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…