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The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby.
In eleventh-century Japan, Murasaki Shikibu gave her readers The Tale of Genji, what many have called the world's first novel. Today, Liza Dalby gives her readers The Tale of Murasaki, a brilliant, vividly imagined "diary" of Murasaki. Through this device, Dalby artfully brings to life not only Murasaki and her writing, but also the splendor and scandal of court life during the Heian period of Japan. The re-creation of Murasaki's life is a dazzling accomplishment, bursting with the colors, fashion, and poetry of court life, the natural landscape of Japan, and the rites and rituals of Buddhism. We hope the questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow enhance your group's reading of this exotic excursion into ancient Japanese cultural history through the story of a fascinating and complex woman.
Murasaki's adolescence was a lonely one, punctuated by loss. Her mother died when she was fifteen, her sister is "slow-witted," and her brother is a dolt. Murasaki begins writing stories of Genji, the "Shining Prince," at first to entertain her friends. But one by one, her friends exit her life to live their own. Then her father, a mid-ranking court poet and Chinese scholar, is posted to the remote province of Echizen to deal with relations with the Chinese, and her family moves. In her isolation, Murasaki's fictional Genji becomes her closest companion, and her imagination sustains her. During her marriage to a high court official, Murasaki is fascinated by her husband's tales of the politics and sexual intrigue of court life--he has access to the inner courts that her father never did. Her imagination refueled, Murasaki continues to write Genji stories. Word of her stories makes its way to the court, and the powerful, reigning regent, Michinaga, requests that Murasaki begin court service to regale his daughter, the empress, with her stories. Finally attaining her dream, Murasaki's life in the inner courts begins, and she experiences firsthand the glory, sexual machinations, and severity of cloistered court life, all the while writing more of Genji's adventures for her empress.
1. Katako describes her mother's fiction as "a perverse child. Once created, it makes its own way without apology, brooking no influence, making friends and enemies on its own" [p. 2]. And Murasaki agrees in her conclusion that she had been "deluded . . . into thinking I could shape reality by my writing. . . . Reality was neither the subject nor object of the tales, for Genji created his own reality"[pp. 397<ETH>98]. Do Katako's and Murasaki's observations, in fact, describe what Dalby herself is doing in re-creating Murasaki's life and her world through the art of historical fiction? How is that different than writing the fictional The Tale of Genji?
2. Why does Dalby choose to begin the book with Katako's letter to her daughter? In what other ways does the theme of one person acting as a scribe in order to preserve the present for posterity run throughout the book? In what other instances, and in what manner, do people in Murasaki's world communicate on behalf of one another?
3. A novel is clearly not a "pile of poems with a fragile thread of story holding them together," as Murasaki, the young writer, learns [p. 34]. In Murasaki's experience, how does the process of writing a novel compare to composing poetry? What about to the other forms of written expression appearing in the novel, i.e., writing lists, "pillow books," diaries or "scribbling" to record current events? According to Murasaki, is there a hierarchy of written forms of expression?
4. Upon her entrance to court life, she finds "the sacred presence of the emperor and empress was overwhelming" [p. 248]. Does Murasaki discover, as Ruri had warned her, that, in fact, "life at court conceals a constant tension between ideas of how things are supposed to be and how they are" [p. 50]? Do Murasaki's views toward court change over her time of service? Is her advice to her daughter and her decision to prepare her for court service a surprise [pp. 358<ETH>59]? In comparing herself to Genji's "pretend" son, Kaoru, who "understood the dissatisfaction of getting what you think you want" [p. 389], is Murasaki referring to her disappointment in court life? Are there other aspects of Murasaki's life that turned out differently than the way she anticipated?
5. Dalby often employs elaborate metaphors to describe the scenes before Murasaki. For example, she describes one of the many ceremonies following the prince's birth as follows: "The embroidery was all in silver, and the seams of our trains were outlined in silver thread stitched together so thickly it looked like braid. Silver foil was inlaid into patterns in the ribs of the fans. When everyone was assembled, it was like looking at snow-clad mountains by the light of a clear moon--almost blinding, as if the room had been hung with mirrors" [p. 320]. How does this striking visual image act as a metaphor to convey the intricate relationship between Murasaki and nature? What other literary devices does Dalby employ to convey the visual spectacle or to evoke mood? What images from the novel are most vivid for you?
6. In musing over Michinaga's opinions of the great poets of the time, Kinto and Kazan, Murasaki comments, "Father's most ancient texts on Chinese poetics . . . insist the origin of the poetic impulse must lie in nature rather than purposeful art. 'Insect carving' was how one scholar derided the overly crafted work of his contemporaries" [p. 261]. Does this distinction between "good" and "bad" poetry accurately capture the aesthetic so highly esteemed in Murasaki's Japan?
7. Observing the farmers in the provinces practice their religious rituals, Murasaki wonders, "Could it be that even the royal court followed customs that originated in the sacred mud of the rice paddies?" [p. 147]. What other events or descriptions does Dalby use to illustrate how life "above the clouds" is different from "real life"--below the clouds?
8. Katako writes that the religious leader Genshin "preached the way for all souls, even women, to be saved directly by the mercy of Amida Buddha" [p. 400]. The assumption behind this statement, and eleventh-century Buddhist culture, is that a woman's soul is usually not worthy of salvation, by virtue of her gender. How else does Dalby capture this inferior, at times almost nonexistent, status of women in eleventh-century Japan? What influence on society do the women in The Tale of Murasaki have, if any?
9. What examples of the sexual mores of the time can you glean from the novel? How would you compare and contrast these practices, as portrayed in The Tale of Murasaki, to those of contemporary Western society?
10. Compare and contrast Murasaki's relationships with women to her relationships with men. Which are more nurturing emotionally? Intellectually? Which better prepare her for society? How do each of her relationships help her shape the development of Genji's character? Does Murasaki learn to like men--or does she just accept that, "in the end, I suppose we always have to take it" [p. 327]?
11. According to The New York Times review of The Tale of Murasaki, Dalby invented Murasaki's relationship with Ming-gwok in order to "broaden her horizons and introduce her to love."* Do you agree that this was Dalby's purpose?
12. If you have not read The Tale of Genji, how would you imagine his character based upon The Tale of Murasaki? Is he Murasaki's "Shining Prince" or her alter ego? An imaginary friend or ideal lover? How does Genji reflect Michinaga's character? What are his strengths and weaknesses [see pp. 151, 294<ETH>96, 388]? At what points do Murasaki's own experiences coincide with or diverge from those of Genji? What is her relationship with him, and how does it change over the course of the novel?
13. Murasaki's father reacts to Genji's infatuation with Yugao by asking: "'Why would a man like Genji neglect a lady of beauty and refinement for this tramp?'" And Murasaki thinks, "I had to smile. Father really was different from ordinary men, and I loved him for it" [p. 231]. What examples can you find of Tametoki being in fact "different" from the other men in Murasaki's life? In what ways is he the same? Is he admirable or foolish or both?
14. How are the Chinese compared and contrasted with the Japanese in the novel? For example, Murasaki is "struck by the different way Chinese and Japanese view [seasonal changes]. . . . The Chinese regarded fireflies as born from fallen vegetation which rots in the humid heat, yet there was no emotion in that observation" [p. 153]. And later, she is "humbled" when Ming-gwok tells her that "the Chinese emperor had an entire bureau of learned men devoted to studying the stars. . . . We Japanese have no idea of these things" [p. 164]. Why do you think that Dalby might have included these and other comparisons between the two races in her novel?
15. What is the significance of Dalby's creating "The Lost Last Chapter of Murasaki's The Tale of Genji" as the epilogue for her novel? Is Ukifune supposed to be symbolic of Murasaki in her last years--afflicted by blindness that finally brings her peace? Is there a difference in style between the last chapter and the rest of the novel?
16. When the serving ladies mock Murasaki for reading Chinese books she rather brashly thinks, "Yes, that's what is always said, but I've never heard of anyone living longer simply because of observing such prohibitions!" [p. 356]. Is Murasaki a woman ahead of her times, or very much a product of her times? Is she rebellious in other aspects of her life?
17. Dalby writes in the Acknowledgments that she "reverse-engineered" The The Tale of Genji into her novel. How does she do this? How is the creative- writing process explored in the novel? Is The Tale of Murasaki primarily a novel about the act of writing?
18. Like Murasaki, Dalby includes a cast of characters at the beginning of The Tale of Murasaki. Murasaki writes of her characters: "Originally I had thought of Genji as the center of this universe of women. Later, as the extended mansion took shape in my mind, I realized that the ladies themselves were of far more interest to me" [p. 199]. Does Murasaki ever become less than the central character in Dalby's novel? How does Dalby develop the other characters in the novel? Are they all secondary to Murasaki, important only in as much as they affect Murasaki, or can any stand on their own?
19. How do the many examples of the man-made order (court ranking, calendar, the Chinese calendar's Monthly Ordinance, the composed garden, the number of layers of the kimonos) enable eleventh-century Japanese society to survive and flourish in the face of the harshness and unpredictability of nature? How is Murasaki's life shaped by these two opposing forces?
Liza Dalby is an anthropologist specializing in Japanese culture. She was the