Friday, March 06, 2009

In praise of Genji the book

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In yesterday's post about The Tale of Genji, I praised Royall Tyler's translation, but I should have taken the time to point out just what a wonderful production the entire book is. As I explained yesterday, the complex relationships and rules that govern Genji's world can make the book a challenge for a contemporary reader; what Penguin's edition of Tyler's translation does is to offer relatively unobtrusive aid at every point.

Tyler's introduction sets the scene, offering brief but informative accounts of the book's origins, style, and themes, as well as thumbnail descriptions of the life of Lady Murasaki and the society she inhabited and wrote about. In addition, each of the book's fifty-four chapters opens with a cast list, noting all the characters who will play a part in that chapter, along with their ages, titles, and relationships to other characters. Within each chapter, Tyler provides footnotes explaining terms that might be unclear; he also nimbly glosses the book's many poetic allusions, while line drawings scattered throughout illustrate details of costumes, housing, furniture, and the like.

No edition of Genji in English--including Knopf's edition of Edward Seidensticker's translation, which was the first Genji I attempted, years ago--has offered anything like this assistance to the reader; paired with Tyler's fluid translation, it makes this edition the standard.

And the production of the book is equal to its contents. The hardcover was published in two lovely volumes, with a slipcase, in 2001 and has since gone out of print, but the paperback is nearly as striking, with an elegant cover design, french flaps, good paper, and the strong binding necessary to the long-term survival of a 1,200-page book. The whole volume is a triumph of the publisher's art, a book designed to be turned to again and again over the years.

{That said, I may have to pick up yet another Genji soon. The Caustic Cover Critic recently drew my attention to some new editions of Japanese classics from Kodansha illustrated by Masayuki Miyata, including The Tale of Genji: Scenes from the World's First Novel, which pairs chapter summaries of Genji with Masayuki's intricate papercuts. I got to take a quick look at it in the seven-story Kinokuniya bookstore when I was in Tokyo, and it's absolutely lovely.}


  1. I have Tyler's translation sitting patiently, awaiting a quiet week in which to fully devote myself to Genji. I actually bought it with some hesitation, unsure as to which translation would be best (the few reviews I could find were contradictory and unhelpful), so this is a nice reassurance. I'm certainly looking forward to it - your recommendations are only strengthening my resolve to read this "first novel".

  2. As my Japanese is limited to about four phrases, all of which I use poorly, I can't really vouch for the fidelity or accuracy of Tyler's translation. But it reads very well and gives what seems to be a good sense of what the original must feel like, and with the additional trappings the Tyler volume brings with it, it's hard for me to imagine another edition being better.

  3. I've been dithering about this book, intimidated by the size, but your thoughtful review/comments have made me take the plunge. Tyler it is!