Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Tale of Reading The Tale of Genji

I like to think I'm a fairly well-read person, so I don't typically consider the finishing of a book to be cause for celebration. However, a few days ago I finally finished a book that I had been reading for the past three years and that has much to do with my studies. That book is the unabridged monumental Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari) written by Murasaki Shikibu (that's a pen-name; some people think her real name was Fujiwara Takako and that she was a lady-in-waiting at the palace in Kyoto, though this is often debated). Written in the 11th century, Tale of Genji is widely considered to be the first piece of prose fiction (which technically makes it the first novel) ever written. The authoritative English translation by Royall Tyler -- a very interesting person in his own right -- released by Penguin Books a few years back, is a whopping 1,120 pages, and that's not including the forewords, introductions, indexes, maps, timeline guides, etc. The story itself depicts the lives of aristocrats living in Kyoto, then the capital of Japan and home to the emperor, in the Heian period (794-1185 C.E.). So why did I decide to read the 11th-century Japanese equivalent of War and Peace, minus the war? And why did it take me so long!? I shall tell you a tale . . .

This is the version I read, but if you want to get a sense of the story without reading this giant tome there are a number of abridged versions and adaptations. 
The way I originally came to own Tale of Genji is actually kind of an amusing tale in itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a pretty big fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series of comics by Stan Sakai -- if you haven't read any and like samurai and Sengoku-period stuff, you should consider checking it out. Some years ago I read a particular volume of Usagi Yojimbo that recounted the famous naval battle between the Genji and Heike clans during the Genpai War (1180-85 C.E). I was totally into samurai and East Asian military history in those days (I suppose I still am) and heard that that particular battle was recorded in detail in a famous piece of Japanese historical literature, and I decided I really wanted to read it. I can't remember exactly what happened after that, but I think I was poking around in a bookstore and I saw Tale of Genji on a shelf or something. I just assumed that it was the story I wanted to read, as I'd heard that it was a famous work and associated the Genji in the title with the Genji clan described in the Usagi Yojimbo comic (this was before I was an East Asian Studies major, mind you). So when Christmas rolled around, I put Tale of Genji on my list and my mother, impressed that I had asked for a renowned classical piece of literature, bought it for me. 

This is the book I actually wanted, apparently, though to this day I still don't own a copy.  
I was happy to receive it, though I didn't read it right away, as it was huge and intimidating and I was still trying to get through a heavily annotated version of Dante's Divine Comedy at the time (which also took me a few years). Genji stayed in my bookshelf for a few years until I began my foray into East Asian studies. It didn't take long for us to get to Genji in Introduction to East Asian History; I quickly found out that Tale of Genji was not the tale I had initially thought it was. I initially toyed with the idea of offloading the book to one of my friends, as it sounded thoroughly uninteresting to me at the time. "There's nothing worse than a bunch of whiny aristocrats sitting around talking about art and how sad they are that some prospective mate isn't returning their letters!" was more or less what I thought. 

This illustration is from the Tale of Genji emaki, or scroll, a famous work that depicts a number of scenes from the story. This one appears to be of a nobleman and noblewoman having some intimate moments while her gentlewomen wait behind a screen. This happens a lot in the story, with various characters.  
It wasn't until second year that I learned a bit more about the tale and its importance to the study of East Asian history, when we began studying the Heian period, and I realized that it was something I might want to read after all. Tale of Genji represented a major turning point in Japanese literature, following the emergence of a native Japanese writing system known as kana (in this case, hiragana specifically). Before kana the Japanese used kanji (Chinese characters) exclusively, and according to my sources, women were discouraged from learning it for a number of archaic and misguided reasons (though some did, evidently). However, when hiragana came along, it was supposedly easier to learn and was thus considered ideal for women. Many women in the court started learning and writing in hiragana, which led to a small literary renaissance of sorts. The Tale of Genji is one of the results of this, as well as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, another famous work from the same period, which I'll likely read and review later this year.        

