Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)

--The blurb--
"One of the world's oldest novels and the greatest single work of Japanese literature, this 11th-century romance centers on the lives and loves of an emperor's son. It offers a vast tapestry of the intrigues and rivalries of court life, as well as an exquisitely detailed portrayal of a decaying aristocracy."
blurb from

--The review--
In the world of ancient epics, three are usually given prevalence: the Iliad, the Odyssey (both presumed to be by Homer), and the Aeneid (Virgil's Roman version of the Iliad). These are usually quickly followed by Dante's Divina Commedia, which is more modern. It is pretty rare to hear about anything coming from further east (Homer's epics are Greek, Virgil's is Roman/Italian, and Dante's is also Italian). This was until The Economist gave the Tale of Genji, the main Japanese player on this particular sports field, probably its most public airing recently, prompted by the epic's 1000th birthday. I decided to give it a try, although being unfamiliar with the conventions of Japanese literature and society at this point may have made this a baptism of fire. There are only three main translators who have attempted to translate this entire work, which still wasn't finished at the author's presumed death: Arthur Waley in 1929, Royall Tyler in the early 2000s, and Edward Seidensticker (somewhere in between). Based on The Economist's analysis, I plumped for the Arthur Waley translation - just the first book of the epic to begin with (the complete epic is massive, and while abridged and paperback versions are available at reasonable prices, larger hardback unabridged copies with illustrations can cost in the region of £150-£200). The Economist hails it as the first modern novel, and this is arguably true, with all of the aforementioned epics being written in verse. Perhaps the nearest English equivalent, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, is also written in verse, while The Tale of Genji is undoubtedly written in prose (assuming it was not just rendered into prose by the translator for the sake of convenience).

The Tale of Genji is overwhelming to begin with, largely owing to the ancient Japanese literary custom of not referring to characters very often by their first names, often opting for appellations of rank instead (e.g. Heir Apparent, Chancellor), which, somewhat alarmingly, change as the characters progress through the aristocracy. While this does not preclude understanding completely, particularly given the fact that many translators try to remedy this themselves with more frequest inclusion of first names, this is a factor making the tale worth rereading, as with the deeper understanding that comes from subsequent reading comes greater appreciation.

Waley's translation is skilful, although I understand from The Economist's article that it is in some way abridged, while Seidensticker's translation is more faithful. It is tremendously eloquent to read, though not inaccessible, and the writing's prevalent beauty is accentuated by Lady Murasaki's use of poetry, as quoted by the characters, throughout. While riveting, the complexity of the story (as further added to by the names issue described above) means that if possible, it is probably better to read this in stretches for as long as you can manage, getting through it in a short and intense period of time, rather than drip-feeding it over weeks.

Along with skilful writing and good pace (even if the plot is a little slack or vague at times), successful characterisation is generally also achieved, with many likeable female characters appearing in the part of the Tale that I was able to procure (part one, also called The Tale of Genji). The characterisation of Genji himself is also strong, although he appears quite the opposite to how Lady Murasaki wants us to see him: the author insists that he is charming and gallant, but his actions show him as a rash, naive womaniser with little regard for others, who also happens to be a paedophile on the side. Nice.

However, with time on your hands, this doesn't stop you galloping through the story at breakneck speed, and leaves you wanting to read it again. While it may be an acquired taste, and certainly requires patience, I can't wait to get my mitts on the rest of the tale (though may plump for Royall Tyler's translation, as Waley translated all but one of the chapters and I'd prefer something that sounds a little more modern on the ear).

other works by Lady Murasaki
The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu
The Murasaki Shikibu Collection (poetry)

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