Friday, August 09, 2013

Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji"

Reading Genji monogatari is like dreaming a beautiful and sad dream. The splendor of Genji's person, aptly captured in his nickname the Shining Lord, is marvelous. As is the splendor of his power after his return frome exile at Suma, cosmically represented by his house at Rokujo, with its four quarters and gardens corresponding to the seasons of the year. Yet splendor passes, as Genji first realizes when his father the Emperor dies.

The Edo period Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga first formulated the concept of mono no aware in his criticism of the Tale.  The "pathos of things" reaches its highest pitch in the death of Lady Murasaki, the wife that Genji loved above all. In a moment of reprieve from her illness, Murasaki grieves to imagine Genji's despair when she dies:

Alas, not for long will you see what you do now: any breath of wind
may spill from a hagi frond the last trembling drop of dew.

Genji answers, with unbearable poignancy,

When all life is dew and at any touch may go, one drop then the next,
how I pray that you and I may leave nearly together!


The dream darkens after Genji's own death when the Tale follows the life of Kaoru, the son born from Kashiwagi's adulterous affair with Onn San No Miya, Genji's princess-wife. The wildness of Uji, with its ceaselessly roaring river, provides the dismal setting for unfulfilled longing and despairing suicides. A woman comes back from the dead but swears off life by taking the Precepts. The last chapter, mysteriously titled "The Floating Bridge of Dream," ends without a clear resolution.

Royall Tyler's translation is unfailingly readable. At the beginning of every chapter, he explains concisely the narrative link between chapters and provides a list of characters making an appearance. His notes are always informative about cultural nuances and poetic references, and are handily located at the bottom of the page, but the Tale can be enjoyed without consulting them. A Chronology and a General Glossary are also given at the back of Volume Two, as well as information on "Clothing and Color" and on "Offices and Titles." There is also a summary of the poetic allusions identified in his notes.

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