Sunday, May 21, 2017

Classics #12

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu (tr. Edward Seidensticker)

Lady Murasaki Shikibu composed this long novel in 11th century Japan. The novel chronicles the story of Genji, an aristocrat connoisseur and government minister, whose good looks, refinement, aesthetic taste, and accomplishments in all the arts and crafts attract the admiration of everyone he meets, except of course mediocrities who envy his talents and feel jealousy with his success with the ladies.

The novel’s 1100 or so pages can be divided into three large sections. Chapters 1-33 cover Genji’s youth through middle age. Genji suffers the ordeal of exile to faraway Satsuma because he is caught with the daughter of a high minister of state. However, after that unhappy sojourn, his court success and eventful personal life are described in witty, readable incidents.

Chapters 34-41 feels as if the author were ready to move on to other characters in the next generation. There is also a discernible shift in tone. Genji begins to feel what our ancestors in the 1950s called “that old mortality,” the melancholy we feel as we contemplate being subject to death. The Japanese have called this feeling mono no aware (物の哀れ), “the sadness of things.” Everything is subject to flux in both the short and the long term. We need to savor the sad beauty that people, places, and things express because of their transient nature.

Finally, Chapters 42-54 cover Genji’s grandson Niou and supposed son Kaoru. There’s no point to applying morals or ethics as we understand them to many characters in this book. In fact, their callousness to each other, destructive jealousy, breaking up of families, harsh treatment of women, casual treatment of illegitimate offspring and lack of anything we’d call privacy rather prevent us from being sympathetic toward many of the characters. The men are weak when faced with temptation and strong when justifying their own selfishness.And women can't relax for a minute because a mistake in a unguarded moment will bring down gossip, derision, and economic insecurity.

I suppose some readers will condemn this book for the same reasons the Victorians turned their noses up at it. That is, the lack of sexual restraint stands out. People in the court of Heian Japan acted promiscuously, however, according to a strict code of conduct not only social but aesthetic. For example, it was obligatory that lovers could compose and appreciate poetry in its various forms and be able to write poems that drew on famous poems and stories. Such poetical allusions had to be made in exquisite calligraphy. People judged each other on the basis of their penmanship.

This novel is truly for people who love to read novels packed with episodes and people with curious characters. In other words, if you like Trollope, you might want to try this one. It’s the same kind of comfy reading experience as, say, Doctor Thorne or The Last Chronicle of Barset in that once it gets going - and for pete’s sake it takes a while to get going - it’s un-put-down-able.

Finally a caution and advice. This is not like Anna Karenina, which can pick up and enjoy without knowing too much about Russian society and culture in the 19th century. But, in the interest of full disclosure so people know that they are getting into, I think a reader that knows little or nothing of Heian Japan will probably become lost and disgruntled without first reading Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. No sheepish apology here for advising background reading and prep to the unknowing. This is a masterpiece of world literature about people who are different from us post-moderns. So it had better be approached with knowledge and respect.


  1. I have heard of The Tale of Gengji (its on that list in my head of stuff I mean to get to but may never will, like Moby Dick and War and Peace) but the Trollope comparison makes me really want to try it.

    And I will read the Ivan Morris book first. I am pretty sure he did the annotations in The Pillow Book edition that I read.

  2. You should read "Trollope and Murasaki: Impressions of an Orientalist" by Edward Seidensticker, the translator. It is at: