Wednesday 29 July 2020

A more sober view on The Pillow Book

In the introduction of The Pillow Book, Meredith McKinney quotes Murasaki Shikibu’s lines about her in her diary: 
“Sei Shonagon… was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves of being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial. How can the future turn out well for them?” 
I’m going to dismiss the possibility of jealousy, which people often bring up when an artist speaks scathingly of another, as I don’t think it’s always, or even often, the case—I think a writer would be bound to clash with another who has different aesthetics and different approaches to writing. The questions that interest me are: why do they think so? does it make sense that they think that way? 
In this case, there are 3 things to unpack. Sei Shonagon is witty and fascinating, but she’s certainly vain and arrogant—The Pillow Book is full of accounts of men being unable to respond to her poems, the Empress and others admiring her witty poetic exchanges, and her looking down on others. I know nothing about her Chinese writing so cannot comment, but one can easily tell that Sei Shonagon has such a strong personality and a tendency to be confrontational that people would either adore her or loathe her. 
What about the final point—that she tries to capture every moment of interest and ends up sounding superficial?
As I wrote in the earlier blog post, Sei Shonagon sometimes does appear superficial because of her interest in things and scenes. The brilliance of the book is that life at court appears so vivid and we get to learn about not only the festivals and rituals but also the day-to-day life of people at court, as seen through the eyes of a gentlewoman serving the Empress. The best thing, I would say, is that from afar we may think of people in the Heian period as solemn, austere, bound by all kinds of rules and rituals, but Sei Shonagon and the people in her book are full of life, with the same weaknesses, irritations, and absurdities that we can all recognise in ourselves and people around us. 
Sei Shonagon’s observations are always sharp, if not always profound. 
But after a while I cannot help thinking, would I be interested in The Pillow Book if it depicted life today, written the same way? Or is the main attraction the unfamiliar world it depicts, and the amazement that it resonates across 1000 years? Of course, the fact that it resonates today proves its universality and timelessness, and I don’t deny that The Pillow Book is both enjoyable and brilliant, but after a while does it not sound a bit, I don’t know, trivial? 
I don’t mean that writing about human behaviour is trivial, the question is whether there is anything beyond it. Sometimes there are some great insights (entry 273 in the Meredith McKinney translation), but overall there is no moral vision as far as I can see, and Sei Shonagon depicts and comments on behaviour but doesn’t examine it and doesn’t go further. It’s not without reason that most readers use the word “gossip” when talking about the content of The Pillow Book
More importantly, about halfway through the book, I started realising something else: readers (almost) always comment on Sei Shonagon’s snobbery and contempt for the lower classes (especially when she makes fun of, and laughs at, a man whose house burns down—entry 293), but not only so, she is fascinated by high rank and splendour and royal activities, adores the Emperor and Empress, and judges people based on class, rank, clothes, and manners. For example, entry 178 is called “Nothing is more splendid than rank” (referring to high rank, not the institution of ranking itself). 
I would have to read the diary to get a glimpse of Murasaki Shikibu as a person, but the implied author of The Tale of Genji has a Buddhist worldview, recognises the vanity of all things, and makes a point about education and promotions—Genji refuses to promote Yugiri easily, and forces him to focus on studies and prove himself. On the page Murasaki Shikibu is elusive and we may not know her views for certain, but I think she is critical of the ranking system, to some extent, or at least she is critical of gender inequality and double standards in Japanese society—the fact that a woman’s rank is dependent on her father’s and her position at court is precarious without strong backing (i.e. powerful male relatives). 
This is what Meredith McKinney writes in the introduction:  
“She has been dismissed by some as a mere chatterbox of a woman, and The Pillow Book considered to be nothing more than a silly gentlewoman’s idle thoughts spilling themselves haphazardly on to the page. It is common in Japan to contrast her with Murasaki Shikibu, and those who side with Sei Shonagon in this perceived rivalry are often characterized as vacuous and frivolous. 

Given this criticism, it is all the more impressive that The Pillow Book has always been accorded important status as a classic. Its fascination and odd genius are undeniable, and there have been and are many scholars happy to give it the attention it richly deserves, just as there will surely always be new readers who rediscover its delights.” 
That’s quite a weak defence, no? (That’s the ending of the introduction). 
Sei Shonagon’s definitely not “a mere chatterbox of a woman”, and she doesn’t just spill her thoughts haphazardly onto the page. She writes well, has good observations, and lots of sensitivity to beauty in nature and in things. Over time she has become a historian, capturing the aesthetic sensibility of Teishi’s court and depicting life at court from the point of view of a gentlewoman. In that sense, The Pillow Book is invaluable, and even more so as her view of life contrasts with Murasaki Shikibu’s. 
Personally I do think that, brilliant and witty as she is, she does appear superficial and trivial, especially next to Murasaki Shikibu. 
But how much does it matter? Sei Shonagon speaks directly to us from a millennium ago.

Monday 27 July 2020

Reading women (2)

See my earlier blog post about reading women

1/ With the plan of reading more books by women this year, so far I have read: 
- Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence
- Daphne du Maurier: My Cousin Rachel
- Kate Chopin: “At the ‘Cadian Ball”, “The Storm”, “Désirée’s Baby”. 
- Willa Cather: “Neighbour Rosicky”, “The Sculptor’s Funeral”. 
- Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
- Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji
- Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book
I also reread Mansfield Park and Persuasion
I like them all, and now Murasaki Shikibu and Edith Wharton are among my favourite writers. 

2/ The Tale of Genji is the greatest book I’ve read this year, and among the best I’ve read. Here’s what I wrote at The Common Breath
“From afar, The Tale of Genji may not look very appealing because it’s from the 11th century, and the culture is indeed alien, but in terms of technique, it is surprisingly modern. It forced me to rethink everything about world literature and the history of literature, because most of my favourite writers come from the 19th century (Tolstoy, Austen, Melville, Flaubert, etc.), then I realised that in 11th century Japan, a female writer had already figured out everything about the psychological novel.
I think it would be hard to read The Tale of Genji without getting a sense of awe, as it is a novel of great scope, longer than War and Peace, with about 400 characters. The characters are all unnamed, because it is rude to use personal names at Heian court, so we know of the characters by their titles or nicknames related to a flower, a poem, or a residence. The challenge is that the characters get promoted and change titles, or move house, and their inter-connections are also complex, so it is more difficult than War and Peace, but Murasaki Shikibu keeps track of all of them and the characters are all distinct and memorable.
As Tolstoy does with Russia in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, The Tale of Genji captures the intellectual and moral climate of Japan in the Heian period — we learn about the court system, beliefs and lifestyles, rituals, festivals, letter-writing, calligraphy, poetry, music, dance, incense-making, painting, gardening, Buddhist philosophy, and so on. At the same time, because it’s written by a woman, and about the women surrounding Genji as much as about Genji, The Tale of Genji also shows us what it’s like to be a woman in Heian Japan. It is also a beautiful novel, pervaded by mono no aware. A central theme is the fragility and impermanence of life, but it is not only sadness—in the idea of mono no aware, there is also a celebration of fleeting beauty, while it lasts.
It is an extraordinary novel, one that should be read more.” 
Everyone who knows me and knows my obsession with Jane Austen would be surprised to hear that I think Murasaki Shikibu is a greater writer. It’s partly because The Tale of Genji is an immense, impressive novel, in which she has to keep track of a large number of characters and still makes them vivid and distinctive (see my blog post about 2 kinds of big novels). She’s similar to Tolstoy in that she works on a large canvas, but you’re even more in awe when you come closer and see all the subtlety, all the fine details. Another reason is the way she writes about death and its impact, mortality, and the fragility of life. I love Jane Austen, but cannot help noticing, since Nabokov pointed it out in his lecture on Mansfield Park, that in her novels, deaths always happen off-stage and tend to drive the plot forward—no character dies in the author’s arms. 
There’s something else that I love in The Tale of Genji: the spirit of the Rokujo Haven is one of the finest creations I’ve encountered in literature—it is not a ghost, because the person is still alive, it’s an incarnation of her jealousy, hatred, and bitterness. The spirit may have its roots in Japanese folk tales, I don’t know, but it works so well in the novel because the Rokujo Haven, as herself, is unhappy but unaware of her jealousy of Aoi, but the bitterness takes the form of a spirit to attack Aoi savagely and kill her—Murasaki Shikibu is aware of the gap between conscious and unconscious feelings. 
She doesn’t just show the material aspects of life—she shows something more, something beyond them. 
In some ways, Murasaki Shikibu is comparable (though not similar) to Tolstoy, but with her, I don’t have to struggle the way I sometimes do with Tolstoy’s ideas and the preacher in him. 
Between her and Jane Austen, I naturally feel closer to Jane Austen because I’ve known her works for several years and am familiar with British culture, but I already feel that Murasaki Shikibu’s also close to my heart, in spite of time, in spite of the cultural barriers. 

3/ My reading took a new direction because of the pandemic, as I started reading East Asian classics—The Tale of Genji fits both (East Asian and female author). Little did I know, it would change me forever. 

4/ Edith Wharton and Carson McCullers are also wonderful. Both of them can create vivid and complex characters, and both fit my ideal of not moralising and not spoon-feeding readers, but in a way they are opposite. Edith Wharton is the cold, harsh one, who dissects society, sees through everything, and exposes the hypocrisies and pretensions of the upper-class, often in a misanthropic, mocking tone, whereas Carson McCullers, at least in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, writes about a range of misfits and depicts them with lots of love and compassion. 
McCullers is even more remarkable because she was only 23 when the novel was published—is it not stunning that a 23-year-old white woman in the South in 1940 could write so well and with so much sympathy about a bitter middle-aged black doctor? Is it not even more incredible that a 23-year-old could see through and expose the type like Jake Blount—a Marxist who goes on and on about grand ideas, but who is deep down very racist, heartless, hypocritical, and willing to sacrifice people for his cause? 

5/ I want to read more books by Carson McCullers and Willa Cather. 
Edith Wharton too, but at least I’ve read her 3 major works. 

6/ I also like Daphne du Maurier, and so far have read Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. Both are enjoyable and well-plotted. She’s a great storyteller. 

7/ So far my plan to read more books by women has been going well, and I’ve discovered some fantastic authors.

Friday 24 July 2020

10 favourite novels and some other lists about books

- 10 favourite novels (updated): 
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu 
Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy
War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton 
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 

- 3 favourite writers: 
Jane Austen 
Murasaki Shikibu 
Lev Tolstoy 

- 10 novels I feel worst for not having read:  
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe 
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman 
The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
Hunger by Knut Hamsun 
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf 
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo 
The works of Emile Zola 

- 10 novels I very much want to read though won't read any time soon: 
Ulysses by James Joyce
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust 
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 
Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac 
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco 
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray 
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk 
The Red and the Black by Stendhal  

Compare to my lists from 4 years ago.

Update on 27/12/2020: Less than half a year later, my top 10 favourite novels have been updated

Me at The Common Breath

Me being featured at The Common Breath: talking about Jane Austen, Murasaki Shikibu, Lev Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Nguyễn Du, and some others: click here

Thursday 23 July 2020

The Pillow Book, Heian literature, and The Tale of Genji

1/ I’ve been reading The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (translated by Meredith McKinney), which I think would be a great companion piece to The Tale of Genji
I should briefly write about the cultural context: this is the Heian period (794-1185), one of the richest periods of Japanese culture. Japan was heavily influenced by Chinese culture, but it was during the Heian period that the Japanese were starting to shake off the influence and create their own styles and aesthetics. 
At this time, men were writing in kanji (Chinese characters) whereas women were not allowed to learn it and Chinese classics, and instead, were writing in Japanese script kana (though it should be noted that both Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon knew Chinese, but had to conceal it). In addition, men wrote poetry and some forms of prose (such as history, diary...) but not fiction, as fiction (tales) was looked down on and became a female form. 
Ironically over time, it was largely women who developed a uniquely Japanese writing method and had a central role in the emergence of Japanese vernacular literature. Many of the greatest and most important works from this era were written by women, most notably The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book. Both of them also became historical documents, depicting life at Heian court—customs, habits, festivals, values, and so on.
Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu were not only contemporary but also knew about each other—the former was serving Empress Teishi (who gradually lost backing as her father died and her brothers got disgraced and exiled), and the latter entered court to serve Empress Shoshi (who was gaining standing as she got the unprecedented appointment as a concurrent Empress to the same Emperor). It’s possible that Murasaki Shikibu was sent to court to be rival to Sei Shonagon. 

2/ I don’t think it’s possible to compare The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book, as they’re different forms—the former is a psychological novel or a long tale, and the latter is a literary genre called zuihitsu, a form consisting of loosely connected personal essays and fragmented ideas. The writings in The Pillow Book can be divided into 3 types: narratives (events and incidents she experienced at court, or fictional scenes like part of a romantic tale), thoughts on various subjects, and lists (such as “dispiriting things”, “infuriating things”, “things that make your heart beat fast”, etc).
But we can compare the authors. 
The Tale of Genji, as I have written before, captures the intellectual and moral climate of the Japanese court in the Heian period, but if you read The Pillow Book right afterwards, you realise that it’s not any more Japan than War and Peace is Russia (by which I mean, War and Peace is not Russia but Tolstoy’s Russia). 
In some ways, the 2 authors are similar—both are ladies-in-waiting, or gentlewomen; both are highly intelligent, observant, and knowledgeable; both know Chinese but have to conceal it; both love nature and culture; both are part of a culture of refinement and elegance. But they are very different, with different temperaments. It’s a different perspective—The Pillow Book shows the court through the eyes of a gentlewoman (The Tale of Genji has an omniscient narrator and some interesting gentlewomen but largely focuses on the nobility), and Sei Shonagon’s view of the world is different.
“Japanese critics have often distinguished the aware of Genji monogatari and the okashi of Makura no sōshi. Aware means sensitivity to the tragic implications of a moment or gesture, okashi the comic overtones of perhaps the same moment or gesture. The lover’s departure at dawn evoked many wistful passages in Genji monogatari, but in Makura no sōshi Sei Shōnagon noted with unsparing exactness the lover’s fumbling, ineffectual leave-taking and his lady’s irritation. Murasaki Shikibu’s aware can be traced through later literature—sensitivity always marked the writings of any author in the aristocratic tradition—but Sei Shōnagon’s wit belonged to the Heian court alone.” (source
Murasaki Shikibu is introspective, sensitive, and deeply aware of the fragility and uncertainty of everything, and even though she’s also funny and there are some comic scenes in The Tale of Genji, the overall tone is melancholic and darker towards the end. Sei Shonagon, in contrast, is witty, hilarious, possibly extroverted, sometimes arrogant, snobbish, even mean, and she often sees the amusing or absurd side of things. My impression from The Pillow Book is that she has a strong personality, laughs a lot, and can be confrontational and intimidating. 
I’ve just read about the solemn exorcist monks, or the wistful partings in The Tale of Genji, then I’ve got to The Pillow Book—everything appears absurd. 

3/ Sei Shonagon isn’t interested in soul-searching. The Pillow Book is basically about her personal likes and dislikes, her opinions on things, and the things she finds delightful about the world in which she lives. It’s not only a valuable historical document but also interesting for itself—the reason The Pillow Book is still read and still enjoyable is that the author has a strong personality and appears very vivid, very real on the page. She is fascinating. 
In the introduction, Meredith McKinney discusses different speculations about Sei Shonagon’s intentions for writing The Pillow Book. It may be personal, but there’s an awareness and acknowledgement of an audience, and the book seems like an equivalent of the modern day’s blog. The lists may be her personal views, but they may also be a catalogue of shared tastes and opinions. But whatever the intentions are, Sei Shonagon comes to epitomise the sensibility of Teishi’s court.   
Like The Tale of Genji, part of the charm of The Pillow Book is the alien, sometimes strange environment and culture depicted, and part of it is that you recognise the things she’s talking about, and go “yes! I can relate”. She speaks directly to me from 1000 years ago. The culture, customs, and social norms may be different, but human beings haven’t changed at all. 

