The Tale of Genji [Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Royall Tyler]

“You must answer him,” the young ladies’ father explained, “although you should avoid any hint of courtship.  That would just incite him more.  He is a Prince much given to gallantry, and no doubt he has little intention of letting the matter rest now that he knows you are here.”  His younger daughter was the one who wrote each time, at his urging; the elder was too prudent to engage in any such banter”

The Tale of Genji, or eleven hundred pages of weeping and sighing, plus a thorough introduction, maps, plans of houses, general glossary, glossary of titles, explanation of colours and chronology. This is an epic piece of work by the original author, and again by Royall Tyler.  Don’t get me wrong, I am aware of the cultural significance of what is considered the worlds first novel, widely accepted as having been ‘completed’ in it’s current form by 1021, but it seems unfair almost, to review it as a novel.  There is no plot as such, just a chronicle of court life over a period of time, the first two thirds concentrating on the shining Prince, Genji, before a blank chapter indicates his passing, and the tale continues, yet the characters and times never quite live up to the grandeur of when he was alive.

I would be interested to know how many of the events were actual happenings, and what sprang from the authors imagination, because while not a novel, this is an extraordinary work that beautifully evokes court life in Japan, with it’s festivals, appointments, traditions, competitions and almanacs. The playful days of the gentleman, playing music, contemplating the blossoms and women, not always in that order, are wonderfully described and capture the strict formal nature of Japanese society at the time.  It’s here that I should mention the encyclopaedic translation by Royall Tyler. He keeps the original manuscripts tradition of naming everyone by their title, there are Majesties, Excellencies, eminence’s, highness’s and ranks of the left and right, who change roles as the story progresses (today’s Excellency of the Left, could be next chapters Excellency of the Right).  But perhaps rather than illustrate my lack of mental dexterity (I was forever checking the beginning of the chapter to remind myself who was who), I should compliment Lady Murasaki for rarely making mistakes (Indeed those that have been highlighted are in the later chapters, thought by some to have been written by someone else, possibly Murasaki’s daughter, Daini no Samni).

Tyler also provides notes throughout the text and, impressively, provides explanations on the Tanka style poems that feature prominently throughout, and even references the original poem the character is riffing on or referring to.  Such depth reveals how much of a labour of love this must have been for Tyler to Translate, it is a definitive translation.

“The light I saw fill the dewdrops adorning then a twilight beauty
was nothing more than a trick of the day’s last fading gleam!”

While the woman lament their lot throughout the book in the end it is the men that somehow cut the more tragic figures.  They copiously weep as much as the women, and after unashamedly chasing the object of their desire, once they have them, they are housed like a collection of fine ornaments. In the rare occurrence they fail in their courting, they either weep themselves to illness or move on as soon as they hear a new swish of silks.  It seems that men have little changed over the past thousand years, although there is probably less weeping.  Gentlewomen are either outrageously complicit with the men or fiercely maternal, commoners are usually uncouth or boorish, or once even described as weeds, I longed for just one chapter about a common family, but no, that would be a different book.

There were times when I didn’t think it would end, and incredibly when it does end, it is mid chapter, if not mid sentence.  While Arthur Waley, who did the first translation in english, believed that it was finished, Edward Seidensticker, who made the second translation believed that Murasaki would not have constructed a story with an ending, but simply would have carried on writing. The chronological style of the tale leaves me agreeing with him.

Liz Dalby, from the LA Times book review is quoted as saying “One of those works that can be read and reread throughout ones life” I can only assume that she has an excessive amount of free time or is planning to live for a good long while, for while I am glad to have read it, I think the once will be enough for me.

With his heart too full for sleep, he anxiously awaited dawn

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