The Diary of Lady Murasaki [Lady Murasaki with introduction from Richard Bowring]

So the Tale of Genji brought me to this, I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on the list, and a diary by it’s author, Lady Murasaki – ‘an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shoshi‘ was enough to entice me.

It’s a slim volume, and indeed in the introduction by Richard Bowring, it is general consensus that the diary as I was holding in my hands is fragments of what it was.  Which is a shame because it would have been a beautiful piece of history as a whole.  Instead we are left to mere speculation for a lot of parts, including as to why the tone changes from a journal style to that of a letter written to an intimate.

Indeed the theories for this are expounded in the thorough introduction which covers Japanese names and dates, cultural background, language and style, poetry, religious background, architecture, dress and women’s titles.
The biography of Murasaki’s life is interesting and does it’s best to patch together the little of what is known about Mursaki (her real name, for example, is not known).

The diary itself is given extensive analysis, in it’s structure, evidence of additional parts, and it’s date of composition.
All this means by the time you reach the diary itself, you are wondering just what it will contain, even after glimpses of it given as examples.  In some cases, certainly for a casual reader, you would be forgiven for wondering if it was worth it.

There is no doubt that historically the diary is crucial, but while reading it it is difficult not to get bogged down in Names, titles (I particularly liked Yorimichi’s – Commander of the Gate Guards of the Left), footnotes ( a necessity, given the word play on some of the witty poetry exchanges) and the flicking to the appendix to see the ground layouts during the different days festivities.
However, when the diary switches to that of a letter, there are some fascinating insights:

“It is very easy to criticise others but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets this truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless and generally despises others that one’s own character is clearly revealed”
(About the women in the High Priestess’s household)

The poetry is beautiful and I delighted in the sparring nature of their composition

“The sight of him, so magnificent, makes me conscious of my own dishevelled appearance, and so when he presses me for a poem, I use it as an excuse to move to where my inkstone is kept

Now I see the colour of this maiden-flower in bloom
I know how much the dew discriminates against me

‘Quick aren’t we!’ says he with a smile and asks for my brush

It is not the dew that chooses where to fall
Does not the flower choose the colour that it desires?” 

 There is a strong melancholy running through the diary that Mursaki hints at

“As day dawned, I looked outside and saw the ducks playing about on the lake as if they had not a care in the world.

Can I remain indifferent to those birds on the water?
I too am floating in a sad uncertain world.

They too looked as though they were enjoying life but must suffer greatly, I thought”

At the end of the two years covered by the diary, an important son has been born and festivities and ceremonies have been observed and documented, including details of the colours worn by the women at court and the roles played by different nobles and servents.  However it seems that a full diary would have put this into context of Murasaki’s own life, which despite being written by her hand, seems just out of reach.

Still I believe any inadequacies in the book will have been brought by myself, indeed it seems a bit silly wishing for more of the diary, when we are indeed lucky to have what we do, but perhaps it’s not something for a casual reader, or perhaps if I had a much stronger interest in Japanese history and culture I would have enjoyed it much more than I did.
It has however encouraged me to read the Tale of Genji sooner rather than later, so it looks like I will be following Murasaki’s hand once more.


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