4/ I once saw someone complain about the lack of political intrigue in The Pillow Book. Indeed, the translator Meredith McKinney provides the background, and lots of things were happening when Sei Shonagon was at court—Empress Teishi’s position became insecure as her father died, power went to his brother/rival, then her brothers became exiled, and the rival established his daughter Shoshi as an Empress. These things only get a brief mention, if at all, in The Pillow Book, and don’t get discussed in detail. 
I too would be curious about her thoughts, but this condescending complaint seems to me quite ignorant. One must remember that Sei Shonagon’s writing non-fiction, about real people and real events, so she cannot go far as far as Murasaki Shikibu can in The Tale of Genji—Murasaki also moves the settings of her novel to the 10th century, probably so that others don’t think she’s writing about current conflicts at court. Sei Shonagon’s also not part of the nobility—she’s at court to serve an Empress and can be kicked out or punished any moment if she offends someone of high rank. Even though she means to write for herself, other people are aware of her writings.

5/ Compared to Murasaki Shikibu (and some other writers I love), Sei Shonagon is very worldly, entertainingly so. She’s interested in things, scenes, and people. She writes anecdotes and character sketches, and describes events at court. That’s part of the appeal. 
She’s also not very religious, compared to Murasaki Shikibu. As written above, exorcist monks, so solemn and holy in The Tale of Genji, are portrayed in The Pillow Book as amusingly ineffectual, exhausted, drowsy, and desperate not to become laughingstocks. Or, she may describe her pilgrimage to the temple at Kiyomizu and start off writing about the reverence, but she soon gets distracted. 
“If it’s at New Year, though, the place is simply an uproar of noisy activity. You have no hope of pursuing your own practice, you’re too busy watching the endless melee of people to the temple to offer up prayers for this and that.” (entry 115) 
And then: 
“You always wonder who it is if you don’t recognize them, and it’s fun to try to identify the ones you think you do recognize.” (ibid.)  
She’s too interested in people. 
But then, why should I be surprised? After all, early on in the book, she says that preachers should be good-looking because, if we are to absorb what he’s saying, we must keep our eyes on him as he speaks. 
Personally I’m not religious, and I may dislike certain things about organised religion. But I do love the supernatural elements in The Tale of Genji, especially the spirit of the Rokujo Haven, which is strange and one of the finest creations I’ve encountered in literature. As Royall Tyler has noted in his book of essays about the novel, the way the Rokujo Haven isn’t aware of any hostility towards Aoi but her jealousy and bitterness takes the form of a spirit to attack Aoi savagely shows Murasaki Shikibu’s awareness of a gap between conscious and unconscious feelings. That is brilliant. 

6/ The greatness of The Tale of Genji is more obvious to see, and easier to talk about—we can talk about the great scope, characterisation and psychological insights, techniques, style, beauty, descriptions, structure, themes, ideas, moral vision, and so on. 
It is harder to talk about the brilliance of The Pillow Book. In a way, Sei Shonagon does appear superficial because of her interest in things and scenes (and some of her narratives may count as gossip about people at court), and sometimes she does sound conceited, as Murasaki Shikibu remarks in her diary. But she’s very clever, quick-witted, and extremely funny, and she can convey well the various scenes and life in general at court—the Heian court appears vivid, intimate, and full of life under her pen. She’s also sensitive to beauty. 
Mostly the charm of the book is the author herself, and I can’t help feeling drawn to her. Sure, she often sounds mean and definitely snobbish, but I relate to her because she apparently has a short temper and tends to be confrontational. As she describes in the book, a few times a close male friend and she may have some argument over something minor and she gets a bit confrontational, but she doesn’t really bother and the friendship ends. She is flamboyantly alive on the pages, we see her flaws, but she still appears charming but I can’t help feeling drawn to her. 
A simplistic way of explaining the different ways I feel about the authors is that Murasaki Shikibu is a genius I put on a pedestal, and I see Sei Shonagon as a friend. 
This shouldn’t be taken lightly—is it not remarkable that I feel a connection with a woman living in Japan over a millennium ago?

Here is a thread of things I find fascinating in The Pillow Book (still to be updated). 

Update on 29/7: see my follow-up blog post about The Pillow Booka more sober view.

Monday 20 July 2020

On Royall Tyler’s essays about The Tale of Genji

Did you expect my previous blog post to be my last post on The Tale of Genji
I’ve just got Royall Tyler’s book of essays on the novel, called The Disaster of the Third Princess. It is interesting, and sheds some light on the book. 
1/ The essay “Genji and Murasaki: Between Love and Pride” is about Genji-Murasaki relationship and the 3 crises—Akashi, Asagao, and the Third Princess (Onna San no Miya). 
I didn’t realise that Genji’s pursuit of Asagao may have been politically motivated. Murasaki is the love of his life but as he rises higher and higher at court, she no longer seems enough for him in terms of rank. Asagao is a princess (daughter of His Highness of Ceremonial—a prince) and would be a threat. Fortunately for Murasaki, she first becomes a Kamo Priestess and afterwards keeps refusing Genji, but the threat is always there, and many years later he ends up marrying someone of even higher rank—the Third Princess, daughter of a retired Emperor (Suzaku). That is when everything is turned upside down and their relationship can never be the same. 
Genji brings Murasaki up and moulds her into his ideal woman, but their marriage isn’t perfect. At the core, it’s because she lacks backing (her mother’s dead, her father barely recognises her and his wife is a terrible woman) and her position is forever insecure. Her position depends on Genji’s affection, and even then, there are political factors and pressure from other people, as we can see in the case of the Third Princess. 
Another thing is that, as I’ve written before, Genji can sometimes be tactless or condescending, and scold Murasaki for being jealous or angry, which is not becoming for a lady even though the feelings are normal and understandable. 
But that’s the greatness of The Tale of Genji. I don’t know where some people get the idea that Genji or Murasaki is idealised—both are flawed and human. 

2/ “Genji and Suzaku (1): The Disaster of the Third Princess” is about the relationship between Genji and Suzaku.
Between these half-brothers, Suzaku has a strong backing (the Fujiwara clan) and has power, but Genji is the more handsome and gifted one. Suzaku is, in some ways, a pathetic figure, because he doesn’t have a strong personality and is controlled by his mother (the Kokiden Consort).  
The interesting part is that Suzaku doesn’t seem to mind Akikonomu’s affair with Genji (even if he doesn’t appoint her a Consort because of it) and their relationship seems fine, until the incident with the Third Princess. He entrusts Genji with his favourite daughter, and in the end feels betrayed. His decision to let her become a nun is a way of letting her get away from Genji, and showing him his reproaches. 
In this essay, Royall Tyler argues that the Kiritsburo Emperor knows about Genji’s transgression with Fujitsubo, but condones it. I suppose that is possible, the Emperor after all does notice the resemblance—perhaps that is his way of helping his favourite son get a son that would become an Emperor, as Genji himself cannot become Emperor. 

3/ At the end of that essay, and in “Genji and Suzaku (2): The Possibility of Ukifune”, Royall Tyler argues that the spirit that kills Oigimi and attacks Ukifune in the last part of the novel is Suzaku. The idea is that, by attacking the 2 women that Kaoru courts, the spirit of Suzaku punishes Kaoru, who is in the public eye Genji’s son.  
The main arguments are: a) when alive, Suzaku compromises his practice and his vows when leaving the mountains to come back for his daughter, no wonder that he would be an angry spirit; b) the spirit says it’s used to be an ordained monk; and c) the Uji villa, where Ukifune is found, used to belong to Suzaku. 
Is it convincing? I’m not sure. 
Royall Tyler also argues that after the exorcism, Ukifune is not completely free but still possessed by the spirit, because of her amnesia and strange reactions, especially her lack of gratitude to the nuns and condescending, snobbish view on them. Perhaps, again I’m not sure. 
But I agree with Tyler that Ukifune’s life beyond the tale (i.e. after the open ending) wouldn’t be great—in the ending we see her refusing to acknowledge Kaoru and her own half-brother, but as we have seen throughout the novel, a woman cannot resist forever. A woman, if she doesn’t yield to an aggressive and/or persistent man, would still yield because of intense pressure or interference from her gentlewomen. The only woman in the tale who successfully resists to the end is Oigimi, who kills herself. Ukifune has no protection, even the monk is afraid of Kaoru’s power, so her only option is to run away again. 

