What I’m Reading Now

Before the main event, if you want to be really jealous – well mostly except for the four days of wind, rain and cold – read Duetto Cruising and weep. I don’t know these folks personally. They are related to my friend and former colleague Nick Sambides, but they do know how to live. I’d love to see all those landmarks from the ocean side. Plus being able to escape the traffic between Connecticut and Maryland has to be worth the price of diesel for a boat any day.

So here’s another in the occasional series.

I started the 1,000 page Tale of Genji before I left for California but decided the two volumes were much too big to lug through various airports. Plus the books belonged to Wesleyan, and I didn’t want anything to happen to them. I finished volume one before I left (See ”What I’m Reading Now” from August 21) and a week or so ago I borrowed volume two.

A quick recap: The book came across my radar because of an article in the Times Travel section in which the author donned replicas of 1000 year old clothing and sat around in a park in Kyoto. Genji was supposed to be the earliest novel still extant. The fact that it was written by a woman added to its appeal.

Volume two magnifies the problems and pleasures of volume one. There are two chapters entitled “New Herbs” that are almost certainly not part of the original. At 100 pages, they are much longer than the other chapters, which average ten to twelve pages. They also lack the subtlety of the rest with explicit descriptions of illness and sex, if not death. They also contain less of the poetry that all the major the characters seem to compose at the drop of a funny-looking cap. The literary allusions of volume one are almost completely lacking in the “New Herbs,” and the prominent characters are far less interesting. I’ll have to go back to the introduction (in volume one) and see what the experts say about this whole business.

Aside from those differences confusion still reigns because of the huge cast of characters. Except for Genji, this volume lacks good character descriptions. One prince is very like the next. And of course more characters appear in volume two, so the confusion increases.

The “New Herbs” chapters do share some features with the rest of the narrative. Descriptions of the clothing offer a view of the world that one could not gain elsewhere. The red robes and lavender singles vs. the musicians in white, vs. the green singlets and pink robes lined with red leave the feeling that one has fallen through a rainbow.

I did learn several pieces of information from this second volume: High-born women were never allowed to be seen standing up, which means that Times reporter Michelle Green’s stroll through the streets of Kyoto was inauthentic. She should have ridden in a carriage, or the other players should have come to her.

Second, everyone believes in reincarnation. An unhappy life can be punishment for misdeeds committed in a previous life. With the amount of praying and the number of religions in play, it would seem that they could expiate minute sins, but it doesn’t seem work that way.

Third oddity: The writer must have taken poetic license with the weather. The twelfth lunar month is supposed to be December but the plum trees “smiled with their first blossoms” (albeit among the snowflakes) and spring “had come next door.” Since Kyoto is on a parallel with North Carolina and southern Virginia, the folks in Norfolk would be shocked if their fruit trees burst out when the average temperature was just above 32. Either the weather in Kyoto is confused or I am.

I’ve still got about 400 more pages of Genji, so stay tuned.


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