‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu (Review – Part Two)

IMG_5249Yesterday, I started my review of The Tale of Genji, but it turned out be a little long for one post (great for an undergraduate essay, though!).  Let’s continue today, then, with some more ramblings on Japan’s most famous literary work, focusing on some of the similarities and differences between today and the Heian period, and a celebration of the work of the translator – shall we?

For the modern (Western) reader, part of the beauty of The Tale of Genji lies in its otherness.  It was actually a historical novel in its own time, set mostly in the tenth century (and written towards the start of the eleventh) and was very much a tale of the upper echelons of society.  The book abounds in detailed descriptions of ceremonies, music, wine and arranged marriages, with frequent presentations of gifts of robes and cloth to visitors and messengers whenever they arrive with love poems or summons to the court (the former being far more common than the latter…).

It’s a work which is alien in many ways, mainly due to the vast gulf in both time and space separating the text from the modern Anglophone reader.  With no medical knowledge to speak of, healers were reduced to performing prayers for the sick, with rich benefactors commissioning teams of monks to chant healing sutras.  The women who inspired such lust in the testosterone-fuelled nobility rarely appeared in daylight, being mostly hidden behind blinds, shutters and curtains, meaning that the more adventurous of the men would take risks just for a glimpse of a comely silhouette outlined against a thin veil.

However, not everything in Genji’s world was totally foreign – many of the preoccupations of the time are still important today.  Another of the main themes of the novel is the political jockeying for position which went on in the capital, the division into ‘left’ and ‘right’ echoing the state of  politics today:

“All the past examples he knew suggested that those who rose to dizzying heights when young do not endure.  In this reign his rank and fame had risen beyond his merit.  Yes, he had outlived the annihilation of his painful fall, but he still doubted that his glory would last.” (p.330)

Politics, then as much as now, was a very dangerous game to play, and Genji, while powerful, also has some fairly influential enemies at court.

Another similarity with modern times is that of love and courtship, with the families of beautiful young women determined to catch the eye of well-connected young men (single, in possession of a good fortune…).  While we may think our society has moved beyond that, we might just be kidding ourselves.  I’m sure many students at the University of St. Andrews were hoping to bump shoulders (or more) with the future British monarch, and even back in Japan, the majority of women taking tennis lessons in the 1980s for the first time had an ulterior motive…

Sadly, another similarity with modern life is the gender imbalance, and The Tale of Genji could easily be (and probably has been) read as a story of the plight of women, a case-study of a sex of second-class citizens:

“A woman should feign ignorance of what she knows and, when she wants to speak on a subject, leave some things out.” (p.35)

The above quotation comes from a conversation early in the book in which some men are complaining about women with learning (who put them in difficulties by having the temerity to be better at Chinese poetry than their pursuers…).  The men get to swagger around pretending to be important while the women are left to hang around mending clothes and chatting, replying to notes and pining for lovers (or avoiding them…)

The men of the novel, on the other hand, are prone to stalking their prey, pushing their way behind curtains, maddened with lust.  Sadly, the women’s reputation is thus shattered, even if they didn’t invite the men in.  For many of the women who attract the attention of these overgrown boys, there’s a stark choice between surrendering their body or pursuing the life of a nun (although even this is not always sufficient protection).  One of the most annoying aspects of the novel is the sickening whingeing of the men when women fail to relent and sleep with them, their constant laments of the women’s ‘cruelty’ ringing hollow when contrasted with their subsequent behaviour; in truth, they’re just spoiled boys who can’t play with their toys…

While, I’ve already said far, far too much about the book, it would be remiss of me to finish without a mention of the translation.  You see, this is not just Genji, this is the Tyler Genji, and Royall Tyler has done a fantastic job.  In addition to translating the main text, Tyler has also done sterling work in his translations of the poems which pepper the text, an integral part of the story.  When you also consider the footnotes, the lengthy introduction, the maps, the list of characters and the various other appendices provided, you’ll realise what a huge undertaking this is.  In addition, this isn’t just an everyday translation from Japanese; the language of the original Genji was an old form of Japanese with little connection to the present variety.  It’s a little like translating a text from Old English – written in hieroglyphics 😉