4/ In the essay “Pity Poor Kaoru”, Royall Tyler apparently argues that Kaoru’s personality lacks some kind of coherence or integration. I don’t think so. He has self-contradictions, but the contradictions don’t mean that his personality is unrealistic or lacks coherence. 
Kaoru is idealised by everyone, the way Genji has been, and he likes to think that he is kind, pious, and detached from material life, which is why he can control himself and not rape Oigimi. Religious people are the same, who like to believe themselves pious, and because of faith and fear of sin, resist the temptation to do things they know to be wrong. But at the same time, he’s not the kind of holy man he believes himself to be (as he says to the monk at the end of the novel), he still has weaknesses—his pride, his desires and longings, and his bitter side. 
He also doesn’t treat the women very nicely, especially Ukifune. It is hard to like Kaoru. 
But these weaknesses, to me, make Kaoru more real and more human. Niou himself wants to cut Kaoru down to size, because Kaoru always keeps up the façade of a pious, holy man but still visits his wife and has a secret woman elsewhere. Kaoru’s struggle is the struggle between his pious sentiments and erotic longings, which we can see particularly in the passages where he thinks he has always had higher aspirations but ends up living as all men do (ch.52). 

Overall, these essays are interesting and may shed light on things I didn’t quite understand or notice before, even though I don’t always agree with Royall Tyler.

Sunday 19 July 2020

The Tale of Genji: chapters 53-54, patriarchy, authorship, ending

1/ As chapter 53 reveals, Ukifune survives. But as she finds refuge among the nuns in the village, she finds herself harassed by the Captain, the nun’s son-in-law. It is a cycle she cannot escape. He’s like another Niou who cannot take no for an answer and doesn’t want to leave her alone. 
In a way The Tale of Genji seems to be about men behaving badly—men harassing, pursuing women single-mindedly just after a glimpse of their looks, even abducting and raping them. There are examples of male entitlement throughout the novel, there’s also grooming and substitution. But the male characters are as complex and diverse as the female characters, the author seems to love them all—even Niou, the worst of the men, is shown to have a vulnerable side and to have feelings. 
In my opinion, The Tale of Genji is not an anti-male book, but Murasaki Shikibu means to critique the patriarchal system: it is a deeply sexist society with double standards—men have ranks and power, a woman’s rank depends on her father; men have lots of freedom, can have multiple wives and go to many places, women have confined lives and remain hidden behind curtains and screens; women bear more of the consequences when there’s an affair or a scandal; women cannot study the Chinese language and the Chinese classics and must not “flaunt” their knowledge; women are dependent on men (male relatives and husband) and their only refuge outside a stable relationship with a man is religion; a woman like Ukifune has to make a choice between 2 men and would be disgraced either way whilst the men can have multiple wives, and so on. 
Murasaki Shikibu shows that it’s not just the men, but the society, the customs, because other women also enforce it. When a woman doesn’t want to speak to a man or reply to his letter, he doesn’t take no for an answer but her gentlewomen also put pressure on her and urge her to accept. Some gentlewomen go further and show a side entrance so the man can get in, like Onna San no Miya’s (The Third Princess from Suzaku) or Oigimi’s.
Even the nuns that Ukifune lives with urge her to reply to the Captain, instead of accepting that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, and they all push her to the point of officially becoming a nun. That is her only refuge.
As shown in chapter 54, even this refuge is insecure. In Ono, Ukifune doesn’t have peace as she wants—the kind of peace that other women at court get after becoming nuns in the Genji section. 

2/ In the Uji chapters, Murasaki Shikibu narrows down her focus to a small set of characters, unlike earlier, and digs deeper into their feelings. The characters are psychologically complex and interesting, and as vividly real as many major characters in the Genji section, in some ways even deeper, although the Uji part comprises of only 10 chapters. 

The Uji sisters are distinct and all fascinating—Oigimi, Naka no Kimi, and Ukifune. But Ukifune’s narrative arc is particularly interesting, and affecting. I like that she’s introverted and keeps things to herself, but she has another side to her—a passionate side that makes her fall for Niou and makes her, out of the blue, decide to disappear and take a fateful step.  

3/ I’ve just read an essay by Janine Beichman, in which she notes that the Uji chapters are about: 

“the dispossessed nobility and their relations, almost all of them women. They are marginals, comfortable neither with the highborn nor with the low, and their awareness of rank and class is acute and painful.” (source)
In the Genji section, there are 2 characters with similar circumstances—Akashi and Tamakazura. Their luck is meeting Genji. The 3 Uji sisters are the different ways Akashi could have ended up if not for Genji. But Ukifune has the worst lot because she has noble lineage but isn’t recognised by her Prince father. 

4/ I wonder who the spirit that attacks Ukifune is.  

5/ As a first-time reader who is reading in translation, I shouldn’t weigh in on the authorship debate, but then ignorance and lack expertise have never stop people from voicing their opinions.

The Tale of Genji has 54 chapters, Genji dies after ch.41 and 42-54 focus on 2 central characters—Kaoru (Kashiwagi’s son) and Niou (the Third Prince, Genji’s grandson). Ch.45-54 are called the Uji chapters because the story moves away from court and focuses on a place called Uji. Because so little known about Murasaki Shikibu’s life and the mention in her diary doesn’t say what stage she was on and how many chapters she wrote, there have been debates and different theories—the main ones, as far as I’m aware, are about ch.42-54 or 45-54. 
Another theory, proposed by Yosano Akiko, is that Murasaki Shikibu only wrote ch.1-33 and ch.35-54 were written by her daughter Daini no Sanmi (what about 34?). 
There are a few people who believe it’s a different author because the tone is darker, but if you look at Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence is mellow, melancholic, and nostalgic, not as harsh and misanthropic as The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, and Jane Austen’s last 4 novels, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion all have different tones. The important thing is the style, especially on the sentence level. I wouldn’t know.
My main concern is, how likely is it that there was another genius to appear at the right time and take up the work without a drop in quality or a significant difference in style that escaped most readers?
Or maybe I should rephrase it, as the original manuscript’s long gone and we will never know the truth, can we accept the one-author idea?
My impression, reading in translation, is that there’s nothing that stands out and makes me think that there’s a different author from chapter 34, 42, or 45. If we have to accept the sole authorship through faith, my reading of the Uji chapters is that I can believe the author’s still Murasaki Shikibu—a deeper, darker, more pessimistic Murasaki Shikibu but still her.

6/ See what Kaoru says to His Reverence, the monk who has saved and exorcised Ukifune: 

““…I myself did not intend to honor her particularly, but although it was hardly more than chance that brought her to me, I never felt that she deserved to fall his far…”” (Ch.54)
Let’s go back and see what Kaoru says to Niou earlier: 
““... it occurred to me that I might see her now and again, if it had not been that at the time I might unfortunately have risked a degree of criticism by doing so. I therefore installed her there, in that distant and lonely place, and I managed to visit her all too rarely. Meanwhile I gathered that she was not especially eager to rely solely on me. However, that would have mattered only if I had meant to treat her with high honor, which I did not, and it was of little consequence as long as my main wish was simply to provide for her welfare…”” (Ch.52) 
I might not understand Heian culture very well to get the nuance, but Kaoru doesn’t sound very likable on these 2 occasions. 

