The Tale of Genji 
by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Edward Seidensticker.
Penguin, 1090 pp., £5.95, November 1980, 0 14 044390 8
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Some twenty years ago, not long after I came to England, I heard a talk by Rayner Heppenstall asserting that English and French were the only two cultures which had a continuous literary tradition from medieval times. Sceptical as I was about his claim, even in the European context, I was taken aback by the lack of curiosity which it demonstrated. Listening to the applause of the audience, I wondered what it reflected of the general attitude of the reading public in Britain. It is therefore very welcome to find that the Penguin Classics now include The Tale of Genji, a psychological novel written at the beginning of the 11th century by a Japanese court lady.

The novel is twice the length of War and Peace, and no generation of writers in Japan has been able to ignore it. Genji has been admired, attacked and imitated, some ten thousand books have been written about it and countless articles dedicated to it in the past 950 years. We know from the author’s diary that it was acquiring its reputation even as it was being written. Many of its characters have been used in Noh plays and popular drama, and have provided psychological types for the popular imagination. People can identify an Aoi, the cool proud beauty secretly vulnerable; the Lady of Rokujo, the highly-strung, jealous, demanding female; a Yugao, the gentle but unfathomable unforgettable one.

The publication in a popular paperback edition of this translation of The Tale of Genji is welcome for at least three reasons. The original is a work of great beauty, and even if the translation by the American academic, Professor Seidensticker, conveys little of the flavour of Murasaki’s style, this text has none of the omissions and embroideries of the beautiful Arthur Waley version completed in the inter-war years. The various psychological dramas that evolve among these self-indulgent courtiers of Japan a thousand years ago can still move the reader. Secondly, strange as it may seem, The Tale of Genji provides a way of understanding an aspect of present-day Japan. The Japanese sense of national identity is intimately linked to the people’s identification with the literature of the past. In a nation where the secondary-school curriculum is much more standardised than in England, and where 94 per cent of the population go to school at least until 18 years of age, every car-factory worker manipulating the robot on the shop floor, every salesman in his dark suit, every jean-clad punk on his motorcycle, and every dedicated Marxist, has read some chapters of The Tale of Genji (and of the Pillow Book of the same period). Many of the residents of one of the noisiest capital cities in the world, living under an often hazy, polluted sky, believe that they respond ‘more than the foreigners’ to the chirpings of crickets or the rays of the moon, as did the characters in Genji. Foreigners living in Japan are exasperated by the Japanese delusion that their sensibility is unique. The Japanese maintain an amazing self-image which Europeans unfamiliar with the classical literature of the country find difficult to comprehend. The third reason for welcoming a popular edition of the complete English Genji has to do with its great interest to feminists. It is one of the two best works of a time when the majority of literary prose-writers were women. From the 200-year period in Japan which spans the writing of Genji we still have a dozen or so novels and tales, a couple of collections of short stories and eight personal diaries. (Another ninety works of fiction we now know only by name.) Some two-thirds of these were written by women – a phenomenon probably without parallel anywhere else in the world.

The Tale of Genji consists of 54 tomes or chapters, and is traditionally divided into three parts. The first 33 chapters centre on the various amours of Genji, an emperor’s bastard son renowned for his looks and taste. Genji, whose behaviour is taken to be scandalous, nevertheless incarnates everything that was thought desirable for a man of his time. He is beautiful ‘like a flowering tree’, he displays absolutely no military prowess and hardly any athletic gifts. He writes poems well, excels in calligraphy, is a good musician, and has exquisite taste in colour and in the mixing of incense. He is sensitive to nature and to seasonal changes. Genji also reflects Murasaki’s own values. He is a keen advocate of academic pursuits. He risks disfavour in the pursuit of his passions. This section, with its idealised protagonist and its fatalism, still has some of the features of the romances of the previous century, but it also reveals Murasaki’s observant eye for the corrupt political and social life of her time, when the Confucian political system introduced three centuries before had degenerated into one where much was determined by personal favours and family ties. The following eight chapters concern Genji’s eldest son and his male friend, who have reacted against the philandering of their fathers, and Genji’s own personal life is gradually engulfed in sadness as people die around him. The next three transitional chapters and the last ten chapters, called ‘The Ten Tomes of Uji’, deal with a time after the death of Genji. Although this section features two well-endowed male characters, the chief presence is that of a young, feeble girl, referred to as Ukifune, or Floating Bark, who cannot choose between two people who love her. It is this section, dominated as it is by the Buddhist belief in karma, that comes closest to a modern novel in its psychological depth.

