The Tale of Genji

The noble mind that soars on high,

Beyond the star-bespangled sky:

Looks down with ease on depths that lie

A thousand fathoms ‘neath his eye

Cover of “The Tale of Genji” by Lady Murasaki Shikibu – translated by Kencho Suematsu

The Tale of Genji is reported to be the world’s earliest novel.  It was written in the early 11th century by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.  Born in 978, she was “a daughter of Tametoki of the Fujiwara clan”, who “joined the entourage of Empress Akiko (Shōshi)”.  Lady Murasaki‘s main character is Prince Genji.

[The Tale of] Genji has 54 chapters.  The benchmark translation is by Arthur Waley in six volumes from 1925-1933.

  • The Tale of Genji: A novel in Six Parts by Lady Murasaki – Translated by Arthur Waley  (Vol One)

The version I wish to share is the original (partial) translation in 1882 by Kencho Suematsu of 17 chapters,.  See the cover picture above.

One particularly relaxing way to read books is with the aid of an audio recording.  By downloading the audio files and playing them through your preferred audio player (I use FTW but I am sure there are many others), this enables you to follow the text at a speed that is comfortable for you; the advantage is that you also get to hear the skilled reader pronounce those foreign names of characters, places and events with precision, especially when it involves a language like Japanese.

Here for example is a link to the Librivox recording of Genji (various readers by chapter)

All you need to know about the plot for now is summarised on the back cover:

The Tale of Genji follows Prince Genji through his many [adventures and] loves, and varied passions.“

From the Introduction by the translator Kencho Suematsu

“The early death of her husband and her dissatisfaction with court life gave Lady Murasaki [Shikibu – the authoress] cause to turn to the truths of Buddhism and to watch the floating world about her with dispassionate yet observing eyes.“

With that last phrase I am already hooked, but it gets so much better …

From the authoress herself over 1000 years ago, speaking through her main character Prince Genji.

Ordinary histories are the mere records of events and are generally treated in a one-sided manner.  They give no insight into the true state of society.  This, however, is the very sphere on which romances principally dwell.  Romances are indeed fictions, but they are by no means pure inventions; their only peculiarities being these, that in them the writers often trace out, among numerous real characters, the best, when they wish to represent the good, and the oddest when they wish to amuse.”

Throughout the book we stumble across many aphorisms that ring true to our world today, such as on page 180

“It seems that in a world of intrigue none dares do what is right for fear of risking his own interests.”

Another insight into the sociopolitical awareness of Lady Murasaki is given on page 40:

“Public business can only be tranquilly conducted when the superior receives the assistance of subordinates, and when the subordinate yields a becoming respect and loyalty to his superior, and affairs are thus conducted in a spirit of mutual conciliation.”

[My mind immediately wanders to Catherine The Great’s philosophy of “benevolent despotism” – no doubt inspired by her reading of and communication with Voltaire, her contemporary.]

We also come across little gems by the translator in footnotes such as on page 185:

“In Chinese history it is recounted that a certain artful intriguer made a fool of his Sovereign by bringing a deer to the court and presenting it before the Emperor, declaring it to be a horse.  All the courtiers, induced by his great influence, agreed with him in calling it a horse, to the Emperor’s great astonishment and bewilderment.”

Who didn’t immediately bring to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and wonder how such fairy tales and mythical narratives are common to so many cultures?

And speaking of fairy tales, the reference to “The Bamboo Cutter [and the Moon-Child]” on page 217 takes us down a whole new path of wondrous diversion into Japanese Fairy Tales.

  • Japanese Fairy Tales – Compiled by Yei Theodora Ozaki

Audio files here depending on your mood …

One of the most striking features of sociohistorical note to emerge from reading Genji is the profound influence on Japanese imperial court life of Chinese art and culture.  In parallel is the fact that Buddhism appears to have been axiomatic in terms of their belief system around the turn of the 11th Century.  Buddhism (as well as references to Christianity) pervades all significant dates, ceremonies and festivals, as well as common superstitions dictating everyday behaviour and importantly, the belief in the concept of the afterlife.

Page 155 the character Lady Aoi has become gravely ill.

“He [Genji] tried to soothe her, and said “Pray, don’t trouble yourself too much about matters.  Everything will come right.  Your illness, I think, will soon pass away.  Even supposing you quit this present world, there is another where we shall meet, and where I shall see you once more cheerful, and there will be a time when your mother and father will also join you.”

Genji speaking on page 76

“It is said that when one leaves this world without a single regret, one passes straight to Paradise.“

Translator’s footnote page 97

“According to the Buddhist’s doctrine of the Hosse sect, all the souls of the dead pass, during seven weeks after death, into an intermediate state, and then their fate is decided.  According to the Tendai sect, the best and the worst go immediately where they deserve, but those of a medium nature go through this process.”

But for me, the pièce de résistance of The Tale of Genji lies in the use of the four-line poems called waka “which [from back cover] dance throughout this work, [earning] it a place as a classic text in the study of poetry.”

We see Genji and his friends engage in merry evenings where the prime activity is to exchange these spontaneous waka in a kind of debating game to ultimately determine a winner for the evening –scrabble hadn’t been invented yet, let alone ‘smart’ devices.

The opening quote concerning “The noble mind that soars on high” is a prime example of the wakas that “dance” through this novel.

On page 189, having been exiled for a period to a rather isolated place on the coast because of his social misdemeanors, Genji expresses his thoughts:

Never thought I, in my younger day,

To be thrown on the wild sea-shore,

And like these figures to float away,

And perhaps see my home no more.”

Equally fascinating is how the characters use wakas to communicate formally with each other.  In the waka, the second party [the female in this case] would me metaphorised as a flower and spoken to in third person.

On page 114 Genji leaves no doubt as to his feelings towards the Princess, Lady Wysteria:

“When will be mine this lovely flower

Of tender grace and purple hue?

Like the Wysteria of the bower

It’s charms are lovely to my view.“

But on page 129 Genji is not getting the response he is hoping for

“Not speaking is a wiser part,

And words are sometimes in vain.

But to completely close the heart

In silence, gives me pain.“

In another subplot one target of Genji’s love interest and affection sadly dies, leaving behind a daughter (Violet) whom Genji vows to take under his wing and raise.  In this case the mother is the dead flower and the daughter is represented as a new bud (page 120).

“Though still a bud the violet be,

A still unopened blossom here,

Its tenderness has charms for me,

Recalling one no longer near.”

I could not think of a more appropriate quote to close this teaser with (Genji speaking):

“From my boyhood I paid much attention to reading and writing, and perhaps my father [the Emperor] noticed that I had benefited by these pursuits.  He observed that ‘few very clever men enjoyed worldly happiness and long life’; perhaps because ability and knowledge are too highly valued to admit of other blessings”

And this from the mind and pen of a Japanese woman writing the world’s first novel [as distinct from an epic poem] early in the “11th century after Christ”.  There are so many more nuggets throughout Genji waiting to be savoured.


2 thoughts on “The Tale of Genji

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