Fan-de-Siècle

Brigid Brophy

  • Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, A Translation and Study by Richard Bowring
    Princeton, 290 pp, £21.70, August 1982, ISBN 0 691 06507 1
  • Evelina by Fanny Burney
    Oxford, 421 pp, £2.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 19 281596 2
  • The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney edited by Peter Hughes and Warren Derry
    Oxford, 624 pp, £37.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 812507 0
  • Colette by Joanna Richardson
    Methuen, 276 pp, £12.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 413 48780 6
  • Letters from Colette translated by Robert Phelps
    Virago, 214 pp, £7.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 86068 252 8

A small ad in Private Eye seeks a companion ‘sexy, feminine and discrete’. Siamese twins, I suppose, need not bother to apply. It is harder to divine why this translation of Murasaki’s Diary renders one passage by the words: ‘This is not to say that her women are always so genteel; if they forget themselves they can come out with the most indiscrete verses.’ Perhaps, in becoming conversant with Japanese to a degree he makes plain even to me who know not a syllable of the language, Richard Bowring has forfeited some command of English. That looks all the likelier when he skids into bad grammar: ‘ ... sent to whomever was to copy out the story’. Or perhaps both the ‘indiscrete’ and the ‘whomever’ are misprints. If so, there is something moving in the persistence – and the persistent justification – of literary fears. It is roughly a thousand years since the son-in-law of the Emperor of Japan filched a copy of Murasaki’s novel from her room at court and she recorded in her Diary the quintessential literary dread that it might be an inaccurate copy that ‘would hurt my reputation’.

She was a widow in her thirties, already famous as the author of that rumbustious, read-on yet delicate novel The Tale of Genji, when she joined the entourage of the Emperor’s daughter in the combined capacities of lady-in-waiting and literary lion. Her Diary of (chiefly) court life is, Mr Bowring considers, more probably a reconstruction in tranquillity than a compilation of day-to-day entries.

It opens, in 1008 AD (Kanko 5 in the Japanese calendar of the time), with what might be the beginning of the scenario for an extra act to be interpolated between Acts One and Two of Madama Butterfly. It is marred but not ruined by touches of the seedsman’s catalogue in the translation: the beauty of the imperial palace in the autumn ‘defies description’, and the foliage beside the lake becomes ‘a blaze of color’. As night descends, chanting begins; then gongs sound; just before dawn, a procession of 20 finely-robed priests carries ‘the consecrated objects’ across ‘the magnificent Chinese bridges in the garden’. The Emperor’s daughter is about to give birth to her first child.

In what Mr Bowring sees as a bit of political good luck that strengthened the dynasty and Murasaki describes as the occasion of general euphoria, the princess is safely delivered of a son, one of whose first acts is to pee on his father. He is truly to the manner born at this court, which resembles that of Edward VII in its mixture of rigid and often unfathomable rules (women waiting on the princess must wear their hair dressed upwards, only people of certain ranks are entitled to wear clothes of the ‘forbidden colours’) with simple-minded horseplay. During one ceremony, a drunken Provisional Middle Counselor ‘started’, Murasaki records, ‘pulling at Lady Hyobu’s robes and singing dreadful songs’. During another, ‘the younger women were greatly amused,’ she notes, when the ceremonial rice was thrown and a religious dignitary hid his face and his (presumably bald-shaven) head beneath a fan to avoid being hit.

Murasaki is clearly writing for publication and probably with propagandist intent. She does not abstain from the sort of flattery royalty usually exacts from its pet writers: ‘I do find it extraordinary how she can ... make me quite forget my troubles; if only I had sought solace for my unhappiness by taking service with Her Majesty much earlier.’ Even so, this is recognisably the world of Genji, attractive yet enigmatic in its perhaps over-refined aestheticism, and recognisably, if one dare judge through the hazards of translation, the work of Murasaki. The formality is pierced by the personal (‘ “Is this the moon that used to praise my beauty?” I say to myself ... Then, realising that I am making precisely that mistake which must be avoided, I become uneasy and move inside a little, while still, of course, continuing to fret and worry’) and by an almost fin-de-siècle or indeed fan-de-siècle dying fall (‘the fans women had then were so beautiful’), as well as by the perennially literary experiences: ‘I tried rereading the Tale, but it did not seem to be the same as before and I was disappointed.’

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