The Tale of Genji: Part Two

My last post on Genji — well, on not really getting Genji — got a lot of extremely thoughtful and helpful comments. Now that I’ve finished reading it, and had a chance to let it percolate a bit, I want to offer a few thoughts, both on my experience reading it and on the book itself.

Several of the comments I got last time talked about the tools I should bring to reading a book like Genji, something that is so foreign to me as to be inaccessible. This notion of tools was a helpful one, because (and this may seem counterintuitive), as an avid reader, I leave my tools at home most of the time. Reading is usually very easy for me. I use the front door, not the lock-pick or the crowbar. When a book requires something more complicated to gain entry and comprehension, I am sometimes out of practice. Readers suggested that reading more about Japanese Heian culture would help a great deal, and proposed Ivan Morris’s book The World of the Shining Prince. Tom at Wuthering Expectations also noted that when a book has a high bar of entry in this way, it can help to read it in the same way as one reads a fantasy novel: the strange names, the unfamiliar relationships, the way we look at it from outside, and are still pleased about it.

This point of view was extremely helpful, because it led to another train of thought. I had been trying to read Genji the same way I read most other novels: slipping into it, finding a point-of-view character, looking at it from the inside. This was frustratingly impossible. With Tom’s suggestion, I was able to try the expedient of looking into the novel from the outside, as through a window into another (extraordinarily beautiful) culture, place, and time. This way of reading the novel is supported by the text itself. There are many incidents where a man finds a way to peer through a crack, around a screen, or through a blind at a woman who should be completely hidden from his sight:

There was a curtain against the blind, and a step back from it stood a young woman in a gown. In that position, on the east side of the second bay west of the steps, she was in perfectly plain view. Her many layers of darker to lighter color — red plum blossom, perhaps — like the pages of a book set her off sharply, and she seemed also to have on a cherry blossom long dress in figured silk.

Like the pages of a book! And of course, the man who sees her like this falls instantly and irrevocably in love and desire, just as we fall in love with Genji’s world by peeking in through this small window. This is actually a link to literature I am familiar with — Western medieval literature, in which love enters through the eye.

Quite a number of comments praised me for persisting with a book I wasn’t enjoying, and gave me permission to stop reading it. As you all know, I am no stranger to abandoning books that don’t grab me. But in a very real sense, this book is different. The Tale of Genji is a hugely influential world classic that’s been around for almost a thousand years. It’s a stylistic masterpiece, something that has contributed to Japanese and Chinese art, thought, and literature for centuries. It’s not really there for me to check the “like” box. I wanted to give it the respect of my attention.

So whether or not I found it accessible, or easy to read and understand, is beside the point. What did I find when I read it?

I wasn’t expecting, and came to understand only slowly, the crucial importance of Buddhism to the book. It is woven all through the life of all the characters. Of course, many rituals and parts of day-to-day life (directional taboos, ritual pollution after childbirth, demons affecting illness) are influenced by religion, but I came to see only gradually how much of life in Genji is about detachment from the world. So much of the talk and poetry between characters has to do with the fleeting nature of life: the seasons, the dew on the flower, the wilting chrysanthemums. Attachments can only harm you in such a brief life. Many characters (especially women, for whom it sometimes made life easier) become monks or nuns, devoting themselves to religious practice.

Linked to this is the idea that runs deeply through the book, that beauty and difficulty are meritorious. In such a short life, there is no excuse for doing things in a sloppy or careless way. Paying close attention to every detail, giving praise in everything, noticing each blade of grass, each cherry blossom, each perfectly-tuned note of the kin or each fold of the gown brings merit. It may be more difficult to do things perfectly, but life is better for it.

And this, again, is linked to the definition of beauty. Again and again, we see in Genji that what is frail, what is fragile and pale, what is thin and weak — a soft voice, long hair thinned at the ends, a small woman all but smothered in gowns, elegant handwriting that pales and thickens and pales again, a tiny folded note, a fragile flower with the dew unspilled from it — is beautiful and elegant. All these things symbolize the brevity of life and remind the characters of the fleeting nature of this beauty. If there’s a character who’s forward or robust or who talks too fast, she’s seen as brazen and oafish.

I mentioned the strongly gendered construction of this story before. It was (and remains) very difficult for me to conceive of a culture in which women had literally no agency at all, but such was the case. Toward the end of the novel, a woman with no father to tell her whether to say yes or no to a diffident suitor starves herself to death; it is her only way out of an impossible situation, since she is literally incapable of deciding. (Her sister, luckier, is raped and goes to her more forceful suitor’s household to be a quasi-wife.)

But this brings us to another point. Family — the construction of family — is the main axis around which this novel turns. Genji, made a commoner because he does not have enough court support to become Emperor, builds his own magnificent house of four mansions, with a woman at each corner. This mini-empire of his own is so great, so “shining,” that his death is not the end of the novel: it takes place two-thirds of the way through the book, and his children carry on. The slow dance of finding wives and making the right alliances is crucial to this book, as strange as it sometimes looks to modern readers.

