Murasaki Shibiku: The Tale of Genji

After having read all six of the Chinese Classic Novels, it seemed like a logical continuation to go on to the Classic Japanese novel Genji monogatari; not just because of the geographical proximity but also because Japanese culture was greatly influenced by China back then (the early 11th century) and I was expecting something in a similar vein. As it turned out, I was profoundly mistaken in that assumption – The Tale of Genji is something quite different and fascinating in its own, unique way.

Apart from their cultural and temporal remoteness, what probably throws off most contemporary Western readers attempting the Classic Chinese novels is their huge cast of characters, many of them figuring under several different names  – something that can make the narrative very hard to follow. The Tale of Genji, however, manages to outdo this by not even bothering with names in the first place – all of its (supposedly around four hundred) characters are referred to only by rank or role, at the utmost a nickname by way of some association (with a place, a colour, a flower etc.). Even “Genji” is not really a proper name but a designation given to Imperial offspring outside the line of succession. Now, as the novel spans several decades and generations, ranks and roles keep changing, and you end up with not only one character having several different designations, but also the same designation being used for several different characters. This alone would probably have sufficed to make the novel nigh unreadable, but thankfully the translator and editor of the edition I have been using, Royall Tyler, kindly placed a dramatis personae not only at the end of the book but also in front of each individual chapter, and I cannot emphasise enough how extremely helpful this was (and even then, I got confused on a couple of occasions and had to backtrack to figure out in which relationship a given character stood to another, or to Genji, or to the Emperor).

Similarly helpful are the extensive explanatory notes Tyler has added as well as the gresat number of illustrations spread throughout the book, which are not only decorative but very frequently help the reader visualise clothing, furniture or other items of daily use referenced in the narrative. I was really happy with this particular edition and think it is exemplary in pretty much every respect – this is how editions of literary texts from remote epochs and places should be done. Tyler makes The Tale of Genji approachable to modern readers without modernizing it, and the same thing can be said about his translation – obviously, I do not have the first clue about how faithful it stays to the original, but it reads very well; the language has an easy, rhythmical flow, but without trying to make readers forget that they are perusing the translation of an ancient Japanese novel. Even with all of Tyler’s efforts, however, the novel remains tantalizingly opaque in many places, many of the customs – in particular those regulating relationships between the sexes – appearing strange or outright bizarre to a modern reader. But as it turns out, this is not a bad thing at all, quite to the contrary, as this distance and the resulting struggle by the reader to comprehend generate significance and as the strange customs frequently reveal surprisingly recognisable structures.

The Tale of Genji starts off with a death, the death of Genji’s mother, who his father the Emperor was so much in love with that he could not bear to let her leave when she fell sick, thus indirectly causing her death. The Emperor eventually goes on to take a new wife which resembles the previous one (i.e., Genji’s mother) very closely, and which Genji falls hopelessly in love with (and has sex with, resulting in a son a few chapters later who will eventually become Emperor in turn, i.e. take over the position of Genji’s father). And as if that was not enough, Genji (who during all this time is having countless – I gave up trying to keep up by chapter 4 – other affairs) comes across a 10-year-old child which very much resembles the Emperor’s wife (and thus Genji’s dead mother) who Genji declares his soul mate and abducts in order to bring her up to be his perfect lover (i.e., become a version of the Emperor’s wife, the one who is the spitting image of his mother). And all of this is thematically tied up with a discussion Genji and his friends have in chapter 2 about whether there is such a thing as an ideal woman… It is all quite dizzying, but also strikingly familiar – French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would have had a field day with the way the Oedipal theme here runs through several substitutions, permutations and deferrals until signifier and signified become hopelessly entangled. One can easily imagine a Lacanian reading of the novel based on the Freudian Fort/Da dialectics on this alone, and that is even before the following generations come into play… Obviously, I am not going to do this here, but I have to admit that I am sorely tempted.

Now, many people might not care about Lacan or even Freud, but even readers without any interest in psychoanalysis will very likely be struck by how deeply psychological The Tale of Genji is. I always assumed that self-reflexive subjectivity was for the most part an invention of 18th century bourgeoisie, most notably Kant and Rousseau and that Stendal was the pioneer of the psychological novel. But as it turns out, they were (well, Murasaki Shibiku was) already doing it several hundred years before in Japan. It seems likely that Murasaki got there by a somewhat different way (I will speculate a bit on that farther down), but her keen insight into what motivates human beings, her rich and nuanced descriptions of the inner life of her protagonists rival that of Stendal or any other nineteenth century psychological novelist. Even though The Tale of Genji takes place among the upper crust of Japanese feudal society (we meet several emperors, and almost all main characters are highly placed court officials), there is nothing about politics or warfare here – the novel deals exclusively with private affairs, the only subject (the narrator remarks at one point) suitable for women to write about. The novel’s scope is hence confined to the domestic, but what might seem a limitation ends up giving it focus – as an analysis of the mechanics and power shifts in Romantic relationships I think it is only rivalled by De l’amour and Proust’s Recherche à la temps perdu.

There is an additional facet to Murasaki’s work, however, which figures neither in Stendal or in Proust (or at least is nowhere near as prominent as in Genji monogatari) and that is a keen awareness of gender relations. In Japanese feudal society, the relationships between men and women appear to have been at least as strictly regulated as those between differences in rank, with distance being the all-important factor. And this means literal distance – there is a whole arrangement of barriers separating men from women in Tale of Genji, starting with several layers of clothing, moving on to curtains, to wall screens, doors, and walls – symbolic and real space working together to keep the genders apart. Even while most of the interaction in the novel takes places between people of different gender, for the most part they are not even visible to each other during their conversations, but talk through some kind of barrier  and the closeness between two people is indicated by the degree of physical separation between them. The males often invest considerable effort and guile just to catch a brief glimpse of a woman’s face or figure, which very frequently leads to them hiding and outright spying on a woman they are interested in (and at this point, I could have sworn I heard Lacan chuckle). It is important for women to keep that distance as otherwise their reputation and possibly even existence is threatened; but it will come to nobody’s surprise that the men on more than one occasion pierce those barriers even against resistance of the female behind them. Murasaki does only very rarely judge openly – the narrator generally keeps her distance, and only in a few instances draws attention to herself – but lets her characters condemn themselves by their own words and actions. There is more than one case of a male noble complaining about a female who had the misfortune to catch his eyes being “childish” only to then loudly denounce her as a wanton after she has given in to his forceful advances (and more often than not against her will). As the novel unfolds, it effectively presents something like an encyclopedia of rhetoric devices for dominating women – and I was struck by how much those devices resembled those chronicled in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s and Valentine DeLandro’s comic Bitch Planet the first volume of which I happened to be reading at the same time as Genji. Both works obviously are very different from each other – but also very (and depressingly) similar in their cataloguing of ways in which women are manipulated and subjugated by a male-centered discourse, which apparently has not changed much during the last thousand years.

Genji, although far from innocent of this behaviour himself, at least differs from the novel’s other male characters in that he appears to genuinely care about his women, trying to give all of them at least some amount of attention and frequently taking care of their livelihood. And if this sprawling, dispersed novel has something like a centre, it would certainly lie in Genji’s relationship to one of them, the Murasaki under whose name the author of the novel has become known. She is the girl Genji abducts when she is ten years old, something the author makes quite clear was not at all a common occurrence in feudal Japan, and in spite of those rather inauspicious beginnings, the love between him and Murasaki runs as a red thread even through all of Genji’s numerous affairs and general inconstancy. With all of Genji’s ceaseless womanizing, the novel does get a bit repetitive and even a bit of a slog in parts, but the reader’s interest never quite flags completely before it is rekindled by the enchanting description of a lavish feast or the narration of a particularly adventurous tryst. And then, about two-thirds into the novel, Murasaki dies, and the chapter following this death, describing Genji’s reaction to it, is one of the most touching and heart-rending piecer of literature which I have ever read. The only comparison I can think of is the ending of Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders – in fact, once one starts to think about it, there are rather a lot of similarities between Delany’s novel and The Tale of Genji: Both present a decades-spanning love story between two people embedded in a closed community, both are centered around amorous relationships, both are (although for entirely different reasons) somewhat hard to get through on occasion, but reward the reader with a huge emotional pay-off…. of course, both novels read entirely differently, but the similarities are of a sufficient density to make me think that Delany consciously used Murasaki’s novel as a model for his own. All of which is a bit off-topic, but it shows, like the parallel to Bitch Planet I mentioned above, how The Tale of Genji, in spite (or possibly because) of all its strangeness and opacity, still can resonate with contemporary readers.

