Who Can Put Across Genji?

The Tale of Genji

by Murasaki Shikibu, translated from the Japanese by Dennis Washburn
Norton, 1,320 pp., $49.95
‘Lady Fugitsubo watching Prince Genji departing in the moonlight’; Japanese woodblock print of a scene from The Tale of Genji, 1853
Private Collection/Art Resource
‘Lady Fugitsubo watching Prince Genji departing in the moonlight’; Japanese woodblock print of a scene from The Tale of Genji, 1853

The Tale of Genji, scenes from the emperor’s court in eleventh-century Japan organized around the amorous adventures of its hero, Prince Genji, goes deeper than any romance. The main characters, the radiant prince in particular and a number of the women he beguiles, are endowed with a range of emotions sufficiently complex to make them seem true to life even to the modern reader. There is no precedent in Japanese literature for the author’s vision of the storyteller’s task. Speaking through Prince Genji, she makes a case for realism, the gateway to what we consider the modern novel:

There are moments when one wants to pass on to later generations the appearance and condition of people living in the present—both the good and the bad…. In either case, you will always be speaking about things of this world…. In the end, the correct view of the matter is that nothing is worthless. [Italics mine]

Claims that the tale is “Proustian” are perhaps extravagant, but the notion that fiction must aspire to more than punishing vice and rewarding virtue was centuries ahead of its time.

The author was a noblewoman from a minor branch of the dominant Fujiwara clan known to readers as Murasaki Shikibu. (Murasaki, “lavender,” is the sobriquet she gives her favorite, and the most sympathetic, female character, the love of Genji’s life; Shikibu, the “Ceremonial Office,” was a post her father held.) Born around 973, briefly married and widowed in 1001, she is thought to have worked on her voluminous manuscript from about 1002 until the time of her death, estimated at 1014. It is clear from the text, rich with allusions to the Chinese literary canon and earlier Japanese poetry, that she was uncommonly literate for a woman of her era. Her book tells us moreover that she understood minutely the social and political dynamics of court society and was a subtle, witty, sometimes ironic portraitist. What she chose to reveal about Prince Genji, who is always magnificent but not necessarily admirable, conveys an ambivalence about her hero. The reader is tempted to think of her, together with her more acerbic contemporary, Sei Shōnagon, as Japan’s earliest feminist.

Genji addresses his thoughts on the art of fiction to a young woman he wants to seduce. Since he is supposed to be looking after the girl as her surrogate father, his excitement is shocking even for a heroic womanizer. Like a child seeking approval from his mother, he hints at his feelings to his dearest consort, Murasaki, the author’s namesake, and she sees through him in a flash and reproves him in her gentle…

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