“The Sensualist” by Ian Buruma. The New Yorker, 7/20/2015.
I read a translation of the Japanese “The Tale of Genji” back in the 1960s when I was first enamored with all things Japanese, including my new wife of Japanese descent. Written in Japan in the 11th century, centered in the court of the emperor, it is claimed to be the world’s first novel, popping up without president and not repeated again for hundreds of years. It was written by a mid-ranked lady of the court, known only as Lady Murasaki, a fictitious name that is also the name of the main character (easily confusing).
A long book involving almost one hundred individuals, it is the story of the super-talented, super-cleaver, super-everything Prince Genji and his rise from the son of a minor consort of the emperor to a position second only to the emperor himself. “Consort” is a nice word for his mother’s royal duties. The story continues over several generations.
I only remember the ethereal sense of other-worldliness about the book, with good reason. Every reader should know beforehand several things about it and the culture of the times:
- Court life consisted of very rich people with nothing to do and bored out of their minds. To fill the void, they amused themselves with petty gossip, affairs and intrigues, and obsessing over minute details of fashion and etiquette. Many wives, concubines, and casual affairs were the expected perks of an aristocratic gentleman’s life. They were accepted as earned karma rewards of many good deeds in a previous life.
- There is no unifying plot with a beginning, middle, and end. The characters simply experience new events as they age. Many events happen without leading anywhere, much as in real life.
- The book is mostly about seduction, but it is not erotic. Seduction in the Heian court was all about style. Women were secluded behind screens in darkened rooms, even to male family members. The height of eroticism was to see part of a woman’s sleeve of the finest silk and fashionable colors purposely poking out from under a screen. Men spent a lot of time skulking around in the dark of night. Women stayed home and listened for a secret tap on the screen. Subtly suggestive poems were exchanged through a third party. A man could be forgiven for seducing his best friend’s wife, but not for the far worse crimes of writing a clumsy poem or wearing the wrong perfume.
- Etiquette at the time of writing would not allow the use of a person’s birth name, so most of the characters in the original were identified by their rank. Translators and copyists deciphered who was who and referred to them by assigning nicknames that we now accept as their real names. Prince Genji means the “Shining One.” Lady Rokujo lives on the Rokujo (Sixth Avenue in Japanese). Lady Fujitsubo lives in the Fujitsubo, the Wisteria Pavilion on the palace grounds. Genji’s grandson’s name, Nio no miya, means the “Perfumed Prince.” The original manuscript no longer exists. Treasured copies of different versions were passed through families for generations, and translators today rely on a compilation made in the 13th century.
- The book is so full of vagueness and poetic allusions only understandable in the court of the time that a literal translation would be unintelligible to any reader today, Western or Japanese. A preferred translation (there are several) is the one that best balances Murasaki’s lyrical style with comprehension, and each reader prefers a different balance. The translation I read was written by Arthur Waley in the 1920s. If he found a passage too obscure or boring, he simply skipped it, for which I am grateful, but not everyone is.
- As the story progresses, keeping track of the actual bloodlines along with the assumed bloodlines is a daunting task even for experts, but is unimportant, anyway. Even birth names often indicated a political connection rather than an actual DNA bloodline. Men often took the family name of their spouse or of a family benefactor.
- Some think Genji was written by several people because of the distinct parts, but others see a common style throughout. Lady Murasaki (the author) may have written it one chapter at a time to be read to the ladies of the court like a serial soap opera. Over ten thousand books are said to have been written discussing the book of Genji.
Lady Murasaki (the fictional character) is not the main love interest of Genji. He notices her when she is ten and kidnaps her to live with him until she reaches marriageable age. Until then, they sleep together, but only sleep. When she does come of age, he explains her new marital duties, and she is, to say the least, shocked. His main love is Lady Fujitsubo, another consort of the emperor and therefore his step-mother. Their secret affair produces a son who eventually becomes the emperor (because everyone assumes he is the current emperor’s son). To sooth her guilt and to keep Genji at arm’s length, Fujitsubo takes the vows and became a nun. She appears in his dreams and brings him bad luck, but Genji overcomes it all and moves on to many further conquests. Much of this time he is married to Princess Aoi who dies in the birth of their first child. Genji is away at the time, but he returns and gives her an elaborate funeral. You gotta love the guy.
But that is one reason we read fiction: to vicariously sample other lifestyles that are inaccessible and undesirable. And that is a good reason to read The Tale of Genji.
RWalck@Verizon.net (“The Perfumed Blogger”)