Thursday, March 05, 2009

"I have dyed my heart so deeply in the charm of murasaki"

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In a comment to my post last month in which I mentioned that I'd be taking The Tale of Genji on my trip to Japan, reader Justus wrote:
I really liked Tyler's translation of Genji, though I don't really see a connection between "trip to Japan" and "read Genji." Just because they happen to come from the same geographic area doesn't mean one addresses the modern reality of the other.
Had the comment arrived before I left on my trip, I probably would have responded by arguing that any novel that has held such a prominent position in a culture for a millennium couldn't help but shed some light on that culture today, however great the changes have been.

But now that I've been to Japan, and read Genji throughout my trip, my answer is different: though there were points here and there when hints of the world of Genji could still be glimpsed in modern Japan--especially in Kyoto, both in the temple where we stayed and in the halls of the Nijo Castle--for the most part Genji turned out to be the perfect reading for this trip precisely because the world it described was so different from contemporary Japan. Every morning we were there, while rocketlass and our traveling companions slept, I read Genji for an hour or two--and the crowded, energizing craziness of perpetual motion that is modern Tokyo faded away, replaced by a quieter, less populous, more contemplative world. Even as I was reading about Japan, I was at the same time following Graham Greene's advice to always take a book on your travels that's about somewhere else; my somewhere else was a long-lost ancient society.

I'd tried reading Genji a couple of other times over the years, but I'd never gotten much more than a hundred pages or so into it before being distracted by something else. This time, with a thirteen-hour flight to start the journey, I was able to plunge in and stay with it--which was important, because Genji takes more time to settle into than any other novel I've ever read. At first glance, it appears to be an impenetrable web of allusions spun by a huge cast of characters whose very names are frustratingly indirect and mutable. Though translator Royall Tyler's informative introduction and notes help, it's only after a couple of hundred pages that their lessons about Genji's society and Lady Murasaki's unfamiliar narrative techniques truly sank in and become a natural part of the backdrop against which I read the novel.

The roots of the difficulty lie in the fact that Genji's world is so very different from our own, and Lady Murasaki's narrative approach both is tailored to that world and assumes a casual familiarity with it. Life was built around strict, carefully delineated hierarchies--stretching from the poorest peasants to the Emperor himself, and on into the afterlife--with the sort of complicated rules of etiquette and station common to any royal or imperial court, but with the added complication of a thicket of religious requirements, rituals, festivals, and proscriptions.

It was a society of polite indirection and careful distance, especially between men and women, who would almost never see each other face to face but rather would communicate across rice-paper screens--with even those words often not spoken directly, but through one of the many trusted retainers and servants who were always at their sides. Most feelings and actions are not to be spoken of directly, even by the narrator; rather, they are hinted at or described metaphorically. Similarly, characters are rarely named outright, with men being referred to instead by their ever-changing office or rank, while Genji's many wives and lovers are assigned names that reflect their homes or a defining characteristic. When you add the fact that much of the characters' conversation, let alone their flirtations or courtship, is conducted through poems that ring changes on a vast corpus of Chinese and Japanese verse that it was assumed all nobles would know, you begin to understand the difficulties facing the modern reader.

Yet hard as it may be to imagine, after a while all this oddity becomes second nature, and we can simply begin to enjoy the story. That is owing in no small part to Royall Tyler's translation, which manages elegantly to retain the indirection and discretion of the original without its hampering the book's undeniable emotional and narrative interest. Strangely enough, it reminded me of nothing so much as Watership Down, in which Richard Adams somehow manages to allow us to identify with and care about his characters while at the same time never, even for a moment, losing sight of the fact that they're rabbits. The world of Genji never becomes familiar or ordinary, but at the same time we eventually settle into it just enough that its strangeness is no longer a barrier but simply another aspect of the story we're being told.

Ultimately that's because the underpinnings of the story are the same as those that have supported fiction in the millennium since: human emotions--love, hate, lust, obsession, jealousy, fear. Because of the scope of the novel, whose thousand pages take Genji from birth to death, we are given ample time to become intimately familiar with his character, in all its virtues and flaws, as well as many of those around him. Genji's multiple, overlapping romances may be founded in gender relations that are strange to us, but the desire that drives them is all too familiar--and when it leads to despair, as it so often does, we ache with him and the women both.

Running throughout all this is unforgettable poetry, with almost every page featuring a couple of poems. The characters communicate largely through this richly allusive verse, their images immediately beautiful no matter how much their deeper meanings may depend on a skein of allusion. They usually take the form of a two-line plaint, like this one:
There has never been a parting in the autumn untouched by sorrow,
but oh, do not cry with me, pine crickets upon the moor!
Or this one:
Cast yourself away into that sad stream of tears where you wish to drown,
and each shoal or shallow reach would undo your forgetting.
This is an area where Tyler's notes help immensely, identifying references to common tropes--the shallows are "an image for the vicissitudes of life"--and direct references to specific poems. By the end of the book, I found myself occasionally able to parse a poem's secondary meaning, or even recognize a reference that I'd seen in an earlier poem; it was a great feeling, akin to the first time you communicate without anxiety in a foreign language.

In his introduction, Tyler explains,
The women of the world for which Genji was written had households to run or lords and ladies to serve, and they could be busy with many tasks, duties, or pastimes. Still, the pace of life was slow. The tale is for readers who have time. Not only is it long, but it invites a degree of reader participation--a kind of active absorption--that few contemporary novels demand.
What Tyler doesn't mention is that, in exchange for that investment of time and energy, Genji at its best moments can cast a spell that seems to transport the contemporary reader to that earlier time and its slower-paced life; the modern world rushes by, and even when we return to it and its demands, we retain something of the patience and quiet we've taken from Genji's time. It's a marvel, and it's easy to understand why it's been with us for a thousand years.

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