The authoress, Murasaki Shikibu, had the rank of lady-in-waiting, and, like the majority of the writers of the period, she was a member of the lower echelons of the aristocracy, her father being a government official and a scholar. Like most women of her milieu, she was taught some Chinese and Buddhist classics, and these she was said to have learned much more quickly than her brother, who was being trained for a political career. This made her father lament the fact that she was not a man. After a few years of marriage she became a widow, and then served as court lady to the Empress. Her daughter also became a writer. She not only wrote The Tale of Genji but left a diary, remarkable for its critical powers of observation of the world around her and of herself. It is free of the self-absorbed and whining tone of many of those diarists who were her contemporaries. Murasaki seems to have been reserved; she was thought to be a bit of a prig, in great contrast to her rival, Sei Shonagon, author of the witty collection of essays, Pillow Book, known for her wit and lack of inhibition, and chided by Murasaki for ‘making such an effort to be different from others’. Murasaki writes in her diary how the Prime Minister teased her about The Tale of Genji, ‘making his usual stupid jibes, and then handed me a poem on a piece of paper on which he attached a branch of plum blossom. “What with these ardent tales of love, little can I think that men have passed you by, as they might this plum-tree’s sour fruit.” ’ Murasaki replies: ‘If no man has tasted, who can say if the flower is sour, or if the writer of these tales herself has known such love?’ The way Murasaki coped with the Premier’s further pursuit reads as if straight out of The Tale of Genji. One night she hears him tapping on the shutter, but, terrified, she refuses to open. The following morning a poem arrives from him:

How sad for him who stands the whole night long
Knocking on your cedar door
Tap-tap-tap like the cry of the kuina bird.

She replies:

Sadder for her who had answered the kuina’s tap
For it was no innocent bird who stood
There knocking on the door.

She writes of herself: ‘Pretty yet shy, shrinking from sight, unsociable, fond of old tales, conceited, so wrapped up in poetry that other people hardly exist, spitefully looking down on the whole world – such is the unpleasant opinion that people have of me. Yet when they come to know me they say that I am strangely gentle, quite unlike what they had been led to believe’ (Ivan Morris’s translation).

The style of The Tale of Genji is in marked contrast to that of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, which is pithy, terse and clear. Murasaki’s sentences are long, with many qualifying phrases and clauses. They have an extremely mellifluous rhythmic quality which is very distinctive, and which made the 13th-century poet Shunzei say that no poem could rival Genji in style. This flowing quality is entirely lacking in Seidensticker’s translation, although he writes in his introduction that a translation should aim ‘to imitate the original in all important matters, including the matter of rhythm’. The translator once said that he doubted ‘whether Murasaki really had much nose for style’, and in his introduction he suggests that her style is laconic and brisk. I find this surprising. It is true that Murasaki embroiders little. But hers is a deliberate attempt to write in the spoken language of the female aristocracy while incorporating the rhythm of the waka, the traditional poem of 31 syllables. There have occasionally been Japanese writers who have claimed to dislike the prose of The Tale of Genji. But that was because terse, clear sentences were what they believed in, not because they denied the distinctive mellifluous quality of Murasaki’s style.

The Tale of Genji provides extra problems for the translator. In classic, even more than in modern Japanese, pronouns are often omitted. This often makes Murasaki’s sentences, with their many dangling clauses, ambiguous: one has to guess whether the subject of each clause is the same as or different from the one preceding it. The fact that pronouns and demonstratives do not have genders introduces even greater hazards when emotional reactions between two or more people are being described in a long sentence. A further difficulty comes from the fact that much courtship was carried out in Murasaki’s day by people exchanging impromptu waka, or poems of five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables each, either in writing or verbally. The Tale of Genji is scattered with such poems, which are often condensed in meaning, make allusion to past literary works, or depend on puns and metaphors. Even for a Japanese, Genji is very difficult to read without special training. In this century alone, three important native writers have attempted a translation into modern Japanese: the pacifist poet, Yosano Akiko, in the first decade of this century; immediately after the war, the novelist, Tanizaki Junichiro, probably the best prose-writer of modern Japan (his is a beautiful translation which captures both the flowing quality and the ambiguities of the original text); and recently Enchi Fumiko, a writer of poignant tales concerning the female psyche rather like those of Jean Rhys.

Arthur Waley’s translation was extremely free. Not only did he remove all the ambiguities but he added the many explanatory sentences, and the embroidery, needed to spell out the allusions which would have been clear to Murasaki’s readers. But he also left out huge chunks without letting the reader know he was doing so. He removed, perhaps quite understandably, many detailed accounts of ceremonies such as initiation rites, calligraphy competitions, jubilee celebrations; he expunged one chapter where Genji’s second wife becomes a nun (Chapter 38, ‘Bell Cricket’), and also, very strangely, omitted long stretches of important prose pertaining to the progress of personal relationships.

