What I’m Reading Now

Another in an occasional series.

Posting early today because we’re going to a birthday party and the weather looks like it’s about to erupt into another of those thunderstorm with tornado threats.

A quick note about Michelle’s Obama’s vacation attire. Her outfit in that much-repeated photograph were not, repeat NOT, short shorts. Short shorts barely cover the butt and are the sort of thing Brüno wears. Besides, Mrs. O’s legs look good, so why shouldn’t she display them? Plus, she’s on vacation. What’s she supposed to wear, a Givenchy gown and pearls?

The book I picked up the other day is another in the category of “Why did I decide to read this?” That happened with Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and “Apologies to Jessie L.”  gave me a thorough education in Grail studies – and the Grail’s connection to religions dating back into pre-history.

This time I found myself with a copy of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, and it’s giving me an amazing education in ancient Japanese culture and literature.

As to the reason for picking it up, I think it was because of an article in the NYT Travel section in January about the 1000th anniversary celebration of the novel. The author, Michelle Green, even dressed in the traditional layers of garments, in this case amounting to twelve. I’m trying to visualize how they moved around. My guess is not much and very slowly. And since it’s 90 degrees outside here, I can only imagine that the leisure class had lots of body servants wearing much less clothing to fan them when the temps soared.

I vaguely remember reading a piece of this early novel in some long-ago lit class, but  have no memory of the contents. So I started in. Decided as I generally do, to read the introduction after I’d finished the text. In this regard I follow the Ann Petry theory that such additions deprived readers of the opportunity to read and analyze and to think for themselves. See At Home Inside. Mother limited her views to the use of intros in modern fiction, but I believe it applies to all fiction.

Genji is tough going, though, as it is filled with literary allusions. Characters wander in and out, and their relationships are not always clear. The two-page list of principal characters that precedes the novel helps some, but doesn’t always provide the needed answer.

At 117 pages into the first volume (the thing runs a total of 1,000 pages), I’ve had to  reread Chapter 4, “Evening Faces,” after I was five chapters along because I thought I had missed some important information. Turns out it wasn’t there even though the footnote directed me back.

The culture that Lady Murasaki presents fascinates me: men and women of the leisure class who spend hours observing nature; men and women who become expert in playing musical instruments simply for their own amusement; men and women who compose rather self-conscious and overblown poetry to suit each mood; men and women who apparently do not consider monogamy or chastity a necessary value. Genji was more promiscuous than most. Michelle Green calls him “Japan’s own Casanova.” The text makes clear that he also indulged himself with boys on occasion.

Religion plays a role in the lives of the rich and titled, too, but on a kind of Chinese menu basis – one from Column A, two from Column B. When Genji becomes ill, his father the emperor turns to religion for a cure. “Continuous prayers were ordered in this shrine and that temple. The varied rites, Shinto and Confucian and Buddhist, were beyond counting.”

Chinese culture enters in, too, almost from the first sentence, where the emperor’s court is said to look with disfavor on the Chinese emperor’s great passion for a woman of lesser rank that apparently led to revolution a century before the lady wrote Genji. The Japanese seem to rely on other countries to produce their fortunetellers. A Korean reads Genji’s facial features, and an expert in Indian astrology foretells his future.

More than anything right now, reading Genji makes me want to visit Japan, especially the area around Kyoto to see the dew on the wild carnation and the forests “receding into a spring haze.”


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