7/ This comes from the introduction of Royall Tyler’s collection of essays The Disaster of the Third Princess

“… Opinions like these suggest the need to define what it means to say that the Uji chapters, brilliant as they are in themselves, are integral to the rest.
Mitani responded to this need by providing a definition that he rested on the opening words of “Niou Miya”: “His light was gone, and none among his many descendants could compare to what he had been.”
Genji’s world, vividly present a moment ago, has gone dark. The Uji chapters have indeed been called a tale of “darkness.” As one literary critic wrote in 1949, “With [them], the atmosphere of The Tale of Genji turns dark and cold, as though one had stepped down into a cellar.” The opening words of Part Three are therefore fundamental to Mitani’s view of these chapters as a “hollowed-out tale of absence,” that is to say, the story of a world now without a center. The effect of this “darkness” is to give Genji’s life a new, retrospective radiance. Kobayashi Masaaki similarly called these chapters an “anti-monogatari” that succeeds Genji’s story in a Hegelian dialectic of light and darkness. In short, Mitani attributed the value of Part Three above all to the way it renews the reader’s pleasure, by contrast, in Parts One and Two.” 
As a note, the structure of The Tale of Genji is generally said to be: Part I (ch.1-33), Part II (ch.34-41), and Part III (ch.42-54). 
Royall Tyler goes on to say “Whether the same author or another planned this effect, however, remains imponderable”, but does it really matter if the effect is there? Most readers of The Tale of Genji would see the Uji chapters as the culmination of the tale—the 2 characters Kaoru and Niou make us see Genji in a different light, and the darkness of the last part gives Genji’s life a retrospective radiance. 

8/ Does the abrupt and unresolved ending mean that The Tale of Genji is unfinished? Or is it a deliberate open ending?

People take 2 sides: 
“Arthur Waley, who made the first English translation of the whole of The Tale of Genji, believed that the work as we have it was finished. Ivan Morris, however, author of The World of the Shining Prince, believed that it was not complete and that later chapters were missing. Edward Seidensticker, who made the second translation of the Genji, believed that Murasaki Shikibu had not had a planned story structure with an ending as such but would simply have continued writing as long as she could.” (Wikipedia
 Again, I wouldn’t know, and probably shouldn’t say anything at the moment as I’ve just finished reading The Tale of Genji (after over 7 weeks). But I can see arguments for a deliberate choice—a story, a book (almost) always has a conclusion but life doesn’t, life goes on. In the last section of the book, there is a clear idea of a cycle—Kaoru pursues Oigimi whilst Niou flirts with Naka no Kimi, then they both move onto Ukifune; Ukifune, torn between the two, runs away and finds refuge among the mountain rustics only to find herself harassed by the Captain; once the Captain is gone (which appears temporary), Kaoru now finds her and everyone puts pressure on her, even though she has become a nun. It is a cycle that never ends. Is there a real need to go on?   

The Tale of Genji is a magnificent book, among the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

Friday 17 July 2020

The Tale of Genji: chapter 52, Kaoru vs Genji

1/ Niou and Kaoru both drive Ukifune to suicide. It is undeniable that Niou is the one who starts the trouble as he pursues her with animalistic fervour, despite friendship, reputation, and consequences, but Kaoru is also at fault. When he catches wind of what’s going on, he sends some hint to Ukifune and sends out a warning through the Constable, instead of going there himself to speak to her. 
Do you not wonder why it is that none of Genji’s women tries to commit suicide whereas Kaoru is partly responsible for Oigimi starving herself to death and Ukifune deciding to drown herself? Among Genji’s women, there are a few who become nuns but unless my memory fails me, none of them does so because of him—Fujitsubo becomes a nun for fear of punishment from the powerful faction at court; Utsusemi finds refuge in religion because of harassment from her step-son; the Third Princess from Suzaku (Onna San no Miya) turns to religion to hide from the world after the Kashiwagi incident. 
The Uji chapters in a way feel almost like a separate story, because of the new set of characters and the 2 locations (court and Uji), but Murasaki Shikibu makes the reader compare Niou and Kaoru to Genji. The Uji chapters show the darkness of the world when Genji’s light is gone. 

2/ Throughout the story, we see that every single death affects Genji, in different ways—even Aoi or the Rokujo Haven. 
In the Uji chapters, we see Kaoru’s depth of feeling as he mourns Oigimi for a long time. But he doesn’t seem to feel much after the news of Ukifune’s death, though there’s some sadness and regret. The fickle Niou seems to suffer much more and turns ill from shock and heartbreak. 
See Kaoru: 
“I was right, then, he said to himself. They were not just exchanging letters. Once he had seen her, he would certainly have wanted her—that is just what she was like. I would not have gone unscathed if she had lived, something would undoubtedly have happened to make me look like a fool. Reflections of this kind seemed to quell somewhat the flames that burned in his breast.” (Ch.52) 
Does he not sound like an arsehole?  
Kaoru comes to visit Niou, and try as he does, Niou cannot help the tears. 
“Sure enough! thought the Commander. All this misery of his is over her! When can it have begun? He must have been laughing at me for months!
The grief vanished so visibly from his expression that His Highness exclaimed to himself how cold the fellow was. […] Here I am, obviously very upset, and if he knows what the matter is, which he must, he cannot be that impervious to human feelings! How detached a man can be when he really knows that all things pass!” (ibid.) 
(The Commander is Kaoru, His Highness is Niou, as he’s the Third Prince). 
Kaoru’s anger and bitterness is much greater than his sadness over Ukifune. He thinks more about himself. Niou assumes that Kaoru can be detached because he knows that all things pass, but that’s not really the case—he doesn’t feel much about Ukifune because he only intends her to be a double of Oigimi. That’s the difference between him and Genji—Genji loves all of his women in different ways, for their different qualities. 

3/ It is because his feeling is not deep that Kaoru spies on, and starts yearning for, the First Princess. Unable to have her, he goes home to his wife, the Second Princess, and the next day asks her to put on something similar. 
“He put the shift on her himself. Her trousers were crimson, as hers had been yesterday, and her abundant hair was as superbly long, but alas, the effect was not at all the same, perhaps they were really too unlike each other. He called for a block of ice that he had the women split, and he felt secretly amused with himself when he gave her a piece. […] Surely the lady before me is worthy to afford me this consolation! Still, he only wished that he had been able to join Her Highness yesterday and to feast his eyes on her to his heart’s content, and he could not help heaving a sigh.” (ibid.) 
A man puts some clothes on a woman to make her look like his object of desire, and tries to recreate a past scene—what does it sound like? Vertigo

4/ In chapter 52, there’s another woman, known as Miya no Kimi. She is daughter of His Late Highness of Ceremonial, who dies somewhere in the background of chapter 51, I think. It’s not clear who her mother is, but it’s not the horrible wife. Miya no Kimi is therefore a half-sister of Murasaki (though there’s a great age gap between them, so Murasaki wouldn’t know her). 
She now serves the Empress (Akashi’s daughter), and Niou and Kaoru start pursuing her. 
In this chapter, it becomes obvious that there is a bitter side to Kaoru as well, and that the rivalry isn’t one way. 
Earlier in the novel, the rivalry between Genji and his best friend To no Chujo at some point turns into a political competition and they drift apart for some time, especially when To no Chujo doesn’t let Genji’s son Yugiri marry his daughter. There is some resentment but their rivalry doesn’t have the same kind of bitterness and antagonism as between Niou and Kaoru. Niou, as I wrote in the previous blog post, is deep down insecure and jealous of Kaoru, who makes him appear small and frivolous. But Kaoru is also bitter about Niou because Niou is more charming and always seems to get his way.  
The worst part, of course, is the betrayal. When Genji gets involved with Yugao, she’s no longer with To no Chujo. Niou seems to have no sense of boundaries and no respect for their friendship—in fact, I find it slightly odd that Kaoru doesn’t cut him out of his life. 

5/ It is interesting that Ukon, one of Ukifune’s gentlewomen, doesn’t tell Kaoru the full truth. What a liar, I thought. Kaoru deserves to know. But afterwards I understood. She wants to protect her mistress.

Thursday 16 July 2020

The Tale of Genji: chapters 50-51, stepchildren, lack of privacy, Niou

1/ The Tale of Genji depicts the Japanese court, so it’s a world of culture, refinement, sensitivity, and elegance. But once in a while Murasaki Shikibu brings in an outsider such as Omi no Kimi (To no Chujo’s rustic daughter) or moves the narrative away from court, such as when we go back to Tamakazura’s upbringing (Yugao’s daughter) or now in chapter 50, when we read about Ukifune, her mother, and her stepfather—the coarse, uncouth Governor of Hitachi.  
As I read it in translation (Royall Tyler’s), I can see some difference when the characters are countrified and lack the elegance or artistic sensibility of the people at court. I also see the difference in the way Kaoru and Niou talk, for instance—Niou is full of sweet words and promises whereas Kaoru is in earnest and more serious, though sometimes he almost loses self-control. But normally I can barely tell if Murasaki Shikibu can create distinct, vivid voices for her characters to the same extent that Jane Austen does (or Nguyễn Du does in Truyện Kiều, even though it’s a long poem). 
It’s the same when I read other novels in translation. In Tolstoy for instance, the characters are complex and vividly real and the way they talk is definitely different, but in translation I cannot really hear their distinct voices the way I can hear, distinguish, and recognise the voices in Jane Austen. 

