For my next do-whatever-you-want-while-you’re-happily-unemployed project, I’ve given myself 54 days to finish reading Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) – one day for every chapter. It’s certainly possible to read far more than just one chapter in a single twenty-four hour period (and I’m a pretty fast reader myself), but I think this is the sort of work that’s best savoured in small portions.
The primary text for this project is Royall Tyler’s 2001 unabridged English translation of the 11th-century original, specifically the 1,182-page single-volume edition released as a Penguin Classics paperback in 2003. In addition to being the most recent of all the complete English translations of the tale that have been released to date, the “Tyler Genji” comes with a large amount of supplementary material – including detailed glossaries, illustrations, footnotes and so forth – that can help readers understand the text better than they would with a bare translation.
Five days (= five chapters) have gone by since the project began. It’s far too early for me to give a comprehensive appraisal of the work, though at this stage I can say that I’m not particularly impressed with it. Thus far, the Genji Monogatari seems little more than a poetic tally-sheet of the title character’s amorous exploits. There’s a richness and elegance to the text that sets it apart from a typical romance, but some parts of it border on the ridiculous – the incessant weeping being one of them. “He wept”, “she wept”, “they all wept”: nearly every page brings with it some fresh excuse for the title character and everyone else present to sob their hearts out. With the amount of tear-shedding described in this book, I’m surprised the city hasn’t flooded completely by chapter three! Genji himself is hardly a standard-bearer for virtue given his indiscriminate and apparently insatiable desire for the company of women (NB: I’m putting it very politely here), and the disturbing tendencies (NB: again, very politely put) he exhibits in the fifth chapter.
Let’s see if Day 6 will bring about a welcome change in our antihero’s character, and hopefully an end to the waterworks. (I’m not optimistic on either count.)