There is a surprising amount of poetry in this novel (at least I was surprised by it): Almost every time one of the characters sees some striking scenery, or experiences a particularly intense emotion, or has something interesting happen to them – in short, pretty much every time something in any way extraordinary happens, the experience is shaped and crystallized into a poem by the character it is happening to. And as if that wasn’t enough, poems also are an important means of communication between characters – they keep sending them to each other, and judgement on the quality of the poem often is synonymous with judgement on the person who wrote it. These poems are no spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, however, but are carefully crafted, full of clever wordplay and subtle literary allusions (and as such they are of course quite untranslatable – this is where the efforts of translator / editor Royall Tyler reach a truly heroic peak; and while there is no way to faithfully render the poems into English, he at least manages to give readers an appreciation of what the poems must be like in the original). Apart from their inherent quality and the light they shed on the characters presumably composing them (the poems being expressions of a character, their quality does vary somewhat, not all characters in the novel being equally accomplished poets), I think the poems fulfill a third, possibly even more important function for the novel as a whole: In order to be able to transform their experience into elaborately fashioned poetry, the characters need to step from the immediacy of that experience, to view it from a distance and ultimately, they need to distance themselves from their own selves.

Considering how central distance both literal and figurative is in The Tale of Genji, it is probably no surprise to find it structuring the most fundamental of the individual as well; there is a distance, a deferral inside the individual itself, and that distance not only enables the characters’ constant poeticizing but also the turning inwards on oneself, the self-observation and psychologizing that appears so strikingly modern about this novel and which now turns out to result from the profoundly feudal, hierarchical and rank-obsessed society it was written and is set in. (Or, one would at least like to imagine, maybe it is the other way around and the ancient Japanese penchant for allusive, wordplay-heavy poetry let not only to psychological observation but also to the kind of highly formalized thinking that determined Japanese society of that time and has lasting effects on the Japanese way of life until today.)



  1. I’m so excited to see that you’ve finally posted on this. I’ve really been looking forward to seeing how you deconstructed the novel and it’s a classic Heloise decoding – psychoanalysis, lyricism, critical acuity, the works. Your comments on barriers, both between the sexes and between the author / narrator and her readers, are especially interesting. You won’t be entirely surprised to hear that I’ve temporarily stalled on this – I’ve been slaving away on this catalogue for the last couple of months and so can only handle shortish, fairly light books – but come December I’m hoping to dive back into it. And, when I do so, I’ll be coming back to this post to encourage myself to think more broadly about the questions raised by the story. Not only that, but I will probably pester you with some emails as well – since those are LONG overdue!!!! 😉 Hugs

    1. Thank you! Writing this post really took quite some effort on my part, and that shows rather more than I’d like to,but I end I was just glad I was done. 😉 I’m glad you are finding it helpful, though, and wish you good luck and joy in your own reading of Genji. Reading the novel in smaller portions might actually not be worst approach to it; with those older novels one often suspects they may actually have been meant to be read over a longer time and in small doses.

      And of course you’d not be pestering me at all, but I’m always happy to get emails from you. 😉

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