2/ In a conversation with the nurse, Ukifune’s mother makes an interesting point about polygamy—she and her husband are very different and may sometimes clash, but at least she doesn’t have to share him with anyone else. 
She changes her mind later, however, after seeing Niou and seeing how Naka no Kimi lives. 

3/ In The Tale of Genji, stepparent-stepchildren relationships are various.
Some are good. Murasaki raises and loves Akashi’s daughter as her own. Tamakazura is kind to Higekuro’s children by his first wife. After Higekuro’s death, she marries Kobai—each has their own children from the previous marriage and then they have children together, but the children are all treated as equal.
Some are bad. In the marriage of the Governor of Hitachi, the wife has her own favourite daughter (Ukifune), and he has his favourite daughter (a younger one, by her). Murasaki’s stepmother is a horrible woman who dislikes both Murasaki and Genji, and talks her husband into cutting ties with Murasaki after the banishment. The original Kokiden Consort in the story also dislikes Genji, but there’s a difference because it’s about politics, about the fear of loss of influence and power. 
Some stepparent-stepchildren relationships are plain weird. Genji bangs his own stepmother Fujitsubo. Utsusemi (cicada) gets harassed by her stepson and has to find refuge in religion.  

4/ The scenes of Ukifune’s mother at Nijo are interesting because they show life at court as seen by a true outsider. In a way, Akashi and Naka no Kimi have been outsiders, but not completely—the Akashi Novice is from court and Akashi’s brought up as a lady, with the elegance and accomplishments of a lady; Naka no Kimi is daughter of a prince, a prince who has fallen but who is a prince nevertheless. In addition, both of them are intelligent and sensitive, fully aware of the internal politics and power play at court, and therefore not easily overwhelmed by luxury. 
Ukifune’s mother, in contrast, has never seen anything remotely like court life—the Eighth Prince had a simple lifestyle and the Governor of Hitachi has wealth but no sense of culture and refinement. 
Her amazement and envy are very well depicted, especially when she thinks that Ukifune and Naka no Kimi have the same father and should have the same opportunities but so far have led very different lives. 

5/ Kaoru’s sudden removal of Ukifune to Uji makes me think of Genji’s abduction of the 10-year-old Murasaki. I’m not saying it’s the same—it’s not an abduction and people don’t object to it except for the timing (the 9th month is not a good month for marriage), but the suddenness is similar. 
“When he heard the other men come in and lie down, he called for his carriage to be brought to the double doors. Then he picked her up and put her in it.” (Ch.50) 
I mean, what?  
Here is what Kaoru thinks as he talks to, and observes, Ukifune: 
“He touched on the subject of His Late Highness and told her all sorts of amusing things about those days, but she remained so desperately shy and so bashfully unresponsive that he felt disappointed. Never mind, he thought, reconsidering, it is better to have her unfinished this way. I must teach her things. She would be no double of her if she liked to show off as rustics do, and if she were coarse and talked too fast.” (ibid.) 
Kaoru wants her to become a double of Oigimi, the same way Genji sees Fujitsubo in Murasaki and wants to mould her into his ideal woman. 
The whole thing considered alone is weird, but it appears okay and his removal of her to Uji becomes a rescue because of what Niou has just done—next to Niou the fuckboy, Kaoru looks like a saint. 

6/ One thing that strikes me as interesting about this world is that there can be no secrets. The noble men and ladies generally talk through intermediaries, with blinds and screens between them, and apart from husband, father, and sons, a lady only speaks to a man in her own voice when she feels that they are sufficiently close or intimate. I should add that it doesn’t necessarily mean they are in a relationship or about to be, just sufficiently close—for instance, some time after the Eight Prince’s death, Oigimi removes the intermediary between them so Kaoru can talk about his feelings in his own voice; Naka no Kimi over time allows Kaoru to hear her voice because he’s true to her sister and takes care of her family’s personal affairs like a brother. 
But there are always gentlewomen nearby, and the screens and walls aren’t particularly thick, so there’s no real privacy. 
People therefore do talk, except when something could lead to a great scandal and turn everything upside down—that’s why all the high-ranking people, especially the women, are afraid of their reputation getting tainted. 
In the novels, there are 2 big secrets but they don’t remain secrets forever—over time Reizei and then Kaoru learn about their own origins.  
Letter-writing and the use of carriages (with retainers and servants) also make it difficult to keep a secret. There are always too many people involved. It’s no wonder that Kaoru hides Ukifune away and sees her in secret but Niou still learns about it and finds out about her whereabouts. 

7/ At the same time, it also means that everyone takes part in betraying Kaoru. 
Niou behaves abominably, Ukifune also changes, but everyone else goes along with it and lies to Kaoru. 

8/ In chapter 51, for the first time the narrator follows a male character into a woman’s room and makes it clear that something is rape—Niou “stopped [Ukifune] crying out”. 
However she complicates the issue by depicting Ukifune the next day and afterwards as liking it, and even preferring the charming Niou to Kaoru. Murasaki Shikibu doesn’t say what she thinks about it, as usual—all she does is describing what different characters think. There is no doubt that Niou’s behaviour is abominable and unjustifiable—he wants to possess her after just a glimpse of her and pursues her at all costs. It is a blow to Kaoru and above all, a betrayal of his wife Naka no Kimi. But at the same time we also see that Ukifune hasn’t chosen to be with Kaoru, and in her naïveté and inexperience, she has passionate feelings for Niou and feels torn between the two. 
Kaoru puts Ukifune in a carriage and sends her to a house in Uji, hiding her from everyone. Then Niou picks her up to a house on the other side of the river, to enjoy 2 full days with her. Later when Kaoru plans to move her to a newly built house at court, Niou tries to arrange sending her to a house somewhere else, to hide her from him. The 2 men are not the same and Kaoru doesn’t betray anyone (he’s open with his wife), but it’s still a fact that both of them treat Ukifune like a toy, a plaything, to move around and hide from each other. 
In the Uji chapters, Kaoru and Niou are different and not any less vividly real and complex than Genji. I may even say that Murasaki Shikibu’s genius lies especially in the depiction of Niou—he is a fuckboy, a selfish and contemptible womaniser, but he’s also a jealous and suspicious man who suspects Naka no Kimi of having an affair with Kaoru and reproaches Ukifune for caring more about Kaoru, especially when he himself feels guilty. Deep down, he’s insecure and jealous of Kaoru, and wants to cut him down to size. This character is a magnificent creation. 

9/ Chapter 51 is a deeply moving chapter.
The name of the chapter, “Ukifune”, means “drifting boat” or “boat adrift”. As Royall Tyler explains, it is Ukifune’s simile for herself in a poem to Niou as they cross the Uji river, and becomes her nickname in the story. 
The image is perfect. Kaoru and Niou may speak of their misery and suffering, but she is the one who suffers the most, because she’s a woman. 
The drifting image reminds me of the poem “Bánh trôi nước” by Hồ Xuân Hương (18th century Vietnamese female poet):  
Thân em vừa trắng là vừa tròn
Bảy nổi ba chìm với nước non
Rắn nát mặc dầu tay kẻ nặn
Mà em vẫn giữ tấm lòng son
Bánh trôi nước is the name of a Vietnamese dessert. Here are 3 different translations of the poem: 
The Floating Cake (translated by John Balaban):
My body is white; my fate, softly rounded,
Rising and sinking like mountains in streams.
Whatever way hands may shape me,
At center my heart is red and true.
The Cake That Drifts In Water (translated by Huỳnh Sanh Thông):
My body is both white and round
In water I now swim, now sink.
The hand that kneads me may be rough—
I still shall keep my true-red heart.
Floating Sweet Dumpling (translated by Marilyn Chin):
My body is powdery white and round
I sink and bob like a mountain in a pond
The hand that kneads me is hard and rough
You can’t destroy my true red heart

Monday 13 July 2020

The Tale of Genji: chapters 48-49, foils, polygamy

1/ As Niou (the Third Prince) moves Naka no Kimi from Uji to court in chapter 48, I couldn’t help feeling curious and googling the distance—if I’m correct, the distance is about 3 hours and 45 minutes on foot or half an hour by car. I put in Uji bridge and Heian palace.  
Then that made me curious about the distance between the palace and Suma (Genji’s place of exile) or Akashi. Suma is about 17 hours on foot or an hour and a half by car, away from court, and Akashi to court is about 19 hours on foot or an hour and 45 minutes by car. I have no idea how long it takes the characters to travel but this kinda gives an idea of the distances. 