There’s no time here for a long comparison, but I did borrow the Edward Seidensticker version from the local library, and having had a flick through various passages, for me, there is no comparison between the two versions.  The Seidensticker Genji is an easier read, but that’s all it has going for it – the Tyler version has adopted a much more impressive tone, more worthy of the subject matter.  This is especially true in the poetry where Tyler has adopted a syllable-based style mirroring the original.  Seidensticker’s poems are supposedly closer to the original ideas, but appear a little less poetic, more Homerian than Heian.  As always, though, I’m sure there’ll be dissenters out there, and I’d love to hear from the Seidensticker (or Waley) adherents 🙂

Let’s not forget, though, whose achievement this really is, even if the woman behind the book is still somewhat of a mystery.  Not a great deal is known about her life, and Murasaki Shikibu isn’t even her real name (Shikibu is a title of office of one of her male relatives, while the name Murasaki is taken from her main female creation).  She’s a mystery in many ways, yet a great writer who left us this epic book…

…and it is an epic, a challenging, wonderfully absorbing novel.  The Tale of Genji is not a story to read and forget, but rather a book to reread and rediscover, a work to accompany us throughout our lives.  As the reader develops, so too does their understanding of Genji and his companions, and I’m sure that each reread will be a slightly different experience.  Yes, it’s a lengthy tale, one which demands a lot from the reader.  However, it’s definitely worth the effort, and I look forward to the next time I travel back to the era of Genji and his friends 🙂

10 thoughts on “‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu (Review – Part Two)

  1. I really enjoyed this review, thank you, Tony. Even if we disagree about the translations! As you know, I’m a fan of the Seidensticker translation, perhaps because it was the first one I read (rather like one remains a fan of the first Doctor Who one sees). I prefer its clarity and adaptation to a more Western palate, rather than the very literal Tyler one (which would appeal more to scholars). I’d also like to put in a good word for the Waley translation for its sheer entertainment value. Inaccurate and coy in many places, cutting huge swathes of text out, it is nevertheless a curiosity piece which is worth taking a look at whenever you decide to re-immerse yourself in the world of Genji.


    1. Marina Sofia – Yes, I’m sure most readers will support their first translation 😉 I think “its clarity and adaptation to a more Western palate” is exactly what I *don’t* want from a translation of ‘The Tale of Genji’ – the book is from an alien culture and time and should feel like it! I am intrigued by the idea of the Waley version, though…


  2. I got about two-thirds of the way through volume one of this translation. I adored it, but haven’t started it up again. I do plan to one day. Maybe as a summer project in 2016. It’s one I should spend some time with, a slow read in a very positive sense.


  3. I finally got around to reading your reviews. Seems like you changed your opinion quite a bit later in the book (compared to what you said on Twitter early on)? 🙂

    I read the same translation but never made it past page 110 (and then it ended up on my ‘life is too short’ shelf). Partly because of the translation, partly because Genji is a huge creep and I just didn’t have the patience for it any longer haha. Should I give it another try?
    Talking about translations – one of my friends had Genji as a research topic and she read a lot of different translations (including several in Japanese). There’s a recent Dutch translation that she adored – maybe I should give that one a try instead…


    1. Carola – I don’t think I changed my mind as much as Genji changed his (a little…). You have to approach this knowing that it’s sexist and degrading to women at many points – readers who know they’ll find that too much should probably stay away…

      I saw an article on another translation today, more recent than this one, but I was a bit put off by the general vibe of making it easy for the reader. This is Genji, dammit, and if you can’t take a bit of pain, go and read some kids’ books instead 😉

      Not you, personally, of course!


  4. My original read was Seidensticker version, although I got Tyler one waiting for me. I loved the scenery description of Genji along with a sense of romanticism and so forth. I also loved the seasons of the books and how the author described them. All in all, a wonderful trip to Heian Era Japan some thousand years ago 😀


    1. Svetlana – It’s certainly a beautiful destination, but (as mentioned) I’m very glad I chose Tyler over Seidensticker as my guide 😉


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