‘Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium’, eds. Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane (Review)

IMG_5370Last year, I managed to achieve another of my reading ambitions, finally finding the time to enjoy the Japanese classic novel The Tale of Genji.  It’s a book I’m keen to reread at some point (perhaps even in another translation), but it’s not only the work itself which is of interest.  A couple of years back, I looked at the reception of the book in the eyes of the Japanese over the centuries in Michael Emmerich’s excellent The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, and today sees me venturing even further into the world of Murasaki Shikibu’s magnum opus.  Five hundred plus pages of commentary on The Tale of Genji, anyone?  Then, it’s off to Japan we go 😉

Reading the Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium (review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press and Australian distributor Footprint Books) has a fairly daunting remit.  As the title suggests, the book aims to give an overview of how various readers, both casual and expert, have approached The Tale of Genji over the past thousand years.  The approach taken is a chronological one, with the editors first transporting us back to shortly after Lady Murasaki had completed her work, before taking us on a journey which ends with some very famous names in the twentieth century.

From the very beginning, it was clear that The Tale of Genji was no ordinary book, and the first two sections describe how the generations after Murasaki enjoyed the novel.  There are favourable contrasts with earlier, more fantastic tales, and in an extract from Sarashina Diary, a noblewoman’s private thoughts, we see how well-known (and popular) the book was.  In a later work, Nameless Notebook (ca. 1200), we are even treated to the first discussions of the plot, with a group of women eagerly discussing their favourite scenes and characters from a work which they can scarcely believe was written by an ordinary person:

“Even so, just to have written Genji!  I’ve thought and thought about this, and I find it so amazing that I just don’t see how the karma of a single lifetime could account for it.  Indeed, I suspect it is the answer to her prayers to the Buddha.  […] – I just don’t see how it could be the work of a mere mortal.”
A Nameless Notebook’, pp.42/3 (Columbia University Press, 2015)

This is not the last time that the readers of The Tale of Genji will suspect divine intervention in the writing of the book.

However, as we are to see, not everyone saw perfection in the novel, and as society turned more religious in the following centuries, Murasaki’s supporters were forced to defend her work.  In the fourth section, ‘Obsequies for Genji’, we are shown how readers feared for the writer’s soul because of her many ‘lies’ over the course of her work of fiction.  With impressionable noblewomen dreaming of Murasaki burning in Hell, this was a time of offering up prayers to the author of The Tale of Genji in the hope that this would ease her posthumous suffering.

On a happier note, though, the book attracted more than just censure and prayers, and in the next section, Harper and Shirane introduce us to what they label as ‘Genji Apocrypha’ (and which I’m quite happy to call fan-fiction).  Anyone with more than a passing interest in The Tale of Genji will know of the various theories about different authors and missing chapters; here, we get to see how the story might have continued.  One added piece fills in the gap where Genji meets the Rokujō Lady, while another ‘completes’ the tale by continuing the story which ends the novel.  The writers of these pieces make no effort to hide the fact that the additions are not canonical, but other efforts (such as the ‘missing’ Kumogakure chapters, ‘hidden’ in a temple for centuries) are slightly more fraudulent.  Tantalisingly, though, there are a couple of other fragments which are of less dubious provenance, hinting that there may actually have been more chapters after all…

The final few sections then take us into a more critical era, tracing the progress of literary criticism in Japan over the past few hundred years via the treatment dealt out to Genji.  This may be a little dry for some readers, but I was fascinated to see extracts of several works I’d heard mentioned before, such as Kitamura Kigin’s 1673 annotated edition of Genji, The Moonlit Lake Commentary (Kogetsushō), Motoori Norinaga’s 1799 commentary The Tale of Genji: A Little Jewelled Comb (Genji monogatari Tama no ogushi) and Tsubouchi Shōyō‘s more general literary criticism work from 1885-6, The Essence of the Novel (Shōsetsu shinzui).  Perhaps of more interest to general readers, though, might be a short piece from the early twentieth century, reviewing the first volume of Arthur Waley’s groundbreaking full Genji translation into English.  You see, it seems that Virginia Woolf was another fan of The Tale of Genji, particularly in its sense of aesthetics and the importance of its writer.

As mentioned, Reading The Tale of Genji is about far more than the book itself.  In collecting the many pieces from a thousand years of study, the editors (with the help of a host of translators and other academics***) have shone a light on the changing nature of reading itself, showing the progression from a focus on aesthetics, plot and religious importance to the era of text reconstruction, and then on to more modern readings.  We see how interpretations of Murasaki’s intentions shift over the centuries: successive commentators stress her focus on entertainment, moral instruction, the world of ‘mono no aware’ and political power struggles.  It’s to the credit of the work that all of these theories sound equally plausible.

In terms of who Reading The Tale of Genji is aimed at, though, I would add a note of caution.  Unlike Emmerich’s Genji work, a book which requires no real knowledge of the original novel, Reading The Tale of Genji requires its reader to have, well, *read* The Tale of Genji.  If you can’t tell Kaoru from Niou, have no idea who or what Fujitsubo was and are stumped by mentions of the Ten Uji Chapters, then I’m not really sure that this is the book for you.  However, for anyone who has enjoyed the original work, whether in Edward Seidensticker’s, Royall Tyler’s or even Waley’s translation, this is a book which will enhance your enjoyment of Genji, and may even have you reaching for your copy for another glance at favourite chapters.  As Norinaga rightly says:

In reading the introductory notes [kotobagaki] in the old anthologies, a person who is unfamiliar with this tale, since he has no precise knowledge of that world, will feel himself to be in terra incognita and will find many passages incomprehensible.  Yet when one reads this tale with care and becomes familiar with the way things were in the world of the past, then not only the old poems but also the introductory notes, which one reads off in only a line or two, will come to feel intimately familiar, like something one sees or hears in the world of the present day, in one’s own native village.  Then, of course, their emotional quality [mna] will be that much greater.
‘The Tale of Genji: A Little Jeweled Comb’, p.506

As with any area of reading, the more time you devote to a certain text or writer, the more you’ll get out of it.  Reading The Tale of Genji does require a fair amount of time and concentration, but the rewards are worth it 🙂

Translations and Introductions by:
Patrick Caddeau, Lewis Cook, Wiebke Denecke, Michael Emmerich, Thomas Harper, Michael Jamentz, Christina Laffin, James McMullen, Gaye Rowley, Satoko Naito, Haruo Shirane, Tomi Suzuki and Hitomi Yoshio

2 thoughts on “‘Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium’, eds. Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane (Review)

  1. Bravo! Interesting book, I mean this one, Tale of Genji is obviously amazing. I shall have to look into this one. I am an admirer and actually will look into more about Lady Murasaki after reading your work here. Thank you.


    1. Violeta – As much as Genji is great on its own, reading this book (and the Emmerich one) have only heightened my interest in the classic – and after finishing this, I also ordered a copy of Lady Murasaki’s Diary 🙂


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