His writing was so extraordinarily beautiful that her eyes misted over

Dear Murasaki,

This is just a quick note to let you know my experience so far with your Tale of Genji.  Similar to the form as you yourself may have written the book, I am reading it in installments, chapter by chapter – mostly after work, at night, in between all sorts of modern and contemporary fiction.

Murasaki Shikibu

So far, the book (should I call it “a novel”?) has a dream-like, sometimes morbid, atmosphere. It does not make use of a plot, but we follow Genji from childhood to young age, as events – mostly love affairs – happen to him. On the first chapter we have a birthday, a death, and a wedding. In fact, the passage of time seems to have a chaotic rather than linear nature here. Many years go by in a few sentences, and then time suddenly stops, and we are stuck in a conversation between male characters about women, past and unrequited loves. This goes on for an entire chapter, then time stretches again, in a jump forward.

The “Shining Genji” is the son of an emperor and a low-ranking woman, who was his favourite concubine. Genji’s mother, victim of jealousy and political intrigue, dies when he is just a child. For political reasons, Genji is removed from the line of succession, and he works as an imperial officer. Because the Emperor cannot forget Genji’s mother, he marries Lady Fujitsubo, a princess who resembles his deceased concubine. Unfortunately, Genji falls in love with his stepmother, but, for political reasons, he is forced to marry a woman he doesn’t love, Aoi.

Then, we are thrown into a scene where some highborn men are telling each other romantic stories and discussing female virtues and flaws. They may be probably showing off by exaggerating their own experience with women. Genji seems to be utterly bored by this conversation – he even falls asleep at some point -, but he will later apply the knowledge he have just acquired about the most favorable qualities to be sought in a woman…

Frustrated by his forbidden love for Fujitsubo, Genji pursues a series of – mostly unfulfilling – love affairs. In one case, he is rebuffed; in another, he falls in love with a woman who suddenly dies under the influence of a ghost who had fallen in love with Genji; in yet another case, our protagonist  becomes soon bored with a lover for whom he had high expectations. In one occasion,Genji bursts into the room of a deputy’s wife (Utsusemi), without permission, and seduces her – in what seems a highly nuanced rape scene. Not only that, later, when he visits a rural region, he is mystified by a vision of a ten-year-old girl (Murasaki) who resembles Fujitsubo. He then kidnaps the child and brings her to his palace, in order to educate her according to his tastes and later make her his wife. To top it all, a little later, Lady Fujitsubo herself falls in love with Genji. He visits her chambers secretly, and we soon discover that she is bearing his son – whom everyone believes to be the son of Genji’s father…

Phew, what a beginning! In just eight chapters, we have social satire, political intrigue, rape, incest, pedophilia, and ghosts. And many women who die in unexpected ways, out of unrequited love, heartburn, or bad spirits. Genji himself seems to be haunted by bad luck and the possibility of early death – he is so beautiful, the “Shining Lord”, that the gods may either begrudge him, or want to steal him back from life. So we have, at this point, the promise of an epic which is also a tale about moral decadence, a dark fairy-tale, and a love story.

Interspersed with the events, as if sewing their gaps, is the use of mythical and poetical allusions, along with layers of cultural and linguistic subtleties. There is the allusion to the tale of the Chinese Emperor Xuanzong, as a reminder that limitless love can be ruinous.  Classical Chinese poetry is used in daily conversations: indirect reference to a classic poem was a sign of intelligence in Heian court life, serving to express veiled, layered meanings.

I feel I have to cross great distances every time I read a chapter – as if I was going on across history, language, translation, culture; across poetic allusions and many layered hidden meanings. This is not a smooth road, but your writing keeps pushing me forward. I am currently under the cherry blossoms (chapter 8), and about to begin heart-to-heart (chapter 9). Let’s see how many stories of unrequited love are waiting for us in the following pages.

Yours truly,

J.


“His writing was so extraordinarily beautiful that her eyes misted over, and she lay down to ponder the strange destiny that had broken in upon her otherwise dreary life.”

– Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, tr. Royall Tyler


Ch. 5 — 若紫 Wakamurasaki ("Young Murasaki"). Tosa Mitsuoki, 1617–91.
Ch. 5 — 若紫 Wakamurasaki (“Young Murasaki”). Tosa Mitsuoki, 1617–91.

About the book

  • Penguin Classics, 2003, 1182 p., tr. Royall Tyler, Goodreads;
  • I am reading this book in weekly installments, as a readalong, for Japanese Literature Challenge;
  • The Tale of Genji was made into a movie several times: first in 1951 by director Kōzaburō Yoshimura (IMDb), in 1966 by director Kon Ichikawa (IMDb), and an anime film in 1987 by director Gisaburo Sugii (IMDb).
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. bookbii says:

    What a great introduction to Genji! Yes his behaviour leaves much to be desired. He is sexually dangerous, especially to young girls (Lady Murasaki, I believe, is based on the character of Murasaki Shikibu herself) yet there is little approbation heaped in his direction. Despite his misdemeanors it is an entertaining and fascinating read. I hope you enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. juliana says:

      Thank you! Yes, I agree, but I am enjoying the book very much do far!

      Liked by 1 person

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