The Tale of Genji – first impressions

February 20, 2007

genjiThe Tale of Genji is not what would typically be described as a “page-turner.” In the introductory pages, the translator states that the book must be “the oldest novel still widely recognized today as a masterpiece. Its author was a woman whose work ranks in Japanese literature and culture as the Homeric epics, the works of Shakespeare, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past do elsewhere.” That is likely true, but after a few chapters I am not ready to place it in that same class. But I am thoroughly enjoying it so far, and read through the introduction even though it pretty thoroughly explains the plot. I think reading the introduction, as well as keeping up with the footnotes makes what could be a difficult text more enjoyable.

The Royall Tyler translation published by Viking is actually easy to read, obviously well-researched, and delightful. For some reason I cringe at using the word “delightful,” but it is the right word. This edition is illustrated with great line drawings by Minoru Sugai.

One immediately notices the role that women played in this society. It did not come as a surprise, and I believe was common in many societies for many years, but imagining the reality of it today can be disturbing. Here is a passage in which a group of men are discussing women-

“A wife’s main duty is to look after her husband, so it seems to me that one can do quite well without her being too sensitive, ever so delicate about the least thing, and all to fond of being amused. On the other hand, with a dutiful, frumpish housewife who keeps her sidelocks tucked behind her ears and does nothing but housework, the husband who leaves in the morning and comes home at night, and who can hardly turn to strangers to chat about how so-and-so is getting on in public or private or about whatever, good or bad, may have happened to strike him and is entitled to expect some understanding from the woman who shares his life, finds instead, when he feels like discussing with her the things that have made him laugh or cry, or perhaps have inflamed him with righteous indignation and are now demanding an outlet, that all he can do is avert his eyes, and that when he then betrays private mirth or heaves a sad sigh, she just looks up at him blankly and asks, ‘What is it, dear?’ How could he not wish himself elsewhere? It is probably not a bad idea to take a wholly childlike, tractable wife and form her yourself as well as you can. She may not have your full confidence, but you will know your training has made a difference. Certainly, as long as you actually have her with you, you can let her pretty ways persuade you to overlook her lapses….”


Another feature that I am enjoying is the chapter lead pages. Each chapter retains the original title, but includes a brief explanation of the title word(s), and often a bit of poetry. Here is an example:
broom tree

This is one of those lengthy books that I will not have a problem completing.


5 Responses to “The Tale of Genji – first impressions”

  1. Stefanie Says:

    This is on my list of books I’d like to read someday. You edition does sound delightful 🙂

  2. Dorothy W. Says:

    I think I needed an edition with notes and a good introduction, which I didn’t have. I wouldn’t compare this with Proust either, but they feel like completely different things, not really comparable.

  3. Brad Says:

    Stephanie – I usually can find good used and new prices at my favorite site that searches for best book prices –

    Dorothy – Good point about the comparisons- they are very different books.

  4. Chris Miller Says:

    “It is probably not a bad idea to take a wholly childlike, tractable wife and form her yourself as well as you can.”

    Did Genji’s cousin say that ?

    Whatever — as you’ll discover, that’s exactly the advice that Genji took — and it served him well.

  5. Vanessa Says:

    I recommend getting “The World of the Shining Prince” by Ivan Morris as a supplemental reader. I’m assuming you have the Tyler translation and I agree that his footnotes are invaluable, but the above book will lend more depth to the story and gives more context to the role of women at the time.
    I disagree with the Proust comparison as well, considering Genji was written nearly a thousand years earlier.

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