2/ There are several women in chapter 49 so I’m going to list them: 
- Naka no Kimi: the younger sister of Uji, who now lives in the northeast quarter of Nijo. 
- The Second Princess (Onna Ni no Miya): daughter of the Emperor and the late Reikeiden/ Fujitsubo Consort (whom the Emperor marries before meeting the current Empress). The Emperor hands her to Kaoru the same way Suzaku gives Onna San no Miya (the stupid princess) to Genji earlier. 
- Yugiri’s 6th daughter (Roku no Kimi): Yugiri wants Niou to marry her so he does, after moving Naka no Kimi to court. Her mother is neither of Yugiri’s wives (Kumoi no Kari and Ochiba) but the Dame of Staff, Koremitsu’s daughter. 
- Ukifune: an unrecognised daughter of Hachi no Miya (the Eighth Prince of Uji), half-sister of Oigimi and Naka no Kimi. 
Wouldn’t it be easier if each of the women is linked to an image, as in the Genji section? 
There is no confusion in the book itself as the characters are all distinct, it’s just a bit confusing when I write about them. 

3/ In the Uji chapters, Murasaki Shikibu seems to play around with number 2—with the idea of contrasts/ foils. 
The elder of the Uji sisters is too distrustful, the younger is too trusting—both make mistakes because of their lack or excess of trust, both suffer.  
Niou is frivolous, unreliable, and fickle of heart, Kaoru is serious and unworldly. For a large part of the book, the story revolves around a central character—Genji, then in the post-Genji section, there’s a split and the narrative moves between 2 characters, neither of whom can compare to Genji. Niou in comparison is much more selfish and callous, but also suspicious, and ends up hurting both Naka no Kimi and Roku no Kimi, whereas Kaoru, compared to Genji, is too indecisive and even passive. 
The number 2 is in other things as well. Yugiri divides his nights between 2 women at 2 different residences, even though he has children with a 3rd woman, the Dame of Staff (who was once a Gosechi dancer). 
Niou, following his mother’s advice (the Empress) about seeing Yugiri, also has 2 women. 

4/ There are another 2 characters from the Genji section about whom I’m curious, as they’re now dropped from the narrative: Akashi and Ochiba
Akashi is one of my favourite characters in the Genji section, together with Murasaki, because she’s a fascinating character—a proud woman who is out of place in Akashi because she’s brought up as a lady, more elegant and accomplished than the men around her deserve, but also out of place at court because of rank and because she’s an outsider. However in reality, because of her accomplishments, manners, and acute awareness, she fits in and chooses to become self-effacing, especially in the matter about her daughter. Murasaki has more space in the story but Akashi is not any less interesting, perhaps even more in a way. 
When one reads the Genji section, one doesn’t realise how remarkable it is that Genji’s women live in harmony and even get along well with each other, and Genji generally makes them feel loved and taken care of, even if they sometimes do get jealous and hurt, having to share him. But it dawns on the reader later, especially in chapter 49, when Niou has 2 wives and offends them both. He makes Naka no Kimi feel slighted when going to Yugiri’s daughter, and afterwards makes up for it by staying too long with her, so Yugiri twice has to send people to bring him back to Roku no Kimi, which makes Naka no Kimi deeply conscious of her lack of power at court, even though her father was a Prince. 
It’s a pity that we don’t see Akashi in the story anymore. As the story now revolves around Kaoru and Niou and she barely has anything to do with them, it’s understandable that she’s no longer mentioned, but because she’s so vividly alive in the Genji section, I cannot help wondering how she feels about things. 
I’m also curious about Ochiba. Her story is interesting as she’s first married to Kashiwagi, who doesn’t care about her, and a few years after his death, gets involved with Yugiri. Near the end of the Genji section, Yugiri has been harassing her to the point that her mother dies thinking her daughter is now ruined—the laughingstock of the world. Then he continues harassing her even though she’s still angry, blaming him for his mother’s death. 
Then the story is more or less cut off at chapter 39, “Evening Mist”—we know that in chapter 42, Yugiri moves Ochiba to Rokujo and divides his time equally between her and his wife Kumoi no Kari (who lives at Sanjo), but the conflict feels a bit unresolved and we don’t have access to her thoughts again. The impression is that she and Kumoi no Kari probably live in harmony, but I still want to know more about her. 

5/ The story of Ukifune is particularly interesting because so far the Eighth Prince has been seen as a holy layman, so to speak, as he is a wise man with deep understanding of the scriptures and a simple lifestyle, who is nevertheless not a monk—for years he cannot follow his desire to renounce the world because of his great concern for the 2 daughters, and even before death, having become a monk, he’s still worried about them. 
Then suddenly in chapter 49, it turns out that he has another daughter, with a gentlewoman, whom he doesn’t recognise—that’s Ukifune.   
Her existence shows that such a respectful, almost holy man has another side. That’s what I love about The Tale of Genji—people are full of contradictions. 

6/ The theme of substitution is strong in The Tale of Genji, including the post-Genji section. 
Kaoru moves his attachment to Oigimi to her sister Naka no Kimi, and continues seeking her in someone else till he comes across Ukifune. 
It’s funny that Kaoru learns about his origins and his mother’s affair with Kashiwagi as well as his biological father’s suicide, but hasn’t learnt anything from it and keeps going to Naka no Kimi, even though she now belongs to Niou. Of course he feels it his duty to make sure she is fine and has everything she needs, and he’s a kind, considerate, and attentive person, unlike Niou, but he’s still very much drawn to her. 

7/ There are a few references to Bai Juyi in chapter 49 again, including “Chang hen ge” or “The Song of Unending Sorrow”.

Thursday 9 July 2020

The Tale of Genji: chapters 45-47, the Uji sisters, the uncertainty of life

1/ The Tale of Genji is still great.  
As I’m early on in the Uji chapters (45-54), I should leave the authorship question till later, but my impression so far is that I can still believe these chapters to be written by Murasaki Shikibu. There are still visual descriptions of nature and scenes, in translation the writing appears the same. The melancholic tone is still there. 
The chapters that bother me are 42-44—as written in my previous blog post, they are not very visual compared to the rest of the novel, and they are disjointed in terms of story and chronology. There are also continuity mistakes in chapter 44 (which didn’t happen earlier). There are different theories: perhaps the Uji chapters are meant to be a different book or a separate section, and chapters 42-44 are attempts to connect it to the story of Genji. Or maybe chapters 42-44 had some parts missing and other writers tried to fill in the gaps. 
Chapter 45 begins like it could be a separate section, talking about the Eighth Prince, Genji’s brother, who lives as a hermit at Uji with his daughters. But if we remove all of 42-44, Kaoru and Niou haven’t been properly introduced as adults (we of course have seen them as children before Genji’s death). Apart from all the changes to people after the gap of several years, the idea of Kaoru with an unnatural fragrance, and the rivalry between him and Niou, are introduced in 42. Kaoru’s doubt about his origins is also in 42. 
At the same time we’re told in chapter 45 that Kaoru, despite his youth, has an interest in religion and wants to renounce the world, which is why he starts seeing the Eighth Prince (the holy layman, he’s called), but I don’t think it’s really mentioned in chapters 42-44, except that he think the world is dross and he may flirt here and there but doesn’t want to engage his feelings. 

