Saturday, April 29, 2017

Mount TBR #23

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own

The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan – Ivan Morris

The book describes Heian Japan's court life in cultural, political, socio-economic, and sexual terms. In the tradition of other brilliant explainers of Japan such as Sir George Sansom, Morris has read everything important concerning his topic to satisfy other scholars and writes in a graceful style to please us thinking lay readers.

This is a book for readers who want some background before they tackle Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, the first psychological novel in world history. You should know, however, there are some spoilers but they don't, in my opinion, outweigh the benefits of background knowledge before reading. The risk to reading it without background knowledge is that feeling of being lost and disgruntled about 70 pages into it. And then quitting. This would be a shame.

Morris’ thesis is that the novel's hero, Prince Genji, behaves as the paragon of Heian cultural values. Genji has grace and charm, besides being a stylish dresser and expert scent and incense crafter. He has a refined sensibility and keen aesthetic understanding. He writes beautiful poems and draws and paints. No wonder he is such a hit with everybody that comes into contact with him. Members of patrician Heian culture in 10th century Japan put social and aesthetic values over intellectual and psychological considerations. Morris points out the contradictions of the culture: steeped in Chinese learning but ridden with superstitions; a polygamous social scene but rife with jealousy, loneliness, and hurt; relishing with gusto the pleasures of the flesh but always feeling Buddhistic mujokan (無常観), the melancholy sense of the transience of life.

The Japanese and their culture have been blessed to be explained by sympathetic writers and scholars such as Morris, Sansom, Arthur Waley, and let's even include Lafcadio Hearn for sentimental reasons. In this book, Morris deftly blends fact and literary criticism to persuade us what a remarkable achievement The Tale of Genji truly represents.

Murasaki Shikibu had no models of what anybody would call “novels” to follow when she was writing this masterpiece. Yet, with keen psychological insight she developed a believable central character and a large cast of clearly delineated characters; a vibrant sequence of events happening over a period of four generations; and well-developed themes such as the costs of hierarchy and the pity of things. She also used digressions, parallel plots, stories within stories, foreshadowing and changes in point of view. It seems a miracle that the first instance of the psychological novel should be one of the high points of the genre.

1 comment:

  1. I have always been intrigued by this book. I like your tips on how to read it successfully. It is so amazing this book was written or published in 1008, wow. I like the structure. It seems similar to not that old but older books like Don Quijote, or Guzmán de Alfarache.