Seidensticker’s version attempts to be more faithful to the meaning of the original text, and one is made to realise how hard a task this is. The difference in style and mood, especially in the translations of the poems, can interfere with, or even alter, the point made in the original text. Compare the two versions of a poem of Genji’s lamenting the death of his first wife. This is typical of Genji poems, consisting of the description of an image in nature which is used to symbolise an aspect of human experience. Waley’s is:

Go we late or soon, more frail our lives
Than dewdrops hanging in the morning light.

Seidensticker’s is:

We go, we stay, alike of this world of dew
We should not let it have such a hold upon us.

In the original poem – as in other poems in Genji – there is no exhortation. It is a simple lament.

The other infelicities stem from the thankless task of translating words used for their sound, double meaning and power of allusion all at once. Let me give two illustrations of this as it affects the translation of chapter titles. Chapter 41 has the title Maboroshi, the literal sense of which is apparition, phantom, haunting image. It is a chapter in which Murasaki, Genji’s consort of 25 years, has just died, and he is inconsolable. Her image pursues him everywhere. This is what the title indicates. Waley translates the title ‘Mirage’, and Seidensticker, amazingly, ‘Wizard’! This is because, in a special context, maboroshi can be used to mean ‘seer’ or ‘magician’, and at the end of this chapter there is a scene in which Genji looks at wild geese flying by through the autumn sky and makes a poem. Seidensticker translates: ‘Oh wizard flying through endless heavens ...’ As he says in a footnote, there is an allusion here to the ‘Song of Everlasting Sorrow’ by the Chinese poet Po Chui, which describes the Emperor sending a Taoist seer in search of his dead wife’s soul, and plays on the ambiguity of the word maboroshi. Yet the title of the chapter depends on the word’s ordinary meaning of being haunted by something no longer there. Another example is the title of Chapter Three, Utsusemi, which is literally ‘empty cicada’ or ‘cicada shell’. This is a tale of a married woman whom Genji pursues. She cleverly escapes him, and he finds only her bedcover. He makes a poem alluding to a cicada shell, and thereafter she is referred to as Utsusemi. Seidensticker’s title, ‘The Shell of the Locust’, will mislead non-Americans. In America ‘locust’ seems also to mean ‘cicada’. Since ‘locust’ elsewhere means those devouring insects which come in hordes, this is unfortunate. The cicada is a symbol of transience in Japan, because it sings through the summer in trees and then dies. The similarity of the word for cicada shell, utsusemi, to utsushimi, or incarnation in the world of appearance, has made the cicada even more a symbol for ephemeral life.

I have mentioned earlier that The Tale of Genji lies near the centre of the Japanese sense of national identity. On the surface, this is strange, since the world of Genji is extremely remote from present-day Japan, a meritocratic mass society, and is hardly even representative of the Heian Japan of a thousand years ago. It has been speculated that such a life was shared by less than 0.2 per cent of the population of the time. Indeed, the literature of Murasaki’s day is unique in Japanese history in being so bound to the aristocracy. The anthology Manyoshu, compiled at the end of the eighth century, and the only work which can compete with Genji so far as its universal popularity in Japan is concerned, includes poems by peasant women, frontier guards, minor officials, as well as by imperial princes. The other important period for literature in Japanese history, the last quarter of the 17th century (which produced the Haiku poet Basho, the playwright Chikamatsu and the novelist Saikaku), was dominated by townsmen. The Samurais and Confucian scholars of the late Middle Ages considered Heian culture effeminate and immoral. Leftist Japanese critics of this century have referred to Murasaki’s rival Sei Shonagon as a ‘moral cripple’, because of her entirely aesthetic reaction to society. Why then do they accept The Tale of Genji? Why do they not react like the Scottish historian Murdoch, who saw the Heian aristocracy depicted in it as ‘an ever-polluting brood of greedy, needy, frivolous dilettanti as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate, incapable of any worthy achievement’? There is, in fact, general agreement that the world represented in Genji is promiscuous, and extremely limited, and that the character of Genji himself is hardly admirable. Yet Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), an ideologue who exercised great influence on those nationalists of the mid-19th century who brought about the Meiji restoration and set Japan on the road to becoming a nation state, found in The Tale of Genji the aspect most to be cherished in the Japanese heritage. For him, what was to be cherished in the national heritage was not revealed in the Samurai codes, nor in Zen thinking. Norinaga claimed that Genji expresses more than anything else what Murasaki called monono aware, or emotional response, sensibility to things and events. Against the traditionalists who found Genji immoral and effeminate, and against the Confucian scholars who found it lacking in rational thinking and edifying sentiment, he praised monono aware as a form of knowledge, as a way of grasping things. And he quotes the discussion in Genji about the status of fiction and its relation to truth to prove his point.

