Last night, after five long months, I finally finished reading The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部). It has been a long slog, but ultimately worth it, I think.
Part of the problem was that I was reading the Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of the book on my Kindle. The Kindle is great – it meant I didn’t have to carry around a 1,224-page paperback – but it has its frustrations, especially when you’re reading a book with 100s of footnotes in each chapter, a complicated Imperial court structure to keep track of, and characters who are rarely referred to by name and whose nicknames seem to change from page to page. If I’d been reading the paperback, I could have flipped easily from where I was in the novel to the chronology, character lists and family trees elsewhere in the book. As it was, trying to do the same on the Kindle became more trouble than it was worth, so I had to re-read parts of the book to try to keep track of what was going on. That sort of thing slows even the fastest reader down!
I read the book because I’d previously read (and re-read, it’s so good) The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Crihfield Dalby. This is an imagining of Murasaki’s life as she writes The Tale of Genji, based on Murasaki’s own diary, court records from her time at the Imperial court and Dalby’s expositions on what might have inspired the tales Murasaki included in her novel. The snippets of Genji that Dalby includes in the book made me want to read the whole thing.
I started, however, with a Dover Thrift edition, which covers only the first 9 chapters of the novel. Just enough to whet your appetite for the adventures of that charming Shining Lord. My next encounter with Genji was one of the Kodansha bilingual comics series, which I picked up in the International Manga Museum in Kyoto, thinking that I could practise some kanji and hiragana reading.
It was on our trips to Uji, though, that I realised there was much, much more to the story. As I’ve already blogged about, on our first trip, we visited the Tale of Genji Museum, which was more an art installation than a museum. Here we were guided along an audio trail that introduced the story and its context, seeing dioramas and video installations, culminating in a short film based on the ten “Uji Chapters” at the end of the novel. Walking through the city, too, we saw references to these later chapters, including a statue by the river at the point where one of the characters in the “Uji Chapters” tries to drown herself.
And so it was that, as soon as I got my Kindle, I bought the Kindle version of the full and unabridged translation of the novel.
From an historical and cultural perspective, it’s a really interesting book. It is often referred to as the first novel, the first modern novel, and even the first psychological novel. For someone interested in Japanese history and the culture of the Heian era, it reveals a lot about hierarchy and attitudes to women. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman living in those times, rich or poor! By all accounts, Murasaki wasn’t that thrilled with her lot, either.
What comes through in the novel is that the court noblemen led a charmed existence. They had their pick of women. Marriages were arranged to strengthen alliances and garner court promotions and possibly even lead to one of the children of the marriage ultimately reigning as the Emperor or his consort. Women had little say in their fate, although some of the characters in the novel find ways of wresting some form of control from the system, whether through raising children to their own principles, withdrawing from society to become nuns, or ending their own lives.
The main male characters in the novel, Shining Genji and To no Chujo in the first 41 chapters, and Kaoru and Niou no Miya in the last 13, are supposed to be romantic heroes, looked upon by all who come into contact with them with awe and wonder. They are handsome, fragranced, cultured and desirable. They make strategic marriages, and then toy with the affections and blight the lives of numerous additional women. I found it difficult to warm to them, and this was possibly another reason it took me so long to read the novel. There were times when I became so angry with the lives the women were leading, and their treatment at the hands of men, that I had to put the book down.
The strongest female characters are probably Aoi (Genji’s first wife, who is portrayed as being cold and unforgiving of Genji’s “adventures”, when actually she had been forced to marry someone she did not know and quickly came to dislike because of his lack of interest in her), Murasaki (Genji’s second wife, chosen because she looked like his step-mother, with whom he had fallen in love at an early age and whose life he ruined by engineering a sexual encounter with her that left her pregnant), and Ukifune (the illegitimate and unrecognised daughter of a prince who became a monk, a lady who resembled Kaoru’s unrequited love and became the centre of a tug-of-passion between Kaoru and Niou no Miya, resulting in her suicide attempt in the waters of the Uji River).
There are other women in the supporting cast, gentlewomen who wait on the noblewomen who have to suffer the indignities foisted on them by ardent men. These gentlewomen sometimes work to protect their ladies, but more often than not they conspire with the men, badgering their mistresses not to be so foolish as to resist the advances of these prize catches. Many also have to put up with not-always-desired attentions from the same men.
There are also strange undercurrents of paedophilia running through the novel. On more than one occasion, one of the male characters comes across a young boy or a young girl who charms them with their beauty and innocence, and they are enticed to spend the night. There is nothing specifically said anywhere in the novel about sexual relations, but the veiled language used to describe nights spent with eligible young women and nights spent with children are sometimes disturbingly similar. Both Genji and Kaoru spend the night with the younger brothers of women they are not having much luck with, primarily because they resemble the women so much. Perhaps these passages made me feel uncomfortable because, quite rightly, in my culture sleeping with children because you are attracted to them is wrong.
From my 21st Century Western perspective, I became very tired of the patriarchal and misogynist ways of the Heian court. I know that you shouldn’t project the social mores of your own culture onto one that existed so long ago, in such a different society, but still – there was no romantic glow about Japanese culture from reading this book. Not for me, anyway.
It has, however, spurred me on to read Murasaki’s diary of her time at the Imperial court. But not just yet. I think I need some Swedish crime to leaven the impact of Murasaki’s novel on my psyche!