Appeal in Murasaki Shikibu's Thousand-Year-Old Novel
Image a white-faced, black-toothed woman. Painted eyebrows crest either side of her forehead. Her hair falls down to the floor. She hides behind a screen, just the ornate sleeves of her robe in plain view. On the other side, a carefully-scented man. At home waits his wife, and his other wife, a couple of concubines, a pseudo-adopted daughter who someday will be his lover. But for now—as he sends off a love haiku via messenger—his passion swells for this woman whose koto he heard as he sat under the cherry blossoms.
Ever since the first installment of Arthur Waley's English translation appeared in 1925, critics of Mirasaki Shikibu's eleventh-century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji have remarked on its seeming modernity. Even today, readers find the novel far more accessible than other dated classics. White-faced women, modern? Polygamous men, modern? Haiku poetry? Kotos?
Nearly a thousand years and a continent separate the contemporary American reader from the Japanese society of Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji. Homer, Milton, Chaucer, through Shakespeare—the study of these great writers happens tentatively, and only with an arsenal of study guides. Genji, somehow, has a more timeless quality. Why?
Edward G. Seidensticker, in a 1993 introduction to a reissue of his own English translation, writes, "The Genji describes the highest levels of Heian society, so high that the governor who was god to the rustics out in the provinces could himself be treated like a rustic buffoon. Yet all the important characters fall within the ordinary range of human experience."
Content, in this case the focus on characters and their psychological and emotional experience, is the main ingredient in Murasaki Shikibu' s recipe for an ageless story. Craft, especially the author's decision to portray an entirely realistic world, makes the recipe come out right. The modern reader has a warehouse of emotional experience in which to relate to any story. In so many antiquated tales, though, the circumstances, the characters, and the setting seem so foreign as to be absurd. The footnote is the clumsy, cumbersome antidote to this problem.
Writers of long ago—due to standard literary conventions, social norms, political pressure, and other now largely-defunct expectations—seldom invented worlds that seemed true to their time even during their time. It could be that Murasaki Shikibu benefited from her rare circumstances: an intellectual and artistic woman working in a form dominated by women, living in a culture that regarded art above all else. She makes no apologies for her novel or the behavior of its characters. Murasaki Shikibu uses precise, detailed descriptions to make her Japanese aristocratic society come to life. The reader develops an immediate trust for the narrator, lets the narrator guide her through the book. The customs, manners, and style might seem odd to, say, an American teenager living in New York City. But they always make sense in context. Once the reader trusts the world, then she can also trust the emotions. The object that inspires the emotion—an old shoe, a kite, a white-faced woman—becomes, in a sense, arbitrary.
The title character Genji invites compassion. He is deemed, from his early childhood, a commoner, somebody who will be held down by his lack of birthright. He is a hero in the vein of all the mutt heroes to come. Yet, Genji defies the word common. His natural beauty combines with the other skills he cultivates in dance, song, poetry, music, painting. Nobody compares to his prowess in any of the arts, of which romance seems to be one. So Genji is at once a mutt and a thoroughbred, a character accepted by almost everybody.
Perhaps Genji's great compassion comes from his disadvantaged birth. Throughout the novel, the hero repeatedly shows affection, even respect, for characters well below his station. When he stumbles across a down-on-her-luck Safflower Lady, Genji, by now the highest aristocrat, instinctively wants to...
(The entire section is 11,039 words.)