Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Royall Tyler Translation Shown
"The Tale of Genji" is a great book for someone seeking a reading challenge.   It takes courage to dive into an 11th century Japanese text, especially one that is 1184 pages and often referred to as the world’s first novel (though many consider “Ochikubo Monogatari” as the first ever).  As with most epics, I had to change my daily life schedule to complete it.  It’s difficult to imagine what my life will now be like without spending every spare moment reading 'The Tale of Genji' to make my deadline for the book club (January 25th).  I read 150 pages per week for 8 weeks, and that’s a pretty good clip for me these days for a work that is not a particularly easy read. 

I read the first complete English translation by Edward Seidensticker (Arthur Waley’s translation in 1960 was one chapter short of completion), completed in 1976.  The only other version that I have heard of is the one by Royall Tyler, and there were a few in our book club that read his 2001 version.  I read bits and pieces of each, and I must say that I preferred the Seindensticker one.  The Tyler translation has a concise summary of what happens by Chapter, and the relative age of both Genji and Kaoru (his rumored son) by Chapter.  It also has a character list by chapter and the Penguin edition has maps and some lovely illustrations.  My text was nothing but text, but I found the prose less modern (something I prefer when reading older works).  It was also very helpful because of the way in which Seidensticker stuck to concrete naming conventions, which I found essential in a book which contains more than 400 characters with various names and titles referenced for identification.

Here’s a note on translations from an customer, which I found helpful:

“A longtime admirer of Murasaki Shikibu's exceptional work, I fell in love with Genji first through Arthur Waley's translation, which made this admittedly exotic novel accessible to non-Japanese readers. Curious to know more about the Heian period and culture, I acquired Ivan Morris's tremendously helpful and readable "The World of the Shining Prince." Then I discovered Edward Seidensticker's superb rendering of "The Tale of Genji," and have read and re-read that version with deepening understanding and enjoyment. Seidensticker, while presumably adhering closer to the language of the original (which even modern Japanese find difficult to read), gave us a translation which is perfumed by the sensuous beauty of what must have been a truly refined and special time and place (albeit a very limited one).

Now comes Royall Tyler's superb effort, which comes with myriad and very helpful details: each chapter starts with an explanation of the chapter title, how the section relates to previous chapters and the cast of characters. There are also generous appendices including a chronology of events in the novel and a glossary. Line drawings throughout the two volumes (also present in Seidensticker) provide helpful visual clues as to dress and architecture. Tyler's effort seems even closer to the original language, and thereby lies the problem.

This version unnecessarily burdens the reader with ever-changing nomenclature. Since in the original characters are known by their rank-names, and Tyler (mostly) adheres to this usage, the reader is challenged to keep up with the changes. Put the book down for a day or two and you will feel quite lost for several minutes when you restart. As an aide, the translator does provide footnotes to clue you in, but this just makes things more awkward and tedious. For example, at the start of Chapter 43, "Red Plum Blossom" in Tyler's version: "There was in those days a gentleman known as the Inspector Grand Counselor, the late Chancellor's second son, hence the younger brother of the Intendant of the Watch (1)" This same sentence in Seidensticker reads: "Kobai, the oldest surviving son of the late To no Chujo, was now Lord Inspector." How much more to the point!

To conclude, while Tyler's translation is awesome in its scholarship and abundant detail (including sources of the poetry), it is also much less readable. To my mind, the scholarship gets in the way of the story telling. I found myself longing for my Seidensticker at many turns as I went dutifully through the Tyler. Aside from providing a more continuous flow to the story, I also found that Seidensticker's translation of the many poems in the tale more comprehensible and lyrical. If you are new to this literary masterpiece, you will find the Waley translation the most accessible. If you get hooked on the work, you will probably want the other two. If you must have only one version, however, go with Seidensticker.”

That’s a lot on translators – so now on to the work itself.


The Tale of Genji chronicles the life of Hikaru Genji (‘Shining Genji’), a man born to the Emperor Kiritsubo and a low ranking concubine.  His mother dies when Genji is three and we watch as Genji grows up and eventually learns about the opposite sex.  The emperor finds a woman named Fujitsubo who strongly resembles Genji’s deceased mother and Genji falls in love with her.  Because the relationship is forbidden/taboo, Genji attempts to forget of her and has a series of misplaced affairs with various women, many of whom he takes into his household.  When he finds a 10 year old girl in the mountains name Murasaki, he is infatuated with her and brings her home against her parents/guardians wishes.  Murasaki, sometimes believed to be a representation of the author, becomes Genji’s true love as she grows into a woman.  He finds that he loves her more as she gets older, until her eventual death.  Genji lives with many ups and downs due to his relationships which include infatuation, affairs, marriage and death of lovers… in addition to many offspring (although, he never really feels like he’s had enough children).   Genji dies at the end of chapter 41 (the last eight years of his life are not recorded), which is about 800 pages into the novel and the remaining 400 pages or so is all about Kaoru, who is believed to be the son of Genji and one of his wives… but is truly the son of Kashiwagi and Genji’s wife. 

