Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fortnightly Book, August 13

The next fortnightly book will be The Tale of Genji, by Murusaki Shikibu. Since it's a long work, it might end up being a three-week 'fortnight'.

We don't actually know the author's name; 'Shikibu' is derived from her father's official title, and 'Murasaki' appears to be a nickname borrowed from one of her characters. We do know that she was a lady-in-waiting of Empress Shoshi. Her education was unusual; women were not usually taught literary arts, but she helped her brother study and turned out to be have more talent than he did. According to a common literary story, she first conceived of the tale of Genji while watching the moon at Ishiyama Temple; we do not know if this is really true, but it is a scene that has often been depicted, as in this painting by Hiroshige III, from the 1880s:

Murasaki Shikibu by Hiroshige

Two other works are attributed to her, her court diary and a collection of poetry, but it is easily The Tale of Genji that has most inspired imaginations since the eleventh century when it was written.

The work is a long fictional prose narrative, probably written in installments, that is unified not by plot but by character. Famously, almost no one is named in it; most of the time people are referred to by their official title. Given that the narrative of the book spans a very long period of time, people's titles change over time, leading to complications in keeping track of the characters. The reason for this peculiarity was Japanese court custom at the time, the same court custom leaving us uncertain what Shikibu's personal name was: to use a person's personal name in a public matter was considered very rude and excessively familiar. Readers have often made up the gap by supplying their own nicknames. The work was also written in a very high literary diction, already archaic in its time; annotated editions have existed at least since the twelfth century.

Hikaru Genji is the son of the Emperor and a low-born concubine; his father, however, removed him from the line of succession, and so he is forced to make his way through the world as an Imperial official. A handsome playboy, he has a long string of affairs which will eventually lead to him being exiled -- and then to being pardoned and raised to a very high rank in the Imperial court. His story ends very abruptly, and scholars argue back and forth whether this abruptness of ending was intentional or not.

I will be reading Royall Tyler's unabridged translation, which seems to have good reviews. The entire work is 1120 pages, not counting the supplementary appendices, although it also is fairly generously supplied with illustrations and footnotes.

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