In Chapter 25, entitled ‘Fireflies’, Genji comes upon his adopted daughter absorbed in a romance, and comments that, since they are incurable readers of works of fiction, ‘women seem to be born to be cheerfully deceived: they know that there is scarcely a shred of truth in these romances, but yet they are captivated.’ A conversation ensues, and Genji concedes that although fiction does not tell us about the circumstances of specific people, fiction begins with the author’s seeing and hearing what is happening to people, whether good or bad, and being so moved by it that he cannot keep his emotion to himself. Genji concludes that to dismiss fiction as lies is to miss the point. Norinaga asserted that this emotional response, frequently despised as feminine, constitutes the core of Japanese literature and aesthetics, as well as ethics, and defended its superiority to foreign – by which Norinaga meant Confucian Chinese – ethics, which judge and proscribe.

It is important to recognise how this view of the talented but insular Norinaga has contributed to the Japanese self-image in modern times. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as illogical but emotional, subtle in their responses to the human psyche and to nature. Evidence of their own insensitivity in wartime prisons, or of the achievements of their mathematicians and physicists, has not altered their belief in their own unique monono aware. The Tale of Genji has not only made modern Japanese go on their ritual excursions to view the cherries or the autumn maples: it has caused them to hold onto a peculiar view of their mentality. This is the converse of the way in which Descartes and Racine have made the most fuzzy-minded Frenchman believe in his rationality and restraint. The tie with past literature is maintained in Japan in quite unexpected ways. In any department store one can find various mass-produced editions of a card game called ‘Hyakuninishu’ or ‘A Hundred Poets One Verse’. The game provides two sets each of 100 cards. The cards of the one set are inscribed with a whole waka poem, the cards of the other with the last two lines only of the poems in the first set. The game has one player pick up the card inscribed with the last two lines as another begins to read out the whole poem. The hundred poems were selected by a poet, Teika, in the 13th century, and 42 of these were poems which Murasaki would have known. It is typical of Japan that the once aristocratic game of matching the halves of poems written by calligraphy on shells should have been turned into a game for the masses in the 16th century by adapting the European card games brought by the Portuguese.

We should also think of Murasaki in the context of female writers of the past. There were good reasons why the important literary works of tenth and 11th-century Japan were written by women. As the late Ivan Morris pointed out in The World of The Shining Prince (1964), Chinese remained the script of officials and scholars, and men were obliged to use it for serious writing other than poems, in the same way that Latin was used in medieval Europe. Women had free use of the Japanese phonetic script and wrote in the vernacular. In addition, fiction was considered light amusement, and men of letters were discouraged from writing works of fiction and concentrated on the writing of history, didactic treatises or moral fables. (Some men wrote fiction under the pretence that they were women.) Another essential fact was that upper-class women of the time often had economic independence, since the law guaranteed them the right to inherit. Most importantly, they were all literate. In Chapter Two of The Tale of Genji there is a famous section describing a discussion between a group of young men on a rainy night, comparing and assessing different types of women. (The Japanese even have a name for this section: Amayo No Shinasadame, or ‘Assessment on a Rainy Night’.) Among the many types described – which include the sweet, gentle woman who finally bores because she does not have an independent mind, the melodramatic woman who likes to have a tantrum and leave, expecting her husband to come in search of her, the efficient housewife so dedicated to domestic tasks that a man cannot discuss his public life with her – there is a wry description of a bluestocking, and of the woman ‘who fancies herself a poetess ... immerses herself in the anthologies and brings antique references into her very first line’. One of the young men gives a comical account of his affair with the bluestocking daughter of his professor, who, having a knowledge of the classics superior to his own, instructs him in the writing of Chinese and in the management of his public life, ‘even in chats they would have when they woke up together’, a phrase both versions leave out. Again, Seidensticker’s rendering of the bluestocking’s speech, full of clumsily-assembled pompous words, is misleading, since it is the combination of the straight, matter-of-fact tone of her speech and the bizarre content of her message that imparts to the episode its grotesque comedy. We can see from these discussions that women were expected to be educated, though they should not wear their learning on their sleeves. Moreover, women in Murasaki’s time, as in most other times in history, were not encouraged to pursue any profession, as we can see from the comments Genji makes on his daughter’s education at the end of Chapter 22: ‘Women should have a general knowledge of several subjects, but it gives a bad impression if they show themselves to be attached to a particular branch of learning. I would not have her completely ignorant in any field. The important thing is that she should appear to have a gentle, easy-going approach even to those subjects that she takes most seriously.’ It is fortunate for us that Murasaki herself did not accept such precepts.

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