I admit it. I cheated. I read an abridged version of The Tale of Genji. In my defense, it was partly an accident. I picked this up at the Green Valley Book Fair last week without realizing it was an abridged edition because it doesn’t say so on the cover (grumble, grumble). As it happens, my knowledge of Japanese literature is strong enough to tell me the Genji is an important work, but not strong enough to tell me that it’s also crazy long. (And yes, the all the posts related to the readalong last year should have been a clue, but I forgot about it because I do tend to tune these things out if I’m not participating or haven’t read the book.)
When I realized that I had an abridged version, I was irritated, but then I remembered that some classic works really should be shorter, so maybe an abridged version wouldn’t be a bad thing. With that in mind, I decided to treat this short version as a taster. I figured that if I love it, I can still indulge in the full meal someday. If not, I’ll at least have gotten a taste.
Sometimes called the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji was written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman of the court of the Heian Empress Akiko. The complete text comprises 54 chapters, but the version I read was the 1882 translation by Kenchō Suematsu, which only includes the first 17 chapters. So I guess you could say that I’ve read about a third of the book in what is perhaps an inferior translation.
The novel tells of the life and loves of Genji, the son of a fictional Japanese emperor. Genji is all about the ladies. When he even hears about a woman, he wants to know all about her. After providing a bit of background into Genji’s origins, the novel dives right into the tale of Genji’s womanizing ways. It doesn’t take long to see that Genji has a one-track mind, and he’s not particularly discriminating—young, old, rich, poor, pretty, not-so-pretty, likable, dull—he likes them all, even the ones he claims not to like. (Mostly I think he likes the conquest; well, that and the sex.)
My reaction to Genji’s rapacious lust alternated between disgust and amusement. I really didn’t like the guy, but he’s so out-of-control that I couldn’t feel outrage about it. I think this is partly because of how Shikibu slyly pokes at the ridiculousness of his constant flitting from one woman to another. Here, for example, we see Genji’s thought process as he leaves the home of a (scandalously) young woman he wants to take into his care (read: groom into the perfect lover). After months of pressing for family for their permission to take her, he’s finally seeing a glimmer of hope:
“Can it be,” thought he, “that I am leaving this place as a lover?” At that moment, he remembered that the house of a maiden with whom he had had an acquaintance was on his way home.
This is typical of how Genji’s mind operates. Always looking for the next friendly bed, without so much as a break in between.
Although I was sometimes amused by Genji’s antics, had the book continued in this vein, I would have lost interest. The many ladies, as well as Genji’s conspirators and friends and political enemies, were overwhelming; and the plot felt episodic with little character development or narrative drive. Just one thing after another.
Fortunately, the story eventually took a turn. We start getting more insight into the women in Genji’s life, and Genji himself eventually must face the consequences of his actions. And, in a nifty trick, Shikibu actually made me feel conflicted about some of those consequences. Genji doesn’t exactly reform, at least not by the end of chapter 17, but he does evolve, which is enough for me.
The book is peppered with bits of poetry, usually notes Genji exchanges with his romantic prospects, and this is an area where I think my translation was a problem. I know very little about Japanese poetry, but apparently the poems in Genji are examples of tanka, which are probably not best translated as rhyming quatrains:
Oh, could I find some wizard sprite,
To bear my words to her I love,
Beyond the shades of envious night,
To where she dwells in realms above!
Gag. Retch. Ick. Now I don’t mind rhyme and meter, but I don’t like greeting-card verse. Otherwise, I thought the translation was perfectly fine, other than being incomplete. It read like 19th-century prose, because it is 19th-century prose. That’s not a huge barrier to understanding for me because I read so much from that period, but for something so long and so far outside my usual comfort zone, I might prefer a style geared more toward the modern reader.
After getting a taste with this short edition, I’m interested enough in Genji’s world to want to read the whole thing someday. It may take me years to get around to it, but I can see from the first 17 chapters that it would be worth it. So I leave with a question for those of you who have read Genji: Any translation recommendations for me? It seems like the Tyler and the Seidensticker are the most commonly read versions. From a quick perusal of the first couple of pages online it looks like the Seidensticker is the most readable, which does seem important in a book this long. But I’m open to suggestions.