sister). That shocked me the most. I clutched at my metaphorical pearls, I did!

    But the stories themselves are brilliant and so well written – the evening when the men compare the merits of various girls is almost like a locker room conversation of today. There are true gems among the pages of Genji, even if modern values have (thankfully) changed out of recognition.

    I do prefer Sei Shonagons Pillow Book though, if truth be told.

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