Thanks to all of you who offered help and sustenance along the way. And now you can help me decide what to read next summer…

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16 Responses to The Tale of Genji: Part Two

  1. veraersilia says:

    I want to thank YOU, Jenny, for bringing this famous book into the light for me.
    Because of my past exposure to “exotic” cultures I probably would not find it as strange as you might have, but your analysis is perfect.
    There is another famous book that I bought two years ago but could not keep reading, maybe now I can go back to it and sample it again in view of what you say. The book is The Arabian Nights, known in its reduced form (The thousand and one nights) as children’s fairy tales but not so in its original 14th century text. The book I bought is not reduced, not expurgated, and a recent translation by Husain Haddawy from reconstructed original manuscripts. All very well, but unfortunately I found it boring, repetitious, perhaps simplistic, so I sampled up to the 52nd night and put it on a shelf where it looks decorative. What I failed to do is read it as you did Genji, as a document from another world. I have read about Arabic history and culture, sidetracked into it by reading a lot about medieval European history, and also curious due to the current international situation, so I ought to have been well prepared for it… nevertheless I was not. Now I will take up the Nights again and see what I can find in it – that is why I wanted to thank you.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed these posts — I find it very helpful to see how other people have worked with texts and found the key to them. I wish more people blogged about this.

      Incidentally, I read the Haddawy translation of the Arabian Nights about two or three years ago and loved them. You might try Robert Irwin’s excellent companion volume, which talks about the transmission of the texts, the various authors, the culture, and so on. Really interesting stuff.

  2. vanbraman says:

    Maybe next summer you can read The Water Margin or Monkey: Journey to the West :-). They are similar in that you learn a lot about China’s culture along the way.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve got the five-volume version of Journey to the West on my shelf! After reading Story of the Stone, I thought I’d hold off for a bit, but that’s a good possibility.

  3. This has been a great two-parter.

    As vanbraman says, you have three of the four Great Classical Novels left, although I cannot imagine reading the unabridged Journey to the West, and the outstanding Monkey abridgment is hardly a challenge.

    How about the complete Mahabharata? No, there’s supposed to be a curse on anyone who reads the whole thing. The much shorter Ramayana is safe, and also features a first-rate monkey god. The William Buck or R. K. Narayan retellings are sane alternatives, but again, you lose the heft.

    How about Persian literature? Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the great national epic, was recently translated anew by Dick Davis. This one gets my vote.

    The Haddawy translations of the Arabian Nights are awesome. Repetitious by design, yes, but boy did I not find them boring or simplistic.

    • Jenny says:

      My husband just finished reading the Shahnameh (a birthday present!) and really enjoyed it, so that’s an excellent possibility. He’s reading The Plum in the Golden Vase right now (5 volumes and only 4 have been published — not sure I want to get into that before I’m sure the edition will be completed.) I like the idea of the Ramayana, too. Great suggestions. As I mentioned, I have read the Haddawy translation of the Nights, and was enthralled (wonder if Cervantes read them?). I read the Irwin Companion at the same time, and thought it was good stuff.

  4. Deb says:

    As one of those who advised you to give up, I must say your essay is excellent. I admire how much additional thought you put in to understanding what you read and the necessary perspective to help you read it.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Deb, but your advice to give up was on point and well taken. I often do give up on books I’m not enjoying or that are just plain bad. This was a real exception for me!

  5. Teresa says:

    I’ve been thinking about the idea of reading books like this in the same way that we do fantasy novels because I’m long been an ardent fan of both historical fiction and fantasy fiction, and I think I do read and appreciate them in much the same way, as windows (or perhaps doorways) into worlds that aren’t my own. Whether they’re a window or a door depends, I think, on whether we’re stepping into the world or reading as outsiders, and I can’t decide which I tend to do. Maybe it depends on the book (or how many times I’ve read the book).

    Regarding giving up on books like Genji, I understand what you’re saying about feeling a need to finish, but I think there are also times when giving up on a book like this can also be a respectful choice, if you don’t feel that, for whatever reason, you’re able to give it adequate attention. And the time that you did spend can still be of value as a sample (which was my experience with the abridged Genji I read a couple of years ago). Giving up may not be a matter of liking or disliking, but of deciding that now is not the time.

    • Jenny says:

      I like that window/ door dichotomy. Maybe some books even need a chimney!

      And yes — there are all kinds of legitimate reasons to put down a book, for now or for good, including not clicking with it, not liking it, and simply not having the brain space for it at this time in your life. My decision about Genji was only for me — I mostly wanted to reassure that I wasn’t being completist or stubborn. I might not have liked it much, but I am glad I read it.

  6. cbjames says:

    Excellent post. I’m glad to hear that you finished the entire book! I like Tom’s idea of approaching it as you would a fantasy novel; that’s a helpful suggestion. I just may go back to where I left off and finish reading the book myself.

  7. Hm, I have long wanted to read this book but not wonder if it might be something better read in a class. It seems like the cultural and historical insights a professor brings to a book discussion would be immensely useful here. Don’t know if I’ll have that opportunity so while it’ll remain on my list, I won’t feel quite as tempted to buy it. If I do, I might buy the Cliff’s Notes to go along with it.

  8. Fuxi says:

    Dear Jenny, as an admirer of long, classical novels (including DON QUIJOTE and THE STORY OF THE STONE!) I was sorry to hear that GENJI disappointed you so much. I don’t know if you’d ever want to give it another go, but I am convinced Edward Seidensticker’s translation (from the 1970s) is far more enjoyable than the more recent one by Royall Tyler. I fully understand your review of part I which pointed out that Tyler’s English version can seem impenetrable. So please, on your next trip to the bookstore, take a peep at Seidensticker! (Incidentally, if you’re looking for an excellent commentary, I recommend THE BRIDGE OF DREAMS by Haruo Shirane.)

    • Jenny says:

      I’m sorry you came away with the impression that I was disappointed. Far from it! I had a lot of trouble understanding Genji from a cultural perspective, but in the end I was profoundly glad I had read it. I took a great deal away from it, and I am enriched by it.

      Thank you for the recommendation of the Seidensticker translation. If I decide to reread Genji in the future, I’ll look into that one.

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