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review 2015-07-25 00:00
The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu,Royall Tyler 66. THE TALE OF GENJI, BY MURASAKI SHIKIBU

Recommended to me by Michele Ruedin, on Goodreads, although she did tell me she hadn’t read it herself.

This is supposed to be the first “true” or “modern” novel in existence. I’m not sure what “true” or “modern” are supposed to mean in this context, but I gather it is a very old and historically important novel. That has to be taken in account when reading this book.

I tried not to do a lot of research on this book, because I didn’t want this review to be a copy of some other text I might read, so all I learned about it is that it was written by a Japanese lady while she was in the empress’s court (and that not much else is known about it, anyway). I got the distinct impression that it was written in episodes. Maybe she started the story one day, and the other ladies were pleased, so eventually they asked her to continue and she did. There isn’t a real plot or even much of a connecting thread between the chapters. It even ends kind of abruptly, as if she could have continued on. I can imagine a woman telling this story to a captive audience of women, and all of them interjecting, smiling knowingly, and even guffawing, slumber-party-style, during this telling. That image is so enchanting I’m half in love with it.

The text is quite dated, I’m afraid. And it depends heavily on extensive knowledge of Japanese costumes, culture, and history during the period. I have some, probably more than the average person, but I have to admit I was often baffled as to motivations and happenings.

All in all, if you have a very specific interest in Japanese history, or the history of literature, this book would be essential. If you don’t, however, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Up next: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
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review 2014-07-08 00:00
The Diary of Lady Murasaki
The Diary of Lady Murasaki - Murasaki Sh... The Diary of Lady Murasaki - Murasaki Shikibu Preface
A Note on Japanese Names and Dates
Introduction (Cultural Background, The Author, The Diary)

--The Diary of Lady Murasaki

Appendix 1: Ground-plans and Map
Appendix 2: Additional Sources
A Guide to Further Reading
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review 2013-10-11 19:45
The Tale of Genji: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu,Royall Tyler This is a work I've often seen named as the first novel, as well as a work that the introduction claims greatly influenced and embodies the Japanese culture--and this by a women writer. Not many undeniably great classics, especially this old, can claim female authorship, and this one was written around the turn of the first millennium, when Europe was just emerging from the Dark Ages. The Tale of the Genji, the product of a sophisticated court, is thus close in age to Beowulf, and by and large, in its English translation in some ways more accessible. In other ways not. The translator himself, Waley, noted it's in many ways "alien to modern sensibilities" and at times I wasn't sure of what was happening, whether I was supposed to interpret Genji's character favorably and wondered what I missed in translation despite frequent footnotes. On the other hand, that very alien sensibility is a lot of the attraction. This is very much a very different world than ours. The story involves Prince Genji and his various amours in the first four parts and his descendants, especially his purported son Kaoru and his grandchild Niou, in the last two parts. (Kaoru's greatest quality, I kid you not, is his strong "entrancing personal fragrance.") Genji reminds me of a Japanese version of Don Juan. At times things are told so obliquely though, I wasn't always sure if he was involved with various women platonically or sexually, or even whether the various relationships are consensual or not. The women are often depicted as ambivalent and Genji's beauty and accomplishments seem not to simply excuse but erase his flaws in the minds of others. But then, no male character in the book acts all that differently--they're all relentlessly sexually aggressive. When Genji kidnaps Murasaki, a ten-year-old girl he's enamored with, I wasn't sure at first of the nature of his regard and the way he grooms her into a future wife, and initiates her into sex, is indeed creepy to my "modern sensibilities." Murasaki is the major female character in the book, and by and large is too passive for me to feel a connection with her. But then, so is just about every female character in the book. The Buddhist Japan depicted in this novel is every bit as misogynistic as the Christian Europe of this era. According to the book, Buddhist doctrine holds women are inherently evil--or they wouldn't be incarnated as women. Nor are they allowed into "Amida's paradise" in the afterlife. Women, at least of the upper classes, can only converse with men not part of their immediate family through screens or curtains or through notes or intermediaries. So by and large in this book women are not directly active but acted upon and are constantly cringing away from male attentions, weeping about (but excusing) rape, and then often starving themselves to death, willing themselves to fade away, planning to throw themselves into the river or taking vows as a nun. I don't know that I can recommend this as a great read or one that can really give you insight into modern Japanese culture. A reviewer pointed out that, like a modern English-speaker reading Beowulf, modern Japanese can't sit down and read Tale of Genji and comprehend it without a translation and notes. This doesn't fit Western (or maybe even Japanese) expectations of what is Japanese. No geishas, samurai, martial arts, kabuki, haiku, manga, sushi, tea ceremony--or ritual suicide. In fact, suicide isn't honorable at this time, it's a disgrace. This is such a lengthy tome--over a thousand door-stopper pages, with hundreds of characters; it's hard to keep track of who is who, especially since in the original they're not named, though the translation I read mercifully gives them monikers to make it easier to follow the narrative. It's often a tedious read, and it doesn't so much end as stop. Nevertheless, I was often struck at times by the psychological complexity and the beauty of descriptions, and it gives a detailed look at the court life of the period. This isn't at all a martial culture that is described, but one with a very elaborate aesthetic where courtiers burst into impromptu verse and notes are judged not just by content but color and quality of paper, how it's scented, style and quality of handwriting, how it's folded and what flower the paper is tied up with. Given its historical importance, I'm glad I tackled it. I took it at a pace averaging less than a hundred pages each day--slow for me. My rating tries to strike a balance between my recognition of its greatness as well as how much a slog I found most of it. It fits between the one star GoodReads "didn't like it" and the five star "it's amazing" because to be honest my reaction is both. I think this is one of those works, like The Bible or Confucius' Analects or The Koran you get more out of if you prepare yourself, and not something I should have tackled as a stand alone. Someone pointed me to an essay by Michael Dirda about his experience reading the book. Before reading it he loaded himself up with works on Japanese literature and history such as Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince and Donald Keene's Japanese Literature. Others recommend Liza Dalby's Tale of Murasaki for an accessible fictional biography of Lady Murasaki and the Heian court. Maybe some day, if I'm masochistic enough, I'll give Genji another try after preparing myself better--but I doubt it. (Oh, and as a Star Trek fan I couldn't help but be amused to see that Genji's moniker is "Hikuru." Sulu's first name is supposedly derived from it.)
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review 2013-09-10 00:00
[Review] Genji Monogatari
The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu,Royall Tyler

I think at some point in time I do want to read all of The Tale of Genji. But for now: life is too short. I recognise the historical significance of the work. However, the translation and style make for a tedious read (and I simply don't have the willpower to keep going for another 1000+ pages).

And Genji is a complete creep.

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review 2012-12-07 00:00
The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu,Royall Tyler Some people here are commenting that the book is extremely misogynist. The book is misogynist but the book was written in early eleventh century Japan, so of course it is misogynist. I don't really know what people were expecting. Books tend to reflect most to all of the values of the culture of the author and that was one of the most misogynist cultures in history. This seems to me to be a way of dismissing books from cultures different from our own. In the Iliad, Achilles sulks because Agamemnon steals his slave girl who he is using for sex. That's misogynist too. Anyway, these kinds of critiques drive me crazy. Also, we must keep in mind that the author was a woman, so as a matter of fact the book is a woman's perspective. In fact, so far as I can tell it is the earliest major piece of literature written by a woman.

Taking the book on its own terms, the first thing to notice about it is that it is extremely long. In effect Murasaki Shikubu was writing one book as her entire oeuvre and that means that it is a significant commitment. The book follows a variety of characters over time, with the main character shifting as the book progresses. That in effect means that it ends up being structured more like real life and less like a typical narrative. It just does not have a defined beginning, middle and end. The genre that it is closest to of our own genres is the soap opera.

The book is more infused with the spirit of poetry than any other prose work that I have ever read. Characters regularly quote poetic couplets to each other and make poetic illusions. It is vast and sprawling and it is easy to get lost in its serpentine labyrinths of plot and character. I do not find the characters to be that compelling, but there is an impressive amount of psychological realism to them. There are a very large number of extremely beautiful scenes and it is heavy with symbolism and really deep insights into the way humans behave. But man, it also rambles on.

My addition is the Seidensticker translation. Apparently, in the original the characters do not have names and we know who they are by subtle indicators of things like status. Seidensticker does not try to translate this but just assigns names. I can't imagine trying to keep things straight in other additions where this is not done. There are also very beautiful 16th century woodcut illustrations, which work very well as an addition to the text.

It is a real mixed bag, doing somethings extraordinarily well, and other things not even doing at all. Sometimes it can be a delight to read. At other times you find yourself grinding at it.

The bottom line is: Is it worth reading? I think because of its immense length that it is only worth reading if the reader does a huge amount of serious reading or if they have a special interest in the subject matter. Think hard before jumping in.
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