In second year we were given excerpts from the tale that we had to analyze, and it seemed to me that Genji, the main character of the story, could be thought of as the Japanese equivalent of Casanova or Don Juan or some such famous lover in literature. I'm generally not a huge fan of lovers in classical literature, so I received my first B+ mark writing an essay about how I thought Genji was a spoiled and naive idiot who did most of his thinking through his member and had no regard for any of the women whose lives he had ruined through his wanton ways. Still, we were told that, while fiction, the tale paints an extremely detailed portrait of the time in which the author lived and also had many interesting philosophical elements in its subtext. Of these, the concept of mono-no-aware is one of the most prominent; it denotes an appreciation of temporary things precisely because of their temporary nature (that's my understanding of it, anyway) -- in other words, appreciating things because they won't be around forever. So at the end of second year I decided to hunker down and give Tale of Genji the attention it apparently deserved. That was three years ago, and now I can cross the tale off my "monumental classics of literature" list.

Here's another scene from the scroll, with a female aristocrat apparently sleeping and her women (servants) hanging out outside the curtains engaging in various pastimes.  

My experience reading the tale can be described as intermittently wondrous, fascinating, frustrating, and even at times tedious. Don't get me wrong -- all in all I can say that I enjoyed reading it, and this translation is very well done, considering the subject matter. However, there are reasons why I consider Genji the hardest book I've ever forced myself to finish. I feel it's best to introduce subheadings here, so . . .

Alex's Personal List of Wondrous and Problematic Elements in the Penguin Classics Royall Tyler Translation of Tale of Genji (Unabridged)   

The following is a list of things that I personally found both awesome and frustrating while reading Tale of Genji. It also may be viewed as a list of what to expect and potential obstacles for those who are seriously thinking about reading it.   

Better believe there is a manga adaptation! (I'm sure there must be a translation out there, at least in scan form if not published.)
1. The Setting

According to the book, Heian Japan sounds like a really beautiful place to be if you're an aristocrat. Flowing streams; lush gardens; cherry blossoms; beautiful handmade robes featuring intricate patterns and soft, subtle colours; perfumes; healthy food; handsome villas; everyone playing music all the time and dancing and writing poetry. If you're a fan of the arts like me, then Heian aristocratic society may sound very attractive at first glance. However, it was also an extremely restrictive society in which everyone had to observe ridiculously stringent protocol and women had almost no say in . . . well, anything really. Here's some case studies based on a number of situations in the story.

A. Having trouble with an idiot courtier whom you must deal with on a regular basis? Well, even if you outrank him, you can't just give him a piece of your mind -- that would be too brazen! You must take the roundabout approach and get his servants or someone close to him to subtly persuade him to stop being an idiot, which can take days, weeks, or months or just never get done. Fortunately the average lifespan of the Heian noble seems to be about 54 years, so you won't have to suffer forever!

B. You're a woman, and a decently ranking male aristocrat whom you don't particularly like has expressed interest in you and asks if he can gain an audience with you. What do you do? Well, you can't say no, and ignoring him -- simply out of the question! Either of those responses would be just too rude and crass; what would everyone say about you!? You don't want people talking negatively about you behind your back, so thus you must acquiesce. What if he decides that, instead of simply talking with you, he'd rather just walk into your bedroom and have his way with you? Well, tough, your servants can't kick him out because he outranks them all, and you can't just hit him with something, because that's rude! You'll just have to learn to get used to having this new guy around. This actually happens several times in the story and is often perpetrated by the main character, Genji himself. There are a number of scenes in which a female character essentially gets raped by her would-be suitor and then the man chews her out for being 'distressed.' What the hell, Shikibu!?

Now listen, I'm not an idiot. I know the story was written by a woman and there is a historical context to be understood here. I imagine that in many societies in the world, the 1000s would not be considered progressive by today's standards by any stretch of the imagination. So when I read chapters in which these sorts of things happened, I tried my best to put myself in the mentality of the time -- I suppose stuff like that just happened and was fairly common and not a huge deal, depending on whom it happened to and why. Still, for a 21st-century feminist (yeah, that's right, I'm a feminist and a heterosexual male), it was at times hard to swallow. Near the end of the tale a female character straight up refuses to acknowledge a male suitor's advances for a number of reasons, and I found it to be one of the most satisfying moments in the whole tale.

So yes, in brief, I like the way Heian looks and plays, but if I had a time machine, while I might visit for a week or so, I wouldn't want to move there.

2. The Character Names and Titles

Here's a genealogical chart of the various main characters and how they are all related to each other. I don't think the version I have included this.  
Tale of  Genji has a lot of characters -- around 30 to 40 who show up every so often and a whack-tonne of minor characters who show up maybe once or twice. This may not sound like a lot; after all, many epics boast impressive rosters. However, in Tale of Genji their names change several times throughout the course of the story! I shall explain how this works. For whatever reason, Shikibu named all the characters after ranks in the Heian aristocratic hierarchy. It would seem that, based on the book, multiple advancement is possible within this hierarchy; therefore every time someone gets a promotion their name changes! Good gravy!

So, for example, the main character is referred to as Genji in the early part of the story (a genji seems to be like a squire or something similar). However, as he advances the text starts referring to him as "his grace," and then in another chapter, "his excellency," etc. etc. By the end of the book I think they're calling him "his honorary highness" or something like that.

Let me just say that I am awful at memorizing names to begin with, and when they are constantly changing, it's just a nightmare. Fortunately Tyler (the translator) puts these nice cast lists at the beginning of each chapter with each character's initial title and the one they are currently going by. Still, this requires you to flip back a few pages every time you forget who they are talking about, which in my case was pretty darn frequently. Still, it is a fact of the writing, so I guess you just have to deal with it. Think of this as less of a complaint and more of a warning for those who wish to give Genji their time -- it's kind of complicated.

Still, seeing as how this was the first novel ever, I think I can cut Ms. Shikibu some slack.

There are a number of anime adaptations as well, I believe this shot is from the most recent, titled Genji Monogatari Senneki. 

3. The Pacing

I'm just gonna say this straight up. Sometimes Tale of Genji is what is popularly referred to as boring. If you're reading this book and you didn't do your research and you're waiting for the part where all the samurai come out and start fighting each other, you will be utterly disappointed. Guess what? In Heian times, samurai (as many of us know them) didn't exist yet! The Heian times were actually very peaceful, so Tale of Genji is entirely about aristocrats sitting around doing aristocratic things like writing letters and poems to each other, contemplating the weather, practising calligraphy, going to temples, playing music, and doing artsy-fartsy capital-C culture stuff.

Now I actually like this kind of stuff -- maybe because I do a fair bit of capital-C cultural stuff myself (like reading this book) -- and seeing the details of how people lived is one of the most fascinating things about studying the history of any country, in my opinion. Like the characters, I'm also prone to Zen-like contemplation of my immediate surroundings (I read a lot of Zen stuff as a kid and teenager and it sort of stuck with me), so there is a lot in Tale of Genji that speaks to me personally. Despite this, even though I was generally engaged with the subject matter, there were times when I would zone out or get impatient when, for example, several pages were devoted to illustrating how broken up characters were because a person they were courting couldn't see them for a day or two. Okay, they're sad -- I get it! May we should move to the next plot point now?

There was still a lot I personally enjoyed in the narrative -- if I hadn't enjoyed reading this book to some degree I wouldn't have completed it. However, it was admittedly a bit of a grind at times, and if you like your narrative, fast, furious, and most of all concise, then you will probably find the pacing of this book somewhat unappealing. At times I'd zone out when the narrative casually switched to other, previously unmentioned characters; I'd get really confused and have to reread huge chunks of the chapter, which was another reason why it took so long to finish.

Again, it is technically the first novel ever and was not originally intended for present-day audiences, so fine, I can forgive it.

Don't forget movies! The Tale of Genji, 1951.
4. The Poetry

I like poetry generally and I like the poetry in Tale of Genji, as much of it is derived from classical Chinese and Japanese pieces and it's as beautiful as it is simple. Tyler did a wonderful job of translating the poetry in this book, and that couldn't have been an easy feat. The text is quite frequently interspersed with poems that the characters write in order to express feelings of longing or disdain, one-up each other, or just comment on an event or condition. The poems are often just two lines long, usually touch on natural motifs, and are often annotated in order for you to make more sense of them. I personally think it helps liven things up a bit, but some folks don't like this sort of thing. Just something to keep in mind.

Here's a picture I took of one of the maps featured in the back of the book. This one is of a ranking nobleman's house.

5. The Illustrations and Visual Aids

The version I have contains a collection of illustrations drawn in a style similar to the Tale of Genji emaki that I posted above. These are scattered throughout the book and provide some excellent visual cues to give you a better idea of how everything might have looked in Heian Japan. Also this version has maps and diagrams in the back of the book to show you how the city of Kyoto was arranged in those days, as well as what a noble's house and living quarters probably would have looked like. I found these immensely useful and they really added to my enjoyment of the story itself. One of the pages even has a summary of the entire timeline, which I used a number of times to make absolutely sure I knew what was going on and also to refresh my memory after having put down the book for an extended period.
The tale has inspired many artists to attempt to capture its scenes. I feel that this one does an especially good job.
 6. The Story

One would likely expect this to be at the top of this list, but I thought it would be a nice note to end on. As I previously mentioned, to the modern reader it may seem that on the surface Tale of Genji is about a bunch of effete (just learned this word) aristocrats who sit around all day, make too much of a big deal about everything, and become enamoured with one another much too easily. Still, if this was all the tale had to offer, I doubt it would be as famous and often-studied as it is. What I got out of reading the tale was that it is really about the passage of time and the complexity and temporary nature of human relationships, and how those too are affected by time (remember mono-no-aware!).

The story is very long, which allows for a much larger span of time to pass from beginning to end than most other novels. Because of this, the reader plays witness to the changing of the seasons (many times over), the births and deaths of integral characters, and the way characters may come together or grow apart. Considering how much time is spent on the minute details of the goings-on, one really gets a sense of the consequences, importance, and even significance of all these events and relationships in the grater scheme of things. In my case I found it gave me a sobering bit of perspective in relation to my own life and the various relationships I have had with family, friends, girlfriends, etc.

Now I'm going to get a bit personal here. Perhaps one of the reasons these elements of Tale of Genji resonated so well with me was that when I started reading it, I had just started dating a woman whom I came to love deeply. After dating for almost a year and a half we broke up, for a number of reasons, and the rest is history. During all of this I was reading this tale in which characters are going through and lamenting the very same things and emotions that I was experiencing at the time. It actually brought me some comfort during and after the breakup, because I knew that what I was feeling was nothing new. It was one of those "the more things change, the more they stay the same" moments.

Also I feel that there may even be some subversiveness in the narrative. After all, the tale is very long and was written by a woman living in a largely misogynistic society, long before the first printing presses were widely available. One has to wonder why someone would spend so many years of her (likely) short life writing by hand something of this length and complexity. And the story often highlights female characters going through negative emotional trials and tribulations brought on by aggressive and wanton male suitors. Even the final chapter culminates in a woman flat out rejecting two male characters' advances to instead become a Buddhist nun. Could it be that Tale of the Genji is some sort of early feminist commentary, pondering the lack of agency women generally had during the Heian period? Though we will likely never know the answer to this question, I think it's worth thinking about and I'm fairly certain there is an entire area of study centred around this idea. Seriously, google "Tale of Genji + feminism + gender studies" if you're interested; I'd imagine there would be a lot of results.

And so the list ends here. And in conclusion . . .

It may seem that I'm trying to dissuade people from reading The Tale of Genji by saying it's boring or hard, but I simply wish to express the things I felt as I was reading it and to give you an idea of what you might be in for should you choose to read it yourself. When all is said and done, the Tale of Genji is an investment. It will likely take you a long time to read, even if you're the type to blaze through this kind of stuff, but you may come out of it with a new outlook on life and the world around you. Perhaps you will find a greater appreciation for the small things; maybe you'll have a better understanding of Japanese history and traditional culture; maybe you'll have heightened appreciation for poetry. At the very least, you can impress people by telling them you read a long and important piece of classical literature. As for me? I feel as if I've gotten all these things and more from reading the tale. Maybe I'll read it again in another decade or so, and see what more I can get out of it. It's one of those things you're meant to come back to, I think. Regardless, I would say that I recommend the Tale of the Genji if you have the time and patience -- it's a classic for a reason.                           

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