The books ends before the ending of the story – when Kaoru finds that a woman he loves, Ukifune, is still alive a year after her believed suicide.  When he sends a messenger in to talk with her in the nunnery in which she’s staying, she refuses to talk to him.  So ends the work.

2000 Yen Note with Murasaki Shikibu
Many readers of this book are going to be disappointed in the fact that the plot is pretty sparse given the length of the work.  There is no doubt that it could have used a strong editor, but in ancient works it’s hard to fault authors for the lack of editing.  We’re really not sure if Murasaki Shikibu wrote the entire work or there were various authors that contributed.  According to Wikipedia:
Yosano Akiko, the first author to make a modern translation of the Genji, believed that Murasaki Shikibu had only written chapters 1 to 33, and that chapters 35 to 54 were written by her daughter Daini no Sanmi. Other scholars have also doubted the authorship of chapters 42 to 54 (particularly 44, which contains rare examples of continuity mistakes).

According to Royall Tyler's introduction to his English translation of the work, recent computer analysis has turned up "statistically significant" discrepancies of style between chapters 45–54 and the rest, and also among the early chapters.

There is also a lot of discussion on when Shikibu wrote this work – which leads to contrary opinions on if the character Murasaki is based on the author herself (alluded to above).

Since this book is written to chronicle normal lifestyle events of the upper class Japanese, the reader is able to learn quite a bit about a time period that would otherwise be unknown to us (~11th century Japan).  We’re able to learn about much about ancient Japanese culture including fine art, music, marriage customs, festivals and celebrations, communication methodologies, living arrangements, courting and poetry.

There are many two line poems in this work, involving nature/the seasons, music, love, tears (I call this one out separately because it is very prevalent), etc.  Poems, especially those between a man courting a woman, are written on various shades of coloured paper, all of which have different meanings.  Some notes are attached to plum tree, wisteria, or cherry blossom branches, etc.  The poems and the hand in which the notes are written, both tell a lot about the education and character of the writer which is essential when you cannot see the person you are pursuing (of course, all men in this society do all in their power to get a glimpse of a woman prior to courtship).  Most women live within inner chambers and are not visible to anyone other than their servants.    

Characters in the work, as mentioned above, are often alluded to by the places by which they’re from or titles that they possess.  The locations of their origin seem to stick with characters throughout the work.  However, if there are multiple main characters from the place then it sometimes gets confusing when differentiating between “the Akashi lady”, “the Akashi nun” and “the Akashi princess.”  When a character is named after a title such as the “Minister of the Right”, the character may eventually lose the title and therefore you have to remember that the next “Minister of the Right” is someone different altogether.  Also, many times princesses are referred to as the “first princess” or the “second princess” in birth order, but there may be multiple second princesses since there are multiple emperors.  In short, it’s hard to keep track of characters sometimes even with a strong translator who puts emphasis on character names.  I would not advise putting down the book for two weeks without reading it, as you’d lose some of the continuity in the story or recognition of character names.

Most of the characters I couldn’t relate to.  Genji was overdramatic and promiscuous and it was really hard to get behind him.  I did fall in love with Murasaki.  She continued to grow as a person, and while she never accepted Genji’s promiscuous ways she learned to make the best of a bad situation and was still able to love him and be a strong individual personality amidst a collectivist regime.  Kaoru was also one of the most noble characters and he always tried to live life with a strong moral integrity, despite his actions working against him in many ways.  He was one of the only characters that held firm to love so strongly that you could not consider it a passing infatuation.  He didn’t appear to be built to live without love.

‘The Tale of Genji’ was not an easy read.  The prose was very manageable, but the length of the work, the reoccurrence of many of the same plot elements over time and the lack of relatable characters made it a novel where you really had to focus and put effort into reading it.  That said, I find myself upset that the tale is over and no longer a part of my life.  I’m itching for an ending that will most likely never be known.  I’m glad I persevered through this (only one other in my book club finished), and the more I think about the novel the more I’m glad that I allowed myself to experience it.


Bookish Hobbit said...

I have been wanting to read this book for awhile. Although due to its length I've been putting off getting it until I get through some of my own books. Japanese culture fascinates me I must confess so I'm sure I would appreciate those parts of the book.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) said...

I have to admire you for completing this one, it defeated me - though having read the notes about the different translations, I think I'd have had better luck with your translation rather than Taylor. Like you say, he was too "pure" and the footnotes were both helpful and distracting - and sometimes not helpful at all.

Keeping track of the characters was especially hard, and a lot of the times they were simply pronouns - or none at all, so you had no idea who was being referred to, so your brain was preoccupied in trying to figure that out and you'd have to re-read passages and whole pages! Not easy to read when you have a baby.

I have to say I'm disappointed to hear that the whole book is pretty much just Genji shagging his way around the country. I always thought it was much more of an epic adventure story.

Jessica said...

hm I'm making my way through Clarissia at the moment but I quite like getting through these epic tomes every so often. I also thought this novel had more of a 'plot' but then Clarissia doesnt have much of one either but it still works.

Thanks for the review

Rebecca Reid said...

Oh no.... my copy is the Royall Tyler edition! I got it at a Borders closing sale and was so excited...Sounds like the other translation is much better. Ah well.

I really loved reading THE PILLOW BOOK a few years ago. It's a journal written by a contemporary of Murasaki, sounds like a completely different feel. But none the less, I've been excited to experience this book as well, since the era was so interesting in Sei shonagon's journal was so fascinating.

I'm impressed with your book club choices. How big is your book club? How did you get started? Do you always choose ancient classics?

I ask because I lead a classics book group at my library, mostly 1700s and 1800s and early 1900s classics. It took more than a year to get a larger group of people, and some months we still only have about 4 or 5 people there. I love it though! I'd love to branch out into the older classics too.

Eclectic Indulgence said...

Hey RR,
Sei shonagon?

Bookclub is between 8-10 people and I started it with a few friends and then advertised online to expand. We always read the ancient classics now, are trying to go in order of some of the most prominent clascis.

The list is here... let me know if there is anything you think we've missed prior to 1500 or so.

Rebecca Reid said...

Here are a few I didn't see on your to read or already read list for the old stuff. I have an infinite supply of to read classics that are newer than 1500. :)

Ancient Greeks/Romans:
* Sophocles -- The Three Theban plays
* Euripides -- I've only read Medea and Hippolytus but there are a dozen left that I've heard great things about. Not sure which is the "best" of his.
* Aristophanes -- haven't read any by him but unlike the other ancient Greek dramatists, these are COMEDIES. Lysistrata is the one I have heard most about.
* Aristotle -- Poetics is short and sweet and somewhat relevant.

Other Ancient: Gilgamesh (2500 BCE or so)

Middle Ages:
* Beowulf (9th century England)
* Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1300s? England)
* The Decameron by Boccaccio; 1300 CE Italy)
* Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (1400s England) I've heard this is really hard to get through...

* The Bhagavad Gita (India, 300 CE)
* The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (Japan, 1000 CE; nonfiction journal of female lady in waiting)
* Poetry of Rumi (Persia, 1000 CE)
* Tales from the Arabian Nights (1400 CE Persia), I liked the Husain Haddawy edition
* The Art of War by Sun Zu (China 200 BCE)

I am not as familiar with non-Western ancient classics, but maybe this is a start :)

I wish I could join your book group, what a great list of books you have!

Rebecca Reid said...

oops, wrong link.

jack ny said...

i do not consider Tale of Genji a hard book. After completing Ulysses and In search of lost time, i only find modernist novels and mid 20th century novels difficult, the classics are really easy after that.

but while it is easy to read, it is hard to concentrate, sometimes I get so bored, sometimes troubled. Tale of Genji is one of the most troublesome novels I've read. With all those high flying praise and the title, I expected to love Genji. And what a hipocritical womanizer, who is again and again refered to as handsome ( almost 200 times across the book), i found the first 10 chapters so tiresome, spending 3 hours to read each and 3 more to try to recollect what interested me, what moved me, what motivated to men and women (who i think dont love the men but love their sex)

i expected court life to be much stricter, and here the emperor is more often cuckolded than a farmer of the 19th century, and the son is such a horndog.

The characterization is so praised, I find it middle-brow, compared to that great Asian novel, Dream of Red Chamber.

Anyway, like watching a movie or listening to an album, i am always vulnerable to reviews. I'm trying really hard to see what i've missed, why the book is so good to some. maybe my patience will be rewarded, i dont know.