The new reviewing year starts here, and while my January in Japan event is (sadly) a distant memory now, I’m still keen to spend a little time with J-Lit to start the year. The next month or two should see several posts on Japanese books, and that starts today with one I heard about from one of my favourite choices of 2016, Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium. Yes, it may be 2017, but today I’m stepping back to the 11th century to see how different, or similar, life was back then…
As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams – Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan (translated by Ivan Morris) is another work providing a glimpse into life in ancient Japan. The writer was an anonymous minor Fujiwara, not one of the elite but comfortably off, nicknamed Lady Sarashina by later scholars and readers of the book. She was born in 1008, but her work was probably written around fifty years later, after her husband’s death. While not really a novel, it’s not exactly a diary either; perhaps the best way to describe it would be as a selective retelling of a life’s events. It’s far from eventful, simply relating a woman’s view of life in the Heian era, but it’s surprisingly nuanced. The relatively short work consists of a selection of anecdotes with a liberal sprinkling of poems, always a joy for the J-Lit enthusiast 🙂
We start with a journey, perhaps one of the first Japanese instances of travel writing, as we accompany the author on her return (at the age of twelve) with her family from her father’s posting in the far-flung provinces:
I was brought up in a part of the country so remote that it lies beyond the end of the Great East Road. What an uncouth creature I must have been in those days!
p.31 (Penguin Classics, 1975)
At the end of the three-month trip, she then attempts to settle into life in the capital (Kyoto), which is almost more taxing than life on the road. The usual difficulties facing any provincial newcomer are exacerbated by the writer’s timidity and introspection, making it difficult for her to fit in. Her shyness prevents her from meeting people, and her late entry to the court is a bit of a disaster all round.
Luckily, she has her obsession with what she calls ‘Tales’ to fall back on, and describes her joy at finding a wealth of books to read on arriving in the capital. This is nothing, however, to her feelings on receiving a gift from a relative, all the scrolls of The Tale of Genji! Coincidentally, on a later visit to Uji, the writer is able to visit a house mentioned in the book, a reminder to the twenty-first-century reader that Sarashina’s life happened in the Genji era (it’s akin to a Victorian diarist living down the road from Wuthering Heights…).
The writer does eventually marry, but her romantic experiences are rather different to those of Sei Shōnagon, or the Genji-inspired dreams of love:
The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen. (p.64)
By her own admission, for the most part she lived in a dream world, yet these desires are nothing like her actual dreams, which form an integral part of the text. We are told of many of the dreams she had throughout her life, most of which featured warnings from Gods, or the Buddha, to be more devout. In her later years, she undertook several pilgrimages, but there’s a lingering sense that it was all left a little too late…
As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams only runs to around eighty pages, but it’s supplemented superbly by illustrations, maps and end notes, in addition to Morris’ sizeable introduction:
One thousand years ago a woman in Japan with no name wrote a book without a title. (p.1)
This initial section puts the work into context by both examining the period and exploring the writer’s character, with frequent comparisons, here and in the end notes, of the timid Sarashina with the rather more brusque and worldly Shōnagon. I’d be the first to admit that this is definitely not The Pillow Book, with little of Shōnagon’s wit and love of company.
In many ways, though, it’s actually a far better read. Morris describes his deliberate attempt to bring across the writer’s style, and for me the book reads far more smoothly than many stilted attempts at translations of classics (and I’ve read a fair few for comparison…). The format also helps here. Even though As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams is a diary of sorts, the fact that it was written over a short time period, collated selectively from notes and memories, means that it’s a consciously created narrative with threads running throughout, more akin to a novel (and more accessible to the modern reader) than many classic texts.
One of these threads, perhaps the main idea of the work, is the focus on the writer’s dull life and her regrets at not having spent it more wisely. As she grows older, she wishes more and more that she’d heeded her dreams and turned to religion:
Things now became rather hectic for me. I forgot all about my Tales and became much more conscientious. How could I have let all those years slip by, instead of practicing my devotions and going on pilgrimages? I began to doubt whether any of my romantic fancies, even those that had seemed most plausible, had the slightest basis in fact. How could anyone as wonderful as Shining Genji or as beautiful as the girl whom Captain Kaoru kept hidden in Uji really exist in this world of ours? Oh, what a fool I had been to believe such nonsense! (p.79)
The wistful tone is present from the beginning, but as the writer nears the end of her life, it becomes unmistakable. By the time we approach the final pages, there’s a palpable sense of ‘if only’…
As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams may have been written the best part of a thousand years ago, but it’s a very familiar work in many ways. Less Bridget Jones than Rebecca Jones, it’s nevertheless an excellent insight into the life of a woman in a man’s world, doing her best with the life she’s been given. Lady Sarashina was no celebrity of her time, just an ordinary (if slightly privileged) person. However, that can sometimes make for the most fascinating stories, and this is certainly one I found enjoyable.