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Book Review: Reading The Tale of Genji

By (December 11, 2015) No Comment

Reading The Tale of Genji:reading the tale of genji

Sources from the First Millennium

edited by Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane

Columbia University Press

Recent years have been glorious ones for English-language readers when it comes to the eleventh-century epic Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, written by a well-born court lady under the pen name of Murasaki Shikibu. Those monoglot readers already had the sturdy Bloomsbury intricacies of the Arthur Waley translation, and to that inimitable performance were added equally impressive and far more accurate translations by Edward Seidensticker, Royall Tyler, and, just this year, Dennis Washburn. It’s nothing like the profusion of options such readers have when choosing, for instance, which version of the Bible or Homer’s Iliad to read, but for a huge Japanese novel from a thousand years ago, it’s an abundance that must make equally-old but hardly-translated-at-all classics like the Konjaku monogatarishu weep quietly over warm sake.

And yet, for all such riches, The Tale of Genji has sailed through the sea of its admirers very much as a grand solo vessel. Various introductory essays by translators over the years might give a hint as to the novel’s reception over the centuries of its long life, but not all those introductions combined could prepare the uninitiated Western reader for the sheer scope and obsessive joy of that reception – until now, that is, with the appearance of an absolutely invaluable volume from Columbia University Press, Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium, in which editors Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane bring together a wide range of critical responses to Genji, most of them translated into English for the first time.

Those responses span a millennium, from sections from the diary of Murasaki Shikibu (and sections from the writings of her far more chatty contemporary, Sei Shonagon) in 1010 all the way to 1925, with a review of the Waley translation by Virginia Woolf, typically alert for even those nuances that might be lost on the well-meaning but sausage-fingered translator (of Murasaki Shikibu: “But the essence of her charm lies deeper far than cranes and chrysanthemums …”). The bulk of the book’s selections come from the protracted and extremely energetic commentaries of the Middle Ages, when the Genji slowly transformed from being considered a book “by a woman, for women, and about women” to being seen as something far grander. Our editors introduce each selection to give the reader quick overviews of helpful context, keeping in mind the whole time that the entire enterprise is built, as Lady Murasaki would say, on shifting sands:

Commentary, then, is a very mixed bag. It presumes, in the first place, that you have a text of Genji on your desk alongside it and that you will immediately apply its comments to that text. Then, too, commentary is almost never neutral. It intends not only to remove obstacles to the understanding of the text to which it applies, but often to lead the reader to a “proper” understanding of that text – an understanding that may go beyond what the author actually states but that the commentator feels certain she must have meant.

Those long-ago commentators were themselves well aware of the slippery nature of their business; they’re forever warning their readers not to backslide into earlier, weaker interpretations. Fujiwara no Shunzei, writing his Fu Hikaru Genji monogatari shi (Sino-Japanese Poems on the Tale of the Shining Genji) in 1290 and operating by the axiom that “to compose poetry without having read Genji is inexcusable,” knows his readers will be tempted by the book’s almost surreal beauty, and he wants to remind them that it’s also serious: “The Tale of the Shining Genji is a profound text of our nation,” he writes, “If you skim it and know little about it, you may consider it a playful toy, but if you ponder it and study it well, you will take it as the foundation of devoted learning.”

Most of the selections in this volume are so wonderfully enthusiastic (and so clearly translated) that the reader will want them to be longer, to keep going, to expand into the entire long books from which they’re excerpted. This is the ultimate goal of every anthology, or should be, and yet so few of them ever come close to achieving it. Perhaps the most powerfully evocative example is the bit taken from the Genji monogatari Tama no ogushi (The Tale of Genji: A Little Jeweled Comb), a 1799 book by Motoori Norinaga that our editors rightly call “one of the most original works of criticism in the history of Japanese literature.” The chunk of Motoori Noirnaga’s book is so good it feels far too short, and even the editorial introduction to this author’s work is superb:

His insistence that Genji is a work of mono no aware – written only to depict the varieties of human emotion (mono no aware), to acquaint the reader with the workings of human emotions (mono no aware o shirashimuru koto), and to depict people who are deeply sensitive to human emotions (mono no aware o shiru hito) – is often linked to counterclaims concerning what Genji is not. Genji is not a moral homily written to illustrate Buddhist or Confucian moral principles. Genji is not a guide to good governance. Genji is not a tale of moral dissolution to be kept out of the hands of impressionable young boys and girls. Genji is not a seditious work, depicting a taint to the imperial line of the sort that should never even be contemplated, let alone mentioned. These claims are a refreshing antidote to the views of Genji often voiced in the medieval commentaries that Norinaga so deplores.

All great books create their own libraries, spurring discussions between devotees, dissertations from the learned, long and ardent diary entries, angry exchanges of letters to the editor, and, every so often, books like this one about the discussions themselves, thoroughly invigorating anatomies of how we study what we love. Reading The Tale of Genji opens windows into critical worlds very few English-reading will have guessed even existed, exposing them to new views and visions of the big book they adore. And the whole time, on sails the great Genji.