Monday 11 October 2021

The Tale of Genji - Vol I

Okay, well... this isn't the review I was hoping to write about the world's first novel. But, what good is a review if it isn't honest?

Murasaki Shikibu, born into the middle ranks of the aristocracy during the Heian period (794-1185 CE), wrote The Tale of Genji, widely considered the world's first novel, during the early years of the 11th century. Expansive, compelling, and sophisticated in its representation of ethical concerns and aesthetic ideals, Murasaki's tale came to occupy a central place in Japan's remarkable history of artistic achievement and is now recognized as a masterpiece of world literature.

The Tale of Genji is presented here in a flowing new translation for contemporary listeners, who will discover in its depiction of the culture of the imperial court the rich complexity of human experience that simultaneously resonates with and challenges their own. Washburn embeds annotations for accessibility and clarity and renders the poetry into triplets to create prosodic analogues of the original.


It was translated by Dennis Washburn and wonderfully narrated by Brian Nishii, and first and foremost I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to access such a historic work in English.

That said, it was singularly the most boring book I have ever read. Forty years on the planet, at least 29 of those as an avid reader, and I have never encountered something outside of a maths textbook that sent me to sleep so quickly.

And I really didn't want it to be that way. The first novel ever written, and by a woman - I was very excited to read it. But, at the same time, it does provide an interesting insight into the evolution of written storytelling. The Tale of Genji is a masterclass in what not to do in the modern age. It is almost entirely tell, don't show. We are told that characters (especially women) are inelegant, unsophisticated, deficient in some way - we are rarely afforded any insight into their private thoughts or their subtle mannerisms, and there is no subtext in the prose or dialect. It is very bluntly 'what you see is what you get.'

It is also possibly one of the longest works in existence. Volume one is 35.5 hours long, and volume two is 37 hours long. I thought Bill Homewood deserved a medal for narrating 68 hours of Les Miserables, but Brian Nishii probably deserves a lifetime achievement award. It even beats War and Peace.

Unlike Les Mis, absolutely nothing seems to happen in Genji. It is purely a litany of his romantic conquests, more than a few that are not only distasteful by today's standards, but also shocked other characters in the story at that time: abducting a child from her father to raise her as his wife, making sexual advances on his own daughter, and climbing through windows to persuade women to have sex with him in the middle of the night. Genji is entirely self-obsessed and uses his privilege and good looks to 'seduce' (mostly coerce) women into sex. He's not a loveable rogue, there's nothing picaresque about him, he is just utterly unlikeable - for 35 straight hours. I don't know about the rest because I haven't listened to it. I think I need a couple of years' break before I tackle volume two.

It is worth pointing out that, as a story, it's dreadful, but as a piece of historical documentation about the customs and culture of the time, it is intriguing. So, a distinction should really be made between its entertainment value and its historical worth.

Google banner from Japan celebrating 1,000
years since The Tale of Genji. 
1 November 2008

One of the interesting historical points came quite early on, where it spoke of young boys receiving their first pair of trousers:

When the young prince turned three, the court observed the ceremony of the donning of his first trousers.

This was called 'breeching' in Europe and America:

Breeching was the occasion when a small boy was first dressed in breeches or trousers. From the mid-16th century until the late 19th or early 20th century, young boys in the Western world were unbreeched and wore gowns or dresses until an age that varied between two and eight... Breeching was an important rite of passage in the life of a boy, looked forward to with much excitement, and often celebrated with a small party. It often marked the point at which the father became more involved with the raising of a boy. - Wiki

Interesting that a custom from 1,000 years ago in China was also popular 500 years ago in Europe. The reasons cited are practical, for potty training.

Something else that piqued my interest was the mention of sea tangle, a type of seaweed that I discovered here in Rwanda a year or two ago. 

As I mention in the video, I think the most intriguing aspect of the book is why Murasaki Shikibu, if she was indeed a real person and a woman, chose to write such a misogynistic, unlikeable character, and why that proved so popular at the time?

My key theory is that the book is supposed to be read as a satire, not as straight fiction. If you consider that women of the age were not often formally educated, and if they were, they weren't supposed to flaunt it, then holding up a mirror to male society and saying 'aha, we know what you get up to,' would have been quite shocking. Perhaps it made the women laugh and provided men with a checklist of bad behaviour to make themselves feel better: 'yes, I might be a rogue, but I haven't done half the things Genji has.'

And I know it sounds hypocritical of me to berate a character for doing 'whatever he likes to whoever he likes,' especially after Rosy Hours, but I like to think that was at least entertaining? Not too predictable? A little subversive? Genji is more like what would happen if you took all the murder and mayhem out of American Psycho and just left the Phil Collins passages. 

I don't know. I can't quite figure it out. 

If you have any ideas, do drop a comment.

I'm really glad I have access to this and was afforded the opportunity to read it. Like I say, the translation and narration are excellent. I'm just mystified by the work itself. Especially when you take the poetry of ancient Mesopotamia from around 4,000 years ago, where women are liberated as fuck in fiction, constantly talking about their vulvas and wrapping male gods around their little fingers. It just seems odd that there's no real adventure or story behind it - other than sexual conquest. At least with the Mesopotamians you got sexual conquest, journeys to the underworld, devastating floods, islands where no one grows old... rich fantasy. There's a couple of demonic spirits in this who cause sickness, death and mental illness, but they're few and far between. Mostly, it's just Genji trying to get off with his daughter or anyone else in a skirt. 

Enough now. I think you get the gist. I'd love to hear from anyone who really liked it, and what they liked about it. I'm trying to view it from different angles to see if there's something I've missed.

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