this passing world (genji, part i)

the tale of genji “In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.”

Sometimes it is hard to know what to say about a book.  How can you describe what it is like to finish a book and feel an immediately wistfulness, not only for the book itself, but for the people in it?  Describing the plot and themes is not sufficient; such a discussion might be useful but it lacks any sense of the depth of the attachment you feel to the characters or of their place in your life.  So in some sense, I cannot review this book properly.  I think that my response to it is peculiar to me, although I venture to guess that many other people have had similar responses, since the book has been a classic for a thousand years.

I have read only one other book like this in my life: Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error. On the surface, the two books are nothing alike.  Montaillou book is a scholarly account of life in a medieval French village; it is based on surviving records of interrogations of Cathar heretics.   Although can be a bit dry (especially in translation), for the most part is deeply fascinating.  This is because the author turns over the majority of the narrative to the voices of the people of Montaillou and by the end of the book I actually felt like I knew these people as friends and neighbors.   As a reading experience, it was utterly unique.

The Tale of Genji is a vastly different sort of book.  It is a novel, a romance specifically, as was fashionable among the ladies of the Imperial court at Heian-kyo, and it is sometimes considered the word’s first novel (although that sort of thing is always dependent on definition).  It was written a thousand years ago by a woman whose name we do not know.  By custom she is referred to by the name of her most famous character (Murasaki, a nickname she had at court) and her father’s court title (Shikibu).  Little is known of her life; she was the daughter of a governor and a lady in waiting to an empress.  She married and had at least one daughter.  It is not known when she died.  Unusually for a woman of the time, she was educated “like a man”; that is she was taught kanji and classical Chinese literature, much of which influences the novel.  The novel was most likely written over many years and it is possible that Murasaki never intended for it to end.   The intended audience was her fellow court ladies and the book is very episodic in nature.  Its many characters (over 400) develop over time as they grow up and grow old (and yes, a cheat sheet comes in very handy…).

There is no real plot in the novel, at least not one that follows the sort of narrative arc familiar to western readers.  The quotation at the start of this entry refers to the favorite concubine of the Heian emperor.  She bears him a beautiful son, Genji, who rapidly becomes his favorite even though for political reasons he cannot name him as his heir.   Genji’s mother, tormented into sickness by the jealousy of the women in the emperor’s  household who outrank her, dies when Genji is three.  The emperor later takes on another consort, Fujitsubo, primarily because she reminds him so strongly of Genji’s mother.   As Genji grows, he falls in love with Fujitsubo, courts her secretly (he is married to the daughter of a prominent minister), and eventually she bears him a son, whom everyone believes to be the emperor’s child.   (This son eventually becomes emperor himself.)   Fujitsubo, feeling guilty at deceiving the emperor, who she loves a great deal, withdraws from Genji and eventually becomes a nun.  Genji’s marriage is not a happy one; he has one child with his wife, his son Yugiri, and she dies when the boy is very young.

When he is about 20 years old Genji visits the Northern Hills and sees Murasaki, an accomplished girl of ten. She bears a striking resemblance to Fujitsubo (who is her aunt) and Genji eventually arranges to bring her to his home, where she is reared as a high ranking member of the court and groomed to be Genji’s eventual wife.   Following the death of his father and the ascension of a different political faction to power Genji is exiled to the wilds of Akashi, where he meets the beautiful and accomplished daughter of a former provincial governor.  She bears him a daughter who eventually becomes empress.  After a couple of years, the situation at court calms down enough for Genji to return home and he and Murasaki are reunited.

Genji spends the next decades of his life creating a haven of peace and culture at his home in Rokujo.  He marries Murasaki (she is about 14), and brings some of his other ladies there to live, each in her own wing of the house.  The house becomes a favorite place of the court, both because Genji is related by blood or marriage to most of the several royal families in the book (his illegitimate son is the Reizei emperor, a consort’s daughter becomes empress, his own daughter with the Akashi lady becomes empress, etc.) but also because he is an unparalleled example of the perfect man of his age.  He is sublimely cultured, adept at poetry, the arts, and music.  He has exquisite taste in dress and perfumery, his gardens are without equal, and every event at his home is memorable.  Both the Reizei empress and the Akashi empress make a habit of escaping there whenever court life is too stressful.

Late in life, Genji takes another wife.  The Third Princess is the very young (13), very spoiled, and not very accomplished daughter of a good friend of his, a former emperor.  He marries her as a favor to his friend, who is worried about her future, but this addition of a much younger woman to the household (and one of royal blood as well) hurts Murasaki deeply and makes her doubt the security of her place in Genji’s heart.  She talks of becoming a nun but Genji is inconsolable at the thought of losing her and she realizes that so young and untutored a woman as the princess holds no real interest for him.  The Third Princess has an illicit affair with Kashawagi, the son of Genji’s best friend, and bears a son, which Genji believes is his own.   After Kashiwagi’s death, the young princess herself becomes a nun, although she continues to live at one of Genji’s other houses.

By this time, Genji has been with Murasaki for some 30 years.  He has two sons, Yugiri and Kaoru (who is really Kashiwagi’s son) and one daughter, the Akashi empress.  Both of his sons are extremely accomplished and highly placed at court and his daughter of course married very well.  He has numerous grandchildren, mostly Yugiri’s (some humor in the novel derives from the unusually large number of children Yugiri fathers).  Although he and Murasaki have no children, she has raised his daughter and several of his grandchildren and they all love  her as if she were their own mother.   In the twilight of his life (he is nearing 50) Genji is a very  happy man.  And then Murasaki dies.   She is ill for a long time and when it becomes obvious that she will not survive she makes all the necessary preparations and leaves the world as she has lived her entire life, with grace and dignity, with Genji weeping at  her side.   He never recovers and spends the requisite year of mourning preparing for his own eventual leave-taking.  His own death occurs off the page.

The final third of the book concerns Kaoru and Prince Niou, (Genji’s grandson) and their interactions with the ill-fated women of Uji.  These final chapters have a more directed story line than the preceding chapters and are far more tragic.  Kaoru and Niou seem to embody different facets of Genji; Kaoru is all of Genji’s rectitude and sobriety without any of his playfulness and Niou is all his frivolity and rakishness without any of his maturity and responsibility.   Their courtship of the daughters of the Eighth Prince (Genji’s half brother), in particular their pursuit of Ukifune, ends very badly and neither of them end up appearing even remotely the equal of the Shining Prince.  The books ends abruptly, with Kaoru’s discovery that Ukifune is not dead but has become a nun.  In the last lines he is preparing to go visit her.

So, that’s the plot, a meandering tale of the life and loves of a court minister in imperial Japan a thousand years ago.  There’s no real point to any of it, no major conflicts, no bad guys, no evil, no war.  Even death is romanticized.  It’s very gossipy and in fact is written as if it were being told by an eyewitness to the events, one who feels free to comment on them (sometimes snarkily, as when she notes that someone’s poetry isn’t quite up to snuff).   I take it this is the sort of thing that made Heian court ladies swoon.  But what about modern readers?

[To be continued…]


~ by gun street girl on April 15, 2010.

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