The Tale of Genji

by Murasaki Shikibu

English translation by Arthur Waley

‘At the court of an emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, though she was not of very high rank was favored far beyond all the rest.’

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For a reader in the West, The Tale of Genji is a both fascinating and a challenging work – fascinating because it affords a picture of a time and a culture of which we know so very little – rich, splendid, artistic, deeply religious (many would argue superstitious) and ritualistic. Moreover, for the Western reader of Murasaki’s story, it was all of those things in such an alien way that its people might be inhabitants of another planet. The inhabitants of Genji’s world are not, it is true, the common people of the time. Here, the characters are inhabitants of a fairytale – emperors, empresses, princesses, lords and fair damsels. Yet, I think if we explore carefully without prejudice, and with an interest in Japanese history, we can occasionally catch a glimpse of Japan as it is today, and something of its literature, its art and its philosophy.

The challenge comes from the story’s length, its structure and its complexity. The Tale of Genji was written in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries by a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress Akiko (or Shoshi), at the court of the Heian emperor Ichijo. Composed almost entirely in the emerging Japanese script, rather than in Chinese kana (reserved for formal court documents, and the business of men), the work is regarded by scholars throughout the world today as the first true novel. Murasaki Shikibu, or Lady Murasaki, was probably not the author’s true name, but merely the name of her heroine, Genji’s second wife, and a principal character in the first four ‘books’ of the story.

Murasaki, the author, came a lower branch of an influential Japanese family, the Fujiwara clan. Her father was a provincial governor. Although Japan was not a gender-equal culture, women were not without power and influence, or education, at least in the upper echelons of society. They were prominent in the arts of writing – handwriting as well as composition – and music. Murasaki and her epic novel were recognised even in her own day.

Arthur Waley’s translation, possibly the best known (though not usually considered the most accurate, and possibly embellished according to Waley’s taste) cannot replicate the art of  Murasaki’s calligraphy (sadly now lost), but it reflects what one hopes is the narrative complexity and poetic beauty of the original. The translation took twelve years, not surprising as Waley had never been to Japan and had to teach himself the Japanese language – its pictorial language(s) in particular. Moreover, at 1,155 pages and probably some 650,000 words, one might wonder how he managed to do it in such a short time.

The Tale of Genji is not a fairytale, despite its fairytale ‘once upon a time’ beginning. On the contrary, it has all the characteristics of our modern idea of a novel, the sociological and psychological elements, each well developed, distinct and distinguishable characters and an identifiable plot, even if that plot is difficult to summarise in a few paragraphs. If it resembles anything in modern English fiction, it is one of those family sagas which were popular in the mid twentieth century, perhaps something like Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Its heroes and heroines belong to three distinct generations.

The pages of The Tale of Genji are filled with descriptions of the pomp, splendour, ritual and intrigue of the Heian court. There are poetry and music competitions, perfume sniffing contests (both men and women wear perfume), and innummerable sexual encounters. The Japanese capital of the tenth and eleventh centuries has a sexual morality all its own, one very different from anything we in Europe find acceptable today. The customs and rituals associated with puberty, marriage, the status of children, as well as healing, prayer and even death are each described with precision by a woman who was part of it all, and not someone looking back into the pages of history.

‘He was dressed in a suit of soft white silk, with a rough cloak carelessly slung over his shoulders, with belt and fastenings untied. In the light of the lamp against which he was leaning he looked so lovely that one might have wished he were a girl . . .’

Genji, the Shining One, is the son of the old Emperor by one of his concubines, Kiritsubo. His mother dies when he is an infant and the Emperor chooses another mistress, Fujitsubo, who resembles the first lady. Genji is a favourite at court for his beauty and manners, except in the eyes of Lady Kokiden, mother of the heir to the throne, who is jealous. The Emperor has the good sense to bar Genji from the line of succession, nevertheless Genji acquires power and influence through his connections – and his personality. Married to Aoi, sister of his great friend To no Chujo, his youth is filled with (ex-marital) sexual adventures, some clandestine, other not so. He eventually falls in love with Fujitsubo and they carry on an affair while she is Empress.

Fujitsubo gives birth to Genji’s son, but she and Genji manage to keep his parentage secret. To the world, he is the old Emperor’s child – although the fact of his physical resemblance to Genji seems not to have given the game away!

Murasaki, the heroine and Genji’s great love, is introduced half-way through Book One. She is the neglected daughter of Prince Hyobukyo, Fujitsubo’s brother. When we meet her first, she is ten years old. Genji kidnaps her and takes her to live with him in the palace to be educated and become an eventual mistress.

When the old emperor dies, Kokiden regains influence and prevails upon her son, now Emperor Suzaku, to have Genji sent into exile in Suma, an outlying province. His adventures there occupy much of Book Two. He falls in love with the Lady of Akashi, the daughter of an old recluse, with whom he fathers a daughter, who will become important in the second half of the novel.

‘In the second month of the new year the Initiation Ceremony of the Crown Prince was performed. He was only eleven years old but was big for his age, and it was already apparent that he was developing an extraordinary resemblance to his guardian, Prince Genji …. [The Emperor’s {Suzaku}] resignation came suddenly…. and Kokiden was very much upset…. Fujitsubo’s little son accordingly became Emperor under the title Ryozen ….’

With Kokiden’s death, Genji’s reputation is restored and he returns to the capital amid great acclamation to a powerful position at court. His wife Aoi also dies and he marries Murasaki. However, Genji is fond (a nice way of putting it?) of young girls and he now takes over the guardianship of Tamakatsurau, illegitimate daughter of To no Chujo. She grows up to be a singularly beautiful woman, attracting many suitors, including two of Chujo’s legitimate sons. Much of the third book is taken up with Genji agonising over whether to tell Chujo who the girl is, and his schemes to keep the young people apart, in a sexual sense at any rate. There is a delightful passage in this section of the novel dealing with books and in particular romantic fiction, which, in a conversation with Tamakatsura, Genji acknowledges his own partiality for reading….

‘ “I too have lately been studying these books and have, I must tell you, been amazed at the delight which they have given me…. and have been amazed at the advances which this art of fiction is now making.” ’

By Book Four, Genji is middle-aged and contemplates taking religious orders but, even now, his amorous adventures are not over. Fulfilling a promise to his dying friend, the ex-emperor Suzaku [yes, there is a sometimes confusing succession of emperors in Lady Murasaki’s story], he takes Suzaku’s daughter Nyasan into his care and eventually marries her. This part of the novel also features Genji’s son Yugiri and Chujo’s son Kashiwagi, their siblings and their lovers. To confuse the reader even further, Nyasan has a one night stand with Kashiwagi and gives birth to a boy – Kaoru. She then becomes a nun.

We get no description of Genji’s death. However, by the beginning of Book Five, he has passed away. Books Five and Six feature the younger generation, the bright young things, Kaoru and Niou, and their conquests. Genji’s daughter, the Princess Akashi, has grown up and married the son of ex-emperor Suzaki. Niou is their son. The main love interest in these final sections of The Tale of Genji are three sisters, Agemaki, Kozeri and Ukifune, the daughters of one Prince Hachi, a much younger half-brother of the original hero. The rivalry of the two young men creates quite a lot of fun, as each works to avoid and deceive the other, and Niou does his best to disobey his parents’ orders. But there is tragedy too. Kaoru is devasted when Agemaki dies. He fixates on Ukifune, her illegitimate sister, who resembles her in looks.

‘The equinoctial gales were this year particularly violent. Then came a day when the whole sky grew black, and an appalling typhoon began. It would have been bad enough wherever
one had been to see every tree stripped of its leaves just when they were at their loveliest, every flower stricken to the earth; but to witness such havoc in an exquisite garden, planned from corner to corner with endless foresight and care, to see those dew-pearls unthreaded in an instant and scattered upon the ground was a sight clculated to drive the onlooker well nigh to madness.’

The Penguin translation (Richard Bowring) of Lady Murasaki’s famous diary describes The Tale of Genji as ‘a long prose narrative of astonishing complexity and sophistication.’ It is certainly those things. Literary masterpiece that it is, the novel is full of beautiful prose, describing gardens, blossom and clothing, but also snow and fierce storms. The sexual encounters are often described  euphemistically [I don’t know whether Murasaki or Waley is to blame]. Then, at other times, one feels the author has her tongue very firmly in her cheek. From her diary, we know she was not above criticising the royals and their entourage, and it may be that, in the novel, she is doing no more than fictionalising people and incidents in her own life. Here, she occasionally intrudes into the narrative with observations of her own, rather than in the voices of the characters. If the dialogue seems clumsy sometimes, we should remember that this is a translation of a work written a millennium ago.

I should also say a word about the ‘poetry’. At the Heian court, poetry was an important means of communication, in both the written and the spoken word, although it is not poetry of a sort we recognise. Throughout the entire novel, there is scarcely a conversation or a letter which does not include a line or two full of simile and metaphor, as well as allusions to Chinese literature and history.

The Tale of Genji is a remarkable tour de force and I recommend it to serious readers who have a lot of time on their hands – such as during a pandemic! But much as I enjoyed immersing myself in the world of mediaeval Japan, the final chapters of were for me something of an anticlimax. There is no fairytale ‘happy ever after’ conclusion here.

Perhaps, after all the ‘taking of orders’, and the lingering deaths, we shouldn’t expect one!


One thought on “The Tale of Genji

  1. Pingback: Hamnet – Bookheathen Scribblings

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