2/ Kaoru’s discovery of the Uji sisters (Oigimi and Naka no Kimi), in such a distant and dreary place, echoes Genji’s discovery of the woman at Akashi. 
Meanwhile his discovery of the truth about his origins echoes Reizei’s. The main difference is that Kashiwagi, Genji, and To no Chujo are now all dead. 
It is interesting that he chooses not to ask his mother, because what’s the point? 

3/ The Uji chapters, I’ve been told, are colder and darker than the previous chapters about Genji. The theme of the uncertainty of life becomes stronger as the story focuses on the Eighth Prince—Suzaku’s mother once championed him, but then he loses favour, his residence burns down, his wife dies, and he has to leave court and vanish into the wilderness. Everything is uncertain, the only thing he wants to do is to renounce the world but he cannot for a long time because of his 2 daughters. A daughter is only a daughter, and much more trouble than a son. 
So why does he do it, when feeling the end is coming, even though his daughters are not settled and everything is still uncertain? 
The pervading sadness of these chapters is so moving, especially in the way Murasaki Shikibu writes about the desolation and dreariness of the place. 
I love the way she describes the scenery: 
“It felt as though the night would never dawn, but even so, the ninth month came. The cold rains of the season, so apt to start tears, lowered over meadow and mountain, and now and then the sound of falling leaves or the noise of the river seem to mingle with the flood of their weeping, until those who served them wondered miserably how their mistresses would ever live out their allotted years and strove in vain to comfort them.” (Ch.46) 
Facing the tragic loss of their father, the sisters now have to live with another uncertainty—what would happen if they someday no longer have each other for companionship and comfort? 

4/ Anyone who reads The Tale of Genji must notice how full of beauty it is. The writing too is beautiful. See this line from Oigimi, the elder sister, saying to Kaoru: 
“We may appear to live on, and yet, wandering as we do through a dream from which there is no waking, we shrink from allowing ourselves to look upon the light of day.” (ibid.) 

5/ In these chapters we’re starting to see the differences between Kaoru and Niou. In chapters 45-46, Kaoru appears nicer and more mature—calmer, almost like he takes things for granted and doesn’t have any possessive, any jealousy. Niou appears callous, in his persistent way of courting the sisters and trying to guilt them into replying during their mourning. It is partly because he doesn’t know the Eighth Prince as well as Kaoru does, but it does suggest that he’s not very deep or sensitive.
In chapter 47, Kaoru reveals another side but Niou is still more callous in comparison.

6/ The isolation and dreariness of Uji is reminiscent of Suetsumuhana’s house in chapter 15, where she lives for years with only her gentlewomen and servants, forgotten by Genji and the world, and gradually abandoned by her servants one by one. The difference is that in chapter 47, “Trefoil Knots”, the author goes even deeper into her characters’ feelings. Afraid of the uncertainty of life, Oigimi (the elder sister) wants to follow her late father’s words and stays where she is, despite pressures from everyone else. We see her fears as well as Kaoru’s indignation and the gentlewoman Ben’s puzzlement. 
Murasaki Shikibu creates many parallels between Genji and the later generations. Earlier we have seen some echoes of Genji’s behaviour in his son Yugiri and in To no Chujo’s son Kashiwagi. Now in chapter 47, the scene of Kaoru entering the room in search of Oigimi and finding Naka no Kimi, the younger sister, reminds one of an early scene in which Genji looks for Utsusemi (cicada) but comes across her step-daughter Nokiba no Ogi instead.
Murasaki Shikibu invites the reader to draw parallels and compare the characters, but it’s not a simple comparison where Genji is bad (for sleeping with Nokiba no Ogi anyway) and Kaoru is better, because her characters are complex and may have self-contradictions. The older Genji, for example, tries to have self-control around Akikonomu out of respect for her mother (the Rokujo Haven) and, despite himself, doesn’t touch Tamakazura. 
Kaoru at first seems to be considerate and respectful towards the elder sister, but as the story goes on, we’re starting to see that he feels himself entitled to have her and doesn’t understand her feelings, and he manipulates others into giving him what he desires. 
But then Niou enters the scene, and even though Murasaki Shikibu doesn’t go with him into the room with Naka no Kimi, we know what happens and again can see the huge difference between him and Kaoru. 

7/ Is it not crazy that Kaoru and Niou and Oigimi all decide Naka no Kimi’s life for her? 
The Tale of Genji shows how shitty it is to be a woman in Heian Japan, but also lets us see that the life of a prince also has lots of restrictions, especially as the Uji chapters highlight a contrast between Kaoru, a commoner, and Niou, a prince. Niou cannot travel easily, cannot go anywhere without an appropriate number of retainers and other men, cannot visit Naka no Kimi whenever he wants to—even when he’s on the other side of the river (because of the large number of people), and as a prince cannot just bring a woman from nowhere to court as a wife. Genji and Kaoru can do so but Niou cannot, particularly when her parents now want him to marry Yugiri’s 6th daughter. 
It is therefore important not to refer to Genji as a prince, as some translations and reviews seem to do. The fact that Genji is an emperor’s son but a commoner, after being given a last name by his father, is significant and affects everything.  
Back to a prince’s restrictions, in the end it is still the women who suffer the most—Niou has always known the rules for princes but pursues Naka no Kimi anyway and lets her down; if he cannot move Naka no Kimi to court, as a man he can easily have other women, but what can Naka no Kimi and her elder sister do, as women, in such a faraway place?

8/ Oigimi, like Akashi, seems to have a distrust of men and fear of the future in general, but a deeper fear and distrust—Akashi hesitates but yields to Genji, Oigimi doesn’t, and the business of Naka no Kimi and Niou only confirms her fears. The way she slowly starves herself to death is similar to Kashiwagi, but Kashiwagi is largely motivated by guilt, shame, and a fear of scandal and dishonour, whereas she seems to have fallen into deep depression and despair. 

9/ In chapter 47, there are (at least) 2 references to Bai Juyi, who I think is Murasaki Shikibu’s favourite Chinese poet because he’s regularly referenced throughout The Tale of Genji. I was thinking, before starting on the Uji chapters, that a Bai Juyi allusion would support the one-author idea (I don’t know and can’t remember any of the Japanese poets), and here he is. 

10/ The passing of time is important throughout The Tale of Genji, but I paid more attention this time. Near the end of mourning (first anniversary), Kaoru comes to see the Uji sisters in the 8th month (lunar calendar) and brings Niou on 28/8, the day of the equinox. Niou has sex with Naka no Kimi and everything’s done to confirm the marriage but he doesn’t come back. In the 9th month he goes past and has something like a party on the other side of the river, intending to visit her, but the plan is thwarted when the Empress (his mother, Genji’s daughter) knows about it and sends a big group of people there. 
Time passes, Naka no Kimi sinks in deeper and deeper melancholy and Oigimi becomes more ill then Niou sends a letter. Then the narrator tells us that it’s the last day of the 10th month. 
Then more time passes and Niou doesn’t come visit until Oigimi has passed away—in the 12th month. 
Is he not such an asshole?

11/ Oigimi’s death must be Kaoru’s first true loss (he lost Genji and Murasaki as a child). The writing is so affecting—see the scene of her in her deathbed: 
“Her thin arms, as weak as shadows, still had all their pale, slender grace, and in soft white robes, with the covers off her, she lay like a bodiless doll. Her hair, not excessively long, gleamed most beautifully where it streamed away from the pillow. Oh, what is to become of her? he asked himself in desperate anguish…” (Ch.47) 
Soon after: 
“He wavered as though walking on air, and she remained frail to the last, for there rose in the end only a very little smoke. He went away numb with sorrow.” (ibid.) 
It is deeply sad. In the Uji chapters, the quality doesn’t drop—The Tale of Genji becomes even deeper and more moving. 

12/ There are a few supporting characters from earlier who get dropped from the narrative as they are, well, secondary, but I wonder what happens to them: Omi no Kimi (To no Chujo’s rustic daughter) and Suetsumuhana (the red-nosed woman).