Access to the Shining Prince

Hide Ishiguro

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.

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