The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, trans. by Edward G. Seidensticker

The entire Tale of Genji is very long indeed, 54 chapters, and this is an abridgement consisting of twelve chapters, sort of an introductory Tale.  I had this copy around the house and I figured I'd read it, and then if I really loved it I could read the whole thing someday.

Murasaki was a lady of the Heian Japanese court in the very early 1000s; it's thought that she died in 1015, before the age of forty.  She wrote most of the Tale--we think--but a few of the chapters were probably added later on.

Murasaki Shikibu was not her real name.  Shikibu was her father's office, and Murasaki is a designation taken either from a character in the book or based on a poetic image.  She was a member of the Fujiwara family, which was massive and powerful, but she belonged to a minor, less eminent branch.  In the Heian court, it was not polite to use the actual names of ladies (except princesses and imperial consorts), and so they all had other designations.  This makes for a bit of a stumbling block in the novel itself--for the modern reader anyway--where major female characters are called things like Aoi or the lady of the evening faces.

The novel is a romance telling the story of the life of Genji, a young man of the court.  He is the son of the Emperor, but only by a concubine, and his father makes him a commoner.  Genji is wonderfully handsome and clever, and he has many romances, but they mostly go wrong; the lady dies, or rejects him, or he gets bored.  His ideal lady is his stepmother, Fujitsobu, with whom he also has an affair, and she bears him a son who later becomes Emperor.  Genji meets a little girl aged ten, Murasaki, and becomes fascinated with her; she is Fujitsubo's niece.  Amazingly, he actually abducts her and treats her as a daughter, raising her to become his ideal.  Later, they marry.  The story revolves around Genji's affairs and the life of the court.

It was often difficult for me to remember that, for the most part, Genji cannot actually see the ladies he is visiting--at least until he enters their chambers for a tryst.  He talks with them through screens, usually in the dark, and is judging them by bits of robe that peek out, by voice quality, and most often by their poetry and writing techniques.  Brush writing, as well as the paper and tie, is tremendously important here, and no letter or poem goes unremarked.  The writing always has mood and quality:
It was on heavy Michinoku paper.  The hand, though casual, was strong and distinguished.
She wrote well, but a pleasant girlishness remained.

Poetry is scattered throughout.  Everyone writes poems to each other, and Genji is an exceptional poet.  They constantly refer to other famous poems in conversation and in their own poetry, and Murasaki frequently alludes to poems in her descriptions as well.

This is a portrait of an incredibly civilized society.  Everyone is cultured, refined, and mannerly.  It's a leisured society, and so they spend their time writing poetry, conversing, and having emotional/aesthetic experiences; when Genji dances, everyone has tears in their eyes because it's so beautiful.  Poetry, scenery, or the mood of a solitary evening will also evoke tears of emotion.   Events occur with much ceremony, and every detail is significant.  They're all wearing court dress, which consisted of many-layered silk robes.  It's all just amazingly refined.

Of course, they're mostly all very wealthy, too, which is how they get the time to have lots of aesthetic experiences.  It's not usually emphasized.  Murasaki would not have bothered to mention that everyone is surrounded by servants all the time, so the modern reader has to remember, or it gets surprising when a passage makes it obvious:
Not wishing to attract attention, he had some ten outrunners, men who had long been in his service, and his guards were in subdued livery.  He had dressed with great care.  His more perceptive men saw how beautifully the melancholy scene set him off, and he was having regrets that he had not made the journey often.
Yes, a palanquin with only guards and ten runners will be able to pass unnoticed.

I think this accurately describes the novel:
Her soft voice, trailing off into silence, was very pleasing.  He sighed, almost wishing it were not the case that each of his ladies had something to recommend her.  It made for a most complicated life.

Verdict: while I did enjoy reading Genji, it got pretty repetitive with the affairs.  I'm not sure I need to read the whole thing.


  1. So this is where the weird Japanese obsession with semi-incestuous relationships comes from? I've always wondered about why so many animes have step/adopted parent/sibling/child relationships.

  2. I dunno--the fact that it's in this story might just mean that the idea has really deep roots.

  3. I think the draw for me to a book like this would be more the historical and cultural aspect. I'm particularly interested in knowing more about the author and her own story.

  4. That's tricky, since she lived 900 years ago, but we do know a bit more than I put in my post. :) Not much, though.


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