What I’m Reading Now

Another in an occasional series. Actually this should be called what I just finished after weeks of reading. It’s the second volume of The Tale of Genji, which I mentioned in the October 21 entry.

So here are some more thoughts on the oldest surviving novel.

What’s different in Volume 2:

  • More characters with an equal lack of development make this part even more confusing than Volume 1. The latter was back at the library so I couldn’t check any of the notes that referred to anything before p. 524.
  • The poetry of the second volume isn’t as inspired, maybe because the “shining Genji” dies about 150 pages in. The one exception is from Kokinshū “A road, I knew, that all must one day go / But not so soon as yesterday, today.”
  • Even though the poetry disappoints, Volume 2 presents descriptions of scenery that are more vivid with their dark and foreboding forests and sad little gardens. I suspect the evocative mood arises because much of this portion is set away from the citified palaces with their manicured gardens. Those places had already been described in great detail in the first volume, and it was somewhat of a relief to escape into rustic nature.
  • Most disturbing, the resolution isn’t a resolution. Maybe there were plans for a third volume that Murasaki Shikibu never wrote.

What remains the same in both volumes:

  • the men are dogs and the higher their rank, the worse they behave. Genji does help by giving a summary of his marriages and affairs, which he delivers to the one woman he truly seemed to love. Prince Niou, who is featured in most of Volume 2 actually hates women, though he pretends otherwise. “Women are the problem, good for a moment of pleasure, offering nothing of substance. They are the seeds of turmoil, and it is not hard to see why we are told that their sins are heavy.” Sounds like Old Testament talk to me. There is also some hint that the two principal male characters (after Genji’s death) are in love with each other, but the lady novelist doesn’t elaborate.
  • I’m still sorting out what I learned about the culture. Along with literature, musical instruments, and clothing, the Japanese of that era imported some of their cats from China. In another cultural curiosity, it was considered shameful to live a long life, a statement offered without explanation. Maybe it was because older people couldn’t help support themselves. But then all those concubines did little to contribute to the good and welfare, except of the lord of the manner.
  • I continue to be puzzled by the casual approach to religion. When a favorite of Genji’s son seems about to die, he has Shinto and Buddhist rites performed. Seems like the gods would be awfully confused, but if everyone was doing it maybe they were used to the clamor. It still feels very much like one from Column A and two from Column B. As a corollary, the five commandments administered to someone taking the first level of Buddhist vows look awfully familiar. They are prescriptions against killing, stealing, wantonness, deceit, and drunkenness. Another Old Testament connection?
  • The appreciation of nature far surpasses anything we have in western culture. My favorite is another exception to the bad poetry rule. “The wind in the mountain pines is like a koto. / Whence, from what hill, what strings, can it have come?” A koto is a stringed instrument that looks like a long, skinny autoharp that sits on the floor rather than on one’s lap. Here’s the best koto sound I could find. It does ripple like the wind in pine trees.
  • Even though I dislike puns in English, I found their play in Japanese fascinating. For example, much of the action (so called) of the second half takes place in Uji. Its name is frequently used in a pun with the word ushi, which means “gloomy.” So much more sophisticated than “It’s true I don’t like soap, but you don’t have to rub it in my face!”
  • The woodcuts interspersed in the text don’t do much to illuminate the narrative. All the women look alike except for the length of their hair and the amount of decoration on their robes. The perspective is skewed because often we are looking down from above into a room where the angles make it difficult to figure out what’s happening. Some of the exteriors are way too busy with deer and dogs and people and streams and trees and flowers all fighting for dominance.

Conclusion: at some point I’m going to have to re-read these tomes to grasp their import more fully. … But not any time soon. “The Lotus Sutra” is mentioned in the text and came up in something else I was reading, so I guess that’ll be next on my reading list after I finish the two weeks worth of NYTimes and three weeks worth of Newsweeks that have piled up while I was plowing through Genji.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: