the thousand year lotus (genji, part iii)

genji holds his infant son kaoru“The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and … represent[s] every scene in so easy and natural a manner … as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses of the persons in the story as if they were our own.”  –Clara Reeve, 1785

The Tale of Genji is described as a romance but although it is indeed a very romantic tale it easily surpasses that genre.   From the first sentence the reader is drawn into this beautiful and occasionally melancholy world.    Heian aristocratic society was devoted to culture and beauty; the highest expression of esteem for another individual was to remark on their accomplishment at any of the various arts.  Men and women were expected to be adept at painting, calligraphy, poetry, music, and conversation and they spent a considerable amount of time creating exquisitely harmonious environments for themselves.  There was apparently little to no strife in Japan at the time, no war, or serious internal struggles.   Although guards and soldiers are mentioned they seem mostly to exist to serve as protection whenever someone from court needs to venture outside the city limits.  What little friction exists in the book stems from fairly minor political maneuvering at court.  So much of the book is itself given over to describing the beauty of the world Genji and his family lived in.  All the drama is emotional and usually has something to do with romantic passion.

The most striking thing about the book is its lyricism.   Much of the conversation between two people (most commonly a man and a woman but often between members of the same sex) consists of poetry and there are nearly 800 of them in the novel.   This reliance on poetry might seem odd or forced to a modern reader but it is so integral a part of the culture that it is not very long before it seems natural to the reader as well.   I understand that in the original the poetry is incorporated seamlessly into the narrative but it is conventional in Western translations to set it apart from the prose, usually in the form of two- or five-line waka (depending on the translator).  An impressive amount of information is packed into each of these small poems, including puns, natural imagery, references to specific places or persons, and allusions to folk tales, religious tradition, and other poems.  An educated person was expected to not only recognize and understand all the facets of any given poem but to be able to immediately compose an appropriate reply.  It was considered a mark of ill-breeding to fail to respond to a poem.   Poems were composed both formally and informally, with much thought and off the cuff, and in nearly every conceivable circumstance.  Poems could be funny, playful, chiding, romantic, contemplative, or melancholy (since Genji is almost always saying goodbye to someone he loves, much of the poetry is sad).   Formal poems were constructed with great attention to the color and style of paper, the calligraphy, the ink, the scenting, and the “gift” (usually a flower or small branch) attached for the recipient.  Less formal poems were composed with whatever scrap of paper might be at hand and were often either very playful or expressive of immediate profound emotion; it was these less formal and thus more intimate poems of Murasaki’s that Genji burns after her death and it is heart-rending when he does so because by that time the reader understands fully what these “small scraps of paper” mean to him.

Although the book is very long and really concerns little more than the amorous adventures of a particularly engaging man-about-court it succeeds in holding the reader’s attention throughout, in no small part because its main characters are so fully realized.   Genji is an extraordinarily likable character, which is somewhat surprising given his behavior at times.  He is a kind of lovable rogue, occasionally behaving badly in spite of his better judgment, but always attempting to do the right thing.   He is a basically kind and generous man who occasionally lets his romantic nature talk him into less than exemplary behavior.   His brother-in-law, friend, and sometimes rival To No Chujo is a swaggering, robust court gentleman who often provides counterpoint to Genji in friendly competitions of music or dance.   After Genji’s death, when the focus shifts to Kaoru and Niou and their courting of the  ladies at Uji, the differences in their characters are exceptionally well-drawn.

Given the insular nature of Heian society it might seem that the female characters are not as fleshed out but this is not the case.    Men and women lived almost entirely separate lives.  Women could only interact with men from behind screens and partitions and flirting often consisted of letting a man view one’s elaborately layered sleeves from underneath a screen or from the window of a passing carriage.  Catching a glimpse of a woman was often enough to invoke a lifetime of passionate longing and nearly all the love affairs in the book begin with a window accidentally left open or a screen slightly pushed aside, allowing a brief look at some young woman.  Genji falls in love with his stepmother Fujitsubo when he catches an accidental glimpse of her and first sees Murasaki at play with her grandmother when he peeks behind a fence.  Genji’s son Yugiri sees Murasaki once when he is very young and is never able to forget her perfection; he does not see her again until she is on her deathbed when he contrives to see her briefly  and notes that she retained her beauty even in death.   Kashiwagi sees the Third Princess accidentally and it provokes both uncontrollable passion and fatal shame.  Kaoru glimpses Oigimi when he visits the Uji home of the Eighth Prince and falls so deeply in love with her that he is not able to forget her, even after her death.  And Niou manages to see Ukifune in the privacy of his wife’s rooms and his desire for her thus sets in motion her tragic story.

Each of these women, as well as many others in the book, are unique and interesting individuals.  Most of them must tread the fine line of maintaining their virtue and making a good marriage or alliance (this is a romance, don’t forget) and each of them handles the tension in her own way.  Most of them are convinced they aren’t good enough for whatever man it is that wants them but in reality it is the men that are not worthy of  them.  This becomes apparent as each woman’s story unfolds: The lady of the orange blossoms who is not beautiful but who manages to secure a permanent place in Genji’s affections and home because of her kind and gentle nature; the Akashi lady, convinced her rural upbringing makes her an unsuitable companion for a man of Genji’s stature yet who bears him a daughter who later becomes Empress; Nakanokimi who through sheer perseverance manages to supplant a princess in Niou’s affections; Fujitsubo, who first comes to court because she looks like someone else and who becomes much beloved by both her husband and her stepson; Oigimi, beloved of Kaoru, who is so convinced she is not worthy of his attention that she wills herself to die; and Ukifune who is loved by possibly the most upright man in the book (Kaoru) but who falls for the shallow and insincere Niou.   There is Kokiden, the jealous first wife of Genji’s father, who contrives to have Genji exiled for a time, and the Rokujo lady whose jealousy of Genji causes the death of his first wife and possibly of Murasaki (via evil spirit), and the spoiled Third Princess who cheats on Genji and then becomes a nun when she feels he isn’t paying her enough attention.  There are the servants and companions: Benn, who tells Kaoru of his true parentage, Murasaki’s nurse Shonagon and her maid Chujo, and Ukifune’s maid Ukon, all of whom are both companions and confidants to their ladies as well as occasional facilitators of their romantic pursuits.

And there is Murasaki, the heart of the story.  Murasaki is as perfect in her way as Genji is in his, a woman both beautiful and accomplished, and sublimely understanding of her husband’s nature.  She’s not a paragon; she occasionally fears losing her place in Genji’s heart to a younger, prettier, or better placed new interest, she can be a bit jealous, and she writes a few vaguely snarky poems about it, which usually serve to thoroughly chastise Genji.  (As an informal wife of a lower rank and without powerful backing at court her position in Genji’s life could be quite precarious.)  She waits for him through the  years of exile, understands when he comes home with a daughter, and then raises that daughter into a young woman fit to marry a crown prince.    Although Genji has at least three other women living in the house, Murasaki is his clear favorite but she is so unfailingly kind that there is no resentment and they are all friends.  Some of the most engaging parts of the books occur when Genji and Murasaki relax companionably together in her wing of the house writing poems to each  other as various of Genji’s grandchildren play around them.   When he loses her, he is shattered.  Although her death was not unexpected the scene is composed so powerfully and Genji’s loss is so exquisitely described that I literally cried when she died and the chapter after her death, which describes the year of mourning and Genji’s inconsolable grief is one of the saddest things I have ever read.   Genji’s own death is merely mentioned in passing and the implication is very strong that without Murasaki he could not continue.

Bottom line: This is an amazing book on any number of levels.  I highly recommend it, for the poetry, for the glimpse into a beautiful and not quite vanished culture, for the romance, for the characters.

Rare, the light shining from the moon upon this wine cup;
In our grasp.  Let it circle for a thousand years!

–Murasaki Shikibu

Score:  w00t!

A Reader’s Note:  If you plan to read the Tale of Genji I recommend that you first read Ivan Morris’ The World of the Shining Prince.  I did and it is not only in itself a very interesting and informative read, it will make Genji more accessible.   There are several different translations of Genji available; I read the Seidensteicker version because it seems to be the truest to the original text.  However, your mileage may vary.

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~ by gun street girl on April 27, 2010.

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