Open Letters Monthly and The Quarterly Conversation have teamed up for a mammoth of a summer read-along: please join us for the Summer of Genji!
Generally credited with being the world's first novel (in terms of the coherence of plot, prose narrative– albeit punctured by thousands of mini-poems– and interest in psychological veracity), the Tale of Genji is an 11th century tale of love, intrigue, and infidelity at the 10th century royal court in Kyoto. The unabridged edition (which we're reading, yay) checks in at just over a thousand pages long.
It's also written by a woman. On which, more later.
I taught the abridged version to my freshmen at NYU this year and they (and I) loved it. So I'm looking forward to getting the full story this summer. Because, you know, I don't have a dissertation to write or anything. I can easily squeeze a thousand more pages into my reading schedule. I'll be blogging about my readings here, in case you're interested.
Here, for your personal edification, are a couple of excerpts from essays who led their own Summer of Genji back in 1925: the original English translator, Arthur Waley, and my dear friend Virginia Woolf. Both were writing in the pages of British Vogue. Both had glowing things to say about the novel:
In a previous article I said that The Tale of Genji belongs to the sort of fiction which is less concerned with what happens than with the effect of the events on the minds of persons. The moment at which art most often reaches perfection is when some new means of self-expression is being for the first time explored. In this, literature differs from science, which generally takes a long time in making use of the new powers which invention places at its disposal. It is true that the Prinesse de Clèves, in which the ‘psychological’ method is used for the first time in Europe, just as it was used for the first time in Asia by Murasaki– the Princesse de Clèves opened up the way for Balzac, Stendhal, Proust. But in the whole realm of French fiction there is nothing more perfect as art than the Princesse. And Murasaki, like Madame de Lafayette (and, for the matter of that, like Shakespeare), was both inventor and perfector. But, unlike the French writer, she found no successors.
We feel that the authoress herself stands always on some such eminence, never lost in the intricacies of the plot as it proceeds from episode to episode, but steadily viewing the ultimate course of the story as though from some detached, commanding crest.
One very peculiar device by which she succeeds in giving a large movement to the narrative is by leaving gaps in the story, but referring to the omitted incidents as though they were already familiar to the reader. Later on these gaps are gradually filled. Proust uses the same device. In mentioning for the first time some previous dealing of Marcel’s with the Princesse de Parme he will speak as though we knew all about the business. When at last (quite out of its course in the narrative) the matter is fully discussed, our mind at once travels back to the earlier hints and allusions, so that the story no longer remains a succession of brief divided incidents, but begins to unfold to us as a vast corridor of eventful years and days.
“Murasaki, Japanese Novelist: Some Account of the Authoress of a Unique Oriental Novel of the Eleventh Century.” British Vogue, Early October 1924.
And Woolf says:
The Lady Murasaki lived, indeed, in one of those seasons which are most propitious for the artist, and, in particular, for an artists of her own sex. The accent of life did not fall upon war; the interests of men did not centre upon politics. Relieved from the violent pressure of these two forces, life expressed itself chiefly in the intricacies of behavior, in what men said and what women did not quite say, in poems that break the surface of silence with silver fins, in dance and painting, and in that love of the wildness of nature which only comes when people feel themselves perfectly secure. In such an age as this Lady Murasaki, with her hatred of bombast, her humour, her common sense, her passion for the contrasts and curiosities of human nature, for old houses mouldering away among the weeds and the winds, and wild landscapes, and the sound of water falling, and mallets beating, and wild geese screaming, and the res noses of princesses, for beauty indeed, and that incongruity which makes beauty still more beautiful, could bring all her powers into play spontaneously. It was one of those moments (how they were reached in Japan and how destroyed we must wait for Mr. Waley to explain) when it was natural for a writer to write of ordinary things beautifully, and to say openly to her public, ‘It is the common that is wonderful, and if you let yourself be put off by extravagance and rant and what is surprising and momentarily impressive you will be cheated of the most profound of pleasures.’ For there are two kinds of artists, said Murasaki: one who makes trifles to fit the fancy of the passing day, the other who ‘strives to give real beauty to the things which men actually use, and to give to them the shapes which tradition has ordained.’ How easy it is, she said, to impress and surprise; ‘to paint a raging sea monster riding a storm’– any toy maker can do that, and be praised to the skies. ‘But ordinary hills and rivers, just as they are, houses such as you may see anywhere, with all their real beauty and harmony of form–quietly to draw such scenes as this, or to show what lies behind some intimate hedge that is folded away far from the world, and thick trees upon some unheroic hill, and all this with befitting care for composition, proportion, and the like–such works demand the highest master’s utmost skill and must needs draw the common craftsman into a thousand blunders.’
Review, "The Tale of Genji." British Vogue, Late July 1925.