54 days with Murasaki Shikibu


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.)

7 Responses

  1. Remember this was written a thousand years ago. You have to get yourself into another whole society and a different esthetic — one that is a bit more subtle than ours, I have to say. Fortunately, however, the tally sheet part of the book is coming to an end by the chapter you’re at. Just to keep you going, I have to say that my own favorite chapters are the last ten, which don’t actually involve Genji.

  2. @hashi: I’m an avid reader of works set in bygone eras (mainly ancient Rome and Greece), both genuine classics and historical fiction drawing on ancient sources, so I’m familiar with the “immersion” technique you speak of. Different age, different way of looking at the world – something that one shouldn’t impose modern-day values on. On the other hand, the Western mindset is naturally much closer to that of the ancient Mediterranean than that of Heian-era Japan, so it’s not as easy for me to slip into the way of thinking that characterised the world of Genji.

    Fortunately, however, the tally sheet part of the book is coming to an end by the chapter you’re at.

    You can’t imagine my relief at reading those words. 😉

  3. Ah yes, I know it’s a classic and all, but much of it (or all, I’m not quite sure) is basically him bedding a woman. I’m not really quite into that, so I’m passing.

  4. Have fun reading the novel 🙂 It sounds like you are not very impressed so far, but I wonder how this will change by the end of the book. Let me know how your exploration of the Heian period goes 🙂

  5. @Kitsune: I’m starting to like the book better than when I started out. I even have a favourite character now – young Murasaki. Let’s see what kind of person she grows up to be in the years to come.

  6. If you have interest in learning more about the Heian period, check out my blog. Have fun with Genji!

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