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The Tale of Genji, Page 4

Murasaki Shikibu

  Prose fiction in phonetically written Japanese, with few Chinese characters, was therefore especially for women. In Genji only women openly read or listen to tales. In chapter 25 (“The Fireflies”) Genji is talking to a young lady who has been copying out a tale for herself when he launches into what is taken to be the author's own defense of fiction. He seems to know a lot about tales, but he might claim, if asked, that he has only overheard them being read aloud to other people.

  A woman caught in strange or painful circumstances might comb tales for examples like her own, just as an Emperor might review the formal histories of China and Japan in search of a precedent for his plight, but of course a tale's usual purpose was to entertain. A new tale in the possession of an imperial wife might even make her company more attractive to a young Emperor or Heir Apparent and so give her (hence her family) an advantage over her rivals. Paintings play just that role in chapter 17 (“The Picture Contest”). The Tale of Genji does not mention anyone writing a tale, but in “The Picture Contest” gentlewomen, as well as professional artists, paint illustrations for tales.

  A great lady like an Empress would have owned copies of tales but seems not to have read any on her own. Instead she listened while a gentlewoman read the story aloud, exactly as in the case of Genji itself, and she herself looked at the pictures. This has led some to talk of “performance” merely supported by the written text. Seen this way, Genji might resemble a script intended to accommodate adlibbing and improvisation, and no doubt some gentlewomen did that well. However, others believe the tale to be primarily a literary work. Certainly, it was read silently from the start by lesser people fortunate enough to have access to a copy. The Daughter of Takasue, for example, wrote that she shut herself up in her room to read it day and night. Over the centuries, countless readers have done the same.

  Reading The Tale of Genji Today

  The women of the world for which Genji was written had households to run or lords and ladies to serve, and they could be busy with many tasks, duties, or pastimes. Still, the pace of life was slow. The tale is for readers who have time. Not only is it long, but it invites a degree of reader participation—a kind of active absorption—that few contemporary novels demand.

  The narration is never in a hurry, and it follows interweaving, indirect paths that may break off only to reappear later, like a stream that sometimes flows underground. This may even have been more or less the way the intended audience, especially the most exalted among them, properly expressed themselves, either in conversation or on paper. One young woman in the tale (the Ōmi Daughter) has decent looks and intelligence, but she talks at breakneck speed, and this alone makes her uncouth. Moreover, having just arrived from the country she does not understand the courtly world she has so suddenly joined, and she has no conception of the caution and decorum that should inform her every gesture. She assumes that if she wants the honor of serving the Emperor she need only ask, but she just makes a fool of herself instead. Occasional comments by the narrator suggest that the height of distinction in a great lady's speech could be for her voice to die away before the end of her sentence and that a letter written in “ink now dark, now vanishingly pale” could be particularly elegant. One not only spoke softly and at a measured pace, one also nurtured ambition with understatement and well-placed silence.

  Moreover, the narration often juxtaposes elements and scenes rather than stating a connection between them, leaving it up to the reader to see and define the relationship between one thing and another. The moments or scenes juxtaposed this way are not necessarily adjacent to each other. They come together, if they do, only in the reader's mind, thanks to memory and association encouraged by repeated reading, and the connection is seldom demonstrably intended because the narrator says nothing about it. Overlooking such possible links does not make the tale difficult to understand, but it may make it appear more episodic or fragmented than it actually is. Is Genji a series of loosely related stories or does it have a larger narrative structure? The character of the narration makes it difficult to decide, and to some extent the tale is what the reader makes of it. Its reticences and silences solicit an informed and engaged imagination.

  The Tale as Fiction and History

  The Tale of Genji has often been taken, understandably, for a sort of documentary on court life in the author's time, but its hero is a plainly fictional character. Scattered touches also suggest that the tale was actually conceived as a historical novel and that Genji lived in the early tenth century, nearly a hundred years before the author's time. For example, he is a master of the kin, a Chinese musical instrument prominent in the tale. Historical sources, however, show that the kin dropped sharply in popularity after the mid-tenth century and that by the author's time it was no longer played. Sure enough, when the aging Genji finds himself obliged to teach someone the kin (“Spring Shoots II”), he complains that few people play it anymore.

  What really betrays the tale as fiction, however, is simply that it is more beautiful than life. Not every moment or action in it is pleasing, and many are of course painful in one way or another. Rather, the narration gives grace and harmony to things that might otherwise be too tedious or distressing to sustain the reader's interest. It is as though the author had painted an immensely long and accomplished picture scroll. The scroll accurately conveys countless details of daily life, depicts troubling scenes, and generally hints at humanity's more or less deplorable failings. However, it selects and composes these things into engaging sequences. At the close of some upsetting passages the narrator actually observes that one would have wished to paint the scene.

  The narrative displays many visually brilliant scenes, and its careful attention to matters of costume is famous. However, this interest in beautiful tableaux and in dress does not prove, as some have assumed, that these nobles really spent all their time organizing visually perfect moments, any more than the incense blending in chapter 32 (“The Plum Tree Branch”) shows that they had little else to do but to enjoy incense. If they had, and if they had always succeeded as well when they tried as they do in the tale, such scenes would have been superfluous. The Tale of Genji evokes a world in which many things, much of the time, are really and truly done right for a change. Still, life's cruelties show clearly enough through the grace of color and form—the form of manners, words, and feelings as well as of things. The author saw life very clearly.

  All this helps to make the tale more real than history. Its most celebrated characters live more vividly in the imagination than anyone known from historical documents, and their lives—their sufferings, their disappointments, their failings, and their grace—have remained a major legacy to the centuries that have passed since they were first conceived. Although invented, they are also immortal. Even Genji's Rokujō estate, lovingly reconstructed in drawings and models, is by far the most widely known example of the domestic architecture of its time. That it never existed makes no difference at all.

  The Language of Genji

  The words in The Tale of Genji are probably close to those spoken at the court ten centuries ago. The text consists of expository narration, direct speech, silent thought (interior monologue), occasional comments by the narrator, and poems, all in a harmonious style that accommodates variations of tone and mood, according to context and character. When two high-ranking gentlemen discuss a delicate subject, their language conveys the tension between them, and when scholars speak, their jargon resembles a local dialect.

  The style of the tale is indisputably a great literary achievement, but it is also very difficult. Names are rare, and verbs seldom have a stated subject. After eight hundred years of Genji scholarship, it is still possible to argue that this or that speech or action should be attributed to someone else. Moreover, the vocabulary is relatively restricted and the available patterns of subordination relatively few. Neither the resources of the language itself nor the requirements of discretion encourage clarity of expression, and one feels sometimes as
though the author is pressing against the received constraints of her medium. Still, the original was undoubtedly clearer then than it is now, and much of its famous elusiveness may be due to later readers' ignorance of reference, idiom, and telling turn of phrase.

  Three linguistic features of the original deserve special comment. These are its evenness of flow, the integral role played in it by grammatical devices that indicate the speaker's social standing with respect to the person addressed or discussed, and certain modal inflections of the verbs in the narration.

  The original has (with local exceptions) a lovely, smooth flow that cannot be conveyed in English, which resists such unstressed evenness word by word and sentence by sentence. However, one can still preserve the length of some of the tale's many long sentences and at least follow the original in avoiding blunt statement that might snag the reader's attention on a solid mental object. For example, the original will say that “Genji decided to act on his long-standing desire” rather than that “Genji finally decided to become a monk,” and it will have a father “wish to see his daughter advantageously settled” rather than have him eager to find her a good husband. (The text has no stable term for either “marriage” or “husband.”)

  Polite and humble language may be the first issue mentioned when someone Japanese wonders how the tale can be translated into English at all. The modern Japanese language still makes it difficult to talk to or about someone without defining one's standing vis-à-vis that person, and other languages require similar linguistic acknowledgment of social relationship; but not so contemporary English, which offers relatively few means to achieve it. Appropriate diction and choice of vocabulary can make up the difference a little, and so can added interjections like “my lord” or “my lady,” but an English translation cannot help sounding relatively informal.

  Certain verbal inflections in Genji and other literature of its time have become an issue in recent years. The chief of these is -keri, which seems to indicate a verbal mode (rather than tense) that brings the events narrated into the present. Some scholars, for whom this quality of presence or immediacy is crucial to the sociopolitical significance of women's literature including Genji, hold that to translate such literature into the English past tense is to remove it from its audience in time and so to denature it completely. However, English lacks such a verbal mode of narrative immediacy, and translating into the present would not help, since the present is still a tense, not a mode, and is in any case difficult to sustain successfully throughout a long narration. In English, as in other related languages, a tale is normally told mainly in the past, and as a matter of naive reading experience it is untrue that events told in this tense lose their immediacy for the reader or listener. The basic tense of narration in this translation is therefore the past. However, most passages of interior monologue are in the first-person present.

  Calculating Time

  A final matter concerns the months of the year and the ages of the characters. The text often identifies the numbered month in which an event takes place, but these are lunar, not solar, months, and they differ from the months of the modern calendar. A lunar month is roughly six weeks later than the solar month with the same number. For example, the first day of the first lunar month is not the first of January, in the middle of winter, but the first day of spring (mid-February).

  By the fifteenth century, scholars had worked out at least the approximate ages of most of the characters for each chapter, and these ages are given here according to the Japanese method of counting. In Japan, a child's first year is the calendar year of birth, and the child enters his or her “second year” with the New Year. For example, a child born in the twelfth month becomes “two” in the first month of the next year, so that age leaps ahead of the Western count. Genji's listed age of seventeen in chapter 2 means that he is in his seventeenth year and that his age in English would normally be counted as sixteen. In other words, all ages given are one year greater than in English usage.

  The Illustrations

  The illustrations in the text are details redrawn by a contemporary artist from a wide range of medieval material, mainly painted scrolls (emaki). Since nothing of the kind survives from the time of The Tale of Genji itself, these choices are as close as possible to authentic depictions of objects and scenes in the tale. A few—for example “Playing Go” in chapter 3—are from Genji monogatari emaki (twelfth century), the earliest known but unfortunately incomplete set of Genji illustrations. Those interested in identifying the source of each picture should refer to the Shogakukan edition of the original text, which includes the name of the source in the caption.

  The figures on the slipcase are from full-book-page block prints included in one of the many editions of Kojitsu sōsho (Compendium of Ancient Usages), a collection of texts and illustrative material on ceremonies, properties, costumes, and so on associated with Japan's court and warrior aristocracies. This particular edition dates from the first years of the twentieth century. Two are from a section illustrating Heian court costume. The third, from a section on bugaku dances, shows a masked dancer performing “Ryōō” (“The Warrior King”).

  The Tale of Genji



  The Paulownia Pavilion

  Kiri means “paulownia tree” and tsubo “a small garden between palace buildings.” Kiritsubo is therefore the name for the palace pavilion that has a paulownia in its garden. The Emperor installs Genji's mother there, so that readers have always called her Kiritsubo no Kōi (the Kiritsubo Intimate), although the text does not.


  Genji, from birth through age 12

  The Haven, Genji's mother (the Kiritsubo Intimate, Kiritsubo no Kōi)

  His Majesty, the Emperor, Genji's father (Kiritsubo no Mikado)

  The Haven's mother, Genji's grandmother

  The Emperor's eldest son, appointed Heir Apparent at 7 when Genji is 4 (Suzaku)

  The Kokiden Consort, mother of the Heir Apparent

  Yugei no Myōbu, a gentlewoman in the Emperor's service

  A physiognomist from Koma

  The Right Grand Controller (Udaiben)

  A Dame of Staff (Naishi no Suke)

  Fujitsubo, daughter of an earlier Emperor, enters the palace at 16 when Genji is 11

  His Highness of War, Fujitsubo's elder brother (Hyōbukyō no Miya)

  His Excellency, the Minister of the Left, becomes Genji's father-in-law at 46 (Sadaijin)

  His daughter, Genji's wife, 16 at marriage when Genji is 12 (Aoi)

  His son, the Chamberlain Lieutenant (Tō no Chūjō)

  The Princess, the Emperor's sister, mother of Aoi and Tō no Chūjō (Ōmiya)

  The Minister of the Right, grandfather of the Heir Apparent (Udaijin)

  In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health and obliged her often to withdraw in misery to her home; but His Majesty, who could less and less do without her, ignored his critics until his behavior seemed bound to be the talk of all.

  From this sad spectacle the senior nobles and privy gentlemen could only avert their eyes. Such things had led to disorder and ruin even in China, they said, and as discontent spread through the realm, the example of Yōkihi1 came more and more to mind, with many a painful consequence for the lady herself; yet she trusted in his gracious and unexampled affection and remained at court.

  The Grand Counselor, her father, was gone, and it was her mother, a lady from an old family, who saw to it that she should give no less to court events than others whose parents were both alive and who enjoyed general esteem; but lacking anyone influential to support her, she of
ten had reason when the time came to lament the weakness of her position.2

  His Majesty must have had a deep bond with her in past lives as well, for she gave him a wonderfully handsome son. He had the child brought in straightaway,3 for he was desperate to see him, and he was astonished by his beauty. His elder son, born to his Consort the daughter of the Minister of the Right, enjoyed powerful backing and was feted by all as the undoubted future Heir Apparent, but he could not rival his brother in looks, and His Majesty, who still accorded him all due respect, therefore lavished his private affection on the new arrival.

  Her rank had never permitted her to enter His Majesty's common service.4 His insistence on keeping her with him despite her fine reputation and her noble bearing meant that whenever there was to be music or any other sort of occasion, his first thought was to send for her. Sometimes, after oversleeping a little, he would command her to stay on with him, and this refusal to let her go made her seem to deserve contempt;5 but after the birth he was so attentive that the mother of his firstborn feared that he might appoint his new son Heir Apparent over her own. This Consort, for whom he had high regard, had been the first to come to him, and it was she whose reproaches most troubled him and whom he could least bear to hurt, for she had given him other children as well.

  Despite her faith in His Majesty's sovereign protection, so many belittled her and sought to find fault with her that, far from flourishing, she began in her distress to waste away. She lived in the Kiritsubo. His Majesty had to pass many others on his constant visits to her, and no wonder they took offense. On the far too frequent occasions when she went to him, there might be a nasty surprise awaiting her along the crossbridges and bridgeways, one that horribly fouled the skirts of the gentlewomen who accompanied her or who came forward to receive her; or, the victim of a conspiracy between those on either side, she might find herself locked in a passageway between two doors that she could not avoid, and be unable to go either forward or back. Seeing how she suffered from such humiliations, endlessly multiplied as circumstances favored her enemies' designs, His Majesty had the Intimate long resident in the Kōrōden move elsewhere and gave it to her instead, for when he wanted to have her nearby.6 The one evicted nursed a particularly implacable grudge.