‘Genji Days’ by Edward Seidensticker (Review)

After a few hard shifts at the factory, I’m moving on today to something slightly different, a book that combines fiction and real life.  Last year, as some of you may recall, I worked my way through (parts of) the major translations of The Tale of Genji into English, and my latest read takes us a little further down the Genji rabbit hole as we spend some time with one of those translators.  Get ready for some serious insights into Murasaki Shikibu’s famous work, but don’t be surprised if this latest journey into Heian literature takes some major detours – including a lot more bar hopping than you might have expected…

Edward Seidensticker’s Genji Days is a diary originally written in English, but first published in Japanese before being released in the original language.  The English-language edition is a condensed version, containing a selection of the most important passages in the writer’s daily diary, those featuring his thoughts on The Tale of Genji, and the slow progress on his own translation, which was a rather lengthy process.  Interestingly, his original plan was to translate the final ‘Uji’ chapters for publication as a stand-alone work, not being convinced at first that Arthur Waley’s full version needed updating.  Eventually, however, the plan changes, and Seidensticker gets the go-ahead to start on the full translation:

A letter came from Harold Strauss.  He is having a contract drawn up.  My deadline is to be the first of July, nineteen hundred and seventy five.  I think I can make it, granted I have not by then ruined my liver.
p.78 (Kodansha International, 1983)

With the contract signed, it’s time to get to work on the earlier chapters, and the rest, as they say, is history…

Over a period of about five years (1970-1975), we witness Seidensticker working away on the Tale, and while translating can be a rather solitary endeavour, here there’s another man in the room – the legendary Waley.  The translator of the first substantial version of the Tale to make it into English, he casts a large shadow over his successor.  In early passages, Seidensticker is complimentary about his predecessor, agreeing with Waley’s views on cutting sections while knowing he has to be more inclusive and faithful to the original.  When some of his readers compare draft passages unfavourably to the earlier version, it certainly gives him pause for thought.

Interestingly, later on, when comparing some of his finished chapters with Waley’s, Seidensticker shows a distinct change in attitude, and at one point he asks himself whether Waley’s English is quite as beautiful as it’s made out to be.  He also starts to see more and more places where Waley made cuts, wondering just why Waley decided to omit one chapter, and questioning his reasons for removing various scenes Seidensticker finds beautiful (and keeping some that Ed’s very tempted to delete…).

In comparison with Waley’s version, the Seidensticker Genji is considered fairly dry.  However, that’s not something you’d say about the translator himself, and he has very strong opinions about Lady Murasaki’s work.  He has his favourites among the characters (respecting Yūgiri, disliking Kaoru) and often allows his feelings to spill over into his diary (“the death of dear, silly Oigimi”).  On many occasions he expresses how bored he is by descriptions of feasts and festivals, and he’s constantly agonising over whether to include character names or leave it to readers to work out the speaker for themselves (as Royall Tyler later does).

Seidensticker also has his favourite parts of the Tale, and it’s no coincidence he started with the Uji chapters.  Throughout the diary, he expresses his views on how Murasaki’s craft developed as the work progressed:

I worked on the Genji in the morning, and managed to push my way beyond matters having to do with Kaoru’s royal bride and on to the first appearance of Ukifune; and it was like emerging from a dark dense forest upon a field of daffodils.  Who knows, maybe Murasaki meant it so, and what has seemed to me the infelicity of the passages that have held me up these last days is in fact subtle artistry. (p.20)

The translator delights in the skill he finds in later chapters, comparing the complexity and darkness of these sections with the youthful, lighter early chapters.

Because of his initial plan, the translator doesn’t always make his way through the Tale in the correct order.  We have readers’ comments coming in on different parts of the story, which necessitates much skipping from a late chapter back to an early one.  This haphazard approach often brings dividends in the form of unexpected parallels Seidensticker hadn’t noticed before.  He shows us how similar events are handled differently, whether they be coronations, courtships or deaths.  In effect, he’s thinking out loud for our benefit, and that means there’s lots to learn.

Towards the end of the diary, there’s a new development, when we begin to see signs of strain in the entries.  Seidensticker, unsurprisingly, starts to struggle during the rewriting process, having trouble pushing himself to put in that necessary final effort.  He has new doubts about what he’s written, and can occasionally be surprised by what he finds in earlier drafts of certain chapters.  There’s a feeling that he’s desperate to be done with the whole affair, and yet there’s also a sense of sadness, the loss of having to give up what’s been a part of his life for so long.

As much as Genji Days tells us about Seidensticker and his version of the Tale, though, it reveals just as much about Seidensticker the man, and the times he lives in.  Throughout this five-year period, he’s constantly moving between Tokyo and Ann Arbor, later adding Honolulu to his list of ‘home towns’.  As a result, we get to learn a lot about his personal life, and in the comments he makes each day, there’s also a surprising amount about the two societies he lives in, making for interesting reading.

The US of the early 1970s was a society in flux, with major events reshaping the country.  The Vietnam War, while not explicitly mentioned, is always in the background, and the years of the diary take us through two presidential elections and the small matter of the Watergate scandal.  As Seidensticker goes about his daily life, he notices counter-culture protests and the efforts of black rights movements, and the writer often shows his displeasure with the direction his country is taking, sensing a decline in standards.

The writer’s views on Japan are a slightly different story.  Here, even if we do get the occasional look at riots and protests, Seidensticker doesn’t really seem as concerned with politics and society as with what he sees around him.  Having lived in the country on and off for decades, he can’t help but lament the loss of the old style of life:

Lunch with Fukuda and his friend Keiko.  Leaving them, I walked on to Asakusa.  Very sad – the Shinsekai, setting for the nice little Mishima piece I translated, the one with the million-dollar, I mean yen, title, is being torn down, probably to be replaced by a bowling alley. (p.82)

This is just one of many similar extracts.  Buildings and districts he remembers from earlier days are now losing their charm, abandoned, knocked down or simply ageing badly.  As in the Tale, Seidensticker’s diary entries betray a wistful longing for the glories of yore.

However, the most important, and perhaps surprising, revelations in Genji Days concern the picture the diary paints of the writer himself.  I’m not sure what I was expecting Seidensticker’s life to be like, but it certainly wasn’t this.  Of course, there’s a cultured side to him, a penchant for flowers and art, but he’s also a big drinker, keen to spend evenings on the town, and often needing late starts with his translation after big nights.  There are frequent mentions of visits to sex shops and pornographic cinemas, and on one memorable occasion, when he’s accosted by a man demanding money on a Tokyo street, he simply drags the would-be thief to the nearest police box!  If you ever imagined him to be a rather ‘dry’ writer, I’m here to tell you that the writing belies his personality.

Seidensticker is also a man of strong views, in private at least.  There are a number of examples of his utter disdain for the ‘weak’ younger generation; on one occasion, he perversely changes his vote in the election line because of what he sees and hears around him.  Another interesting aspect of his life is the lack of anyone else in it, apart from friends.  If we read between the lines, there may be a special someone around, but it’s the one aspect of his days he’s strangely reticent about, compared to his forthrightness in just about everything else.  In the final passages, though, spanning the last few months of 1974, there are explicit mentions of solitude and loneliness.  One touching scene has him spending Christmas alone, with just his translation for company…

The first pages of Genji Days take us back more than fifty years, and it’s clear from the start that this is most definitely a very different time.  For example, one anecdote has a landlady showing a gay black couple around the writer’s apartment, trying to persuade them to move into an apartment on the ‘liberal’ floor of the building.  There’s a lot more here that wouldn’t pass muster today, such as frequent mentions of ‘negroes’ and ‘Indians’, not to mention a quip comparing the BAM acronym to old (sexist) navy slang (broad-assed Marine).

One of the back-cover blurbs lauds the humour of the book, and that’s certainly true at times, with Seidensticker often coming across as an edgy, entertaining writer.  At times, though, he crosses the line into the crude and insulting, with some comments so tone-deaf they stop the reader dead in their tracks.  Exhibit A for the prosecution:

Over to South University to do some shopping, for Christmas and for a small girl name of Malm who is about to be Christened.  Really, what repulsive specimens you do have to pass along the way.  Anyone who would do it to one of them, I thought to myself, would do it to a pig or a six-week-old corpse. (p.45)

Like Genji himself, Seidensticker can be hard to really warm to, and I’m afraid many readers would find him, just like the Shining prince, a bit too much to take.

Yet he’s certainly a genial, skilled storyteller, and Genji Days is full of mesmerising anecdotes.  I could write a whole post, for example, just on what he says about Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima (two close friends of the translator), and the contrast between their works and characters.  Kawabata is seen as “more fragile and birdlike” when Seidensticker catches up with him (shortly before the writer’s death), and he describes Mishima as having “a richly sardonic sense of humour“, even if he’s rather slighting about the content of the writer’s work on more than one occasion.  There’s never a dull moment over the course of the diary, and with even his dreams being fun and intriguing, it does make you suspicious as to how honest he’s being at times.  After all, the diaries were always meant for publication, raising the question as to whether this is Seidensticker the man, or Seidensticker the character.

I’ll leave that question to others to ponder, but one thing I can state with certainty is that Genji Days is well worth reading – if you can find a copy, that is.  You see, Seidensticker’s literary and cultural trip down memory lane is yet another of those Kodansha International books that are out of print (someone really must do something about that…).  It’s a shame, because this is a book many readers would appreciate (even if many others would be offended by it), with insights into both the translator’s work on his Genji, and his personal life.  One thing’s for sure, though.  Next time I try one of Seidensticker’s books, I’ll have a very different view of the translator in mind as I read along.

11 thoughts on “‘Genji Days’ by Edward Seidensticker (Review)

      1. On the contrary. Revisionist whitewashing of history (especially social history) weakens everyone’s grasp on reality. Digitally removing cigarettes from old movies, Norman Mailer having to diguise the fact that WWII soldiers swore a lot …… We already live in a world of fairytales, propaganda/advertising and conspiracy hallucinations. Disinfecting – to meet today’s standards, because every era thinks it’s the Top – the real human lives of earlier times produces nostalgia for sepia-toned bliss that never existed.
        To me, this sounds like a good solid read.
        P.S.– some of today’s younger translators might try drinking a bit harder. Less textbook, more flair!


        1. Andrew – I agree with what you say here, no need to sanitise older books. It’s another matter when a writer is downright insulting – there were a few comments here that I’m surprised made it through the original editing!


          1. Ah, I see. Still, that’s part of why we read diaries, right? To see past the public persona, even (or especially) if they’re written with an eye to publication: this is how the author sees himself (or is happy being seen).
            An interesting subset of Japanophiles, that post-war generation of Americans who obviously did fall head over heels for Japan, dug deep and worked extremely hard — but also seem to have had a sense of personal power, even invulnerability, coming in some cases from their time in the Army of Occupation. Few people said No to them, although they were often scathing about each other.
            In fact, now that I think of it, you can find that hardness in other WWII-tempered writers, Gore Vidal for instance. But I’ve rattled on too long. Cheers.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. I enjoyed this, Tony, even though I’ve not read Genji – hope to do so one day. It’s always interesting to hear about the process of translating, as you know only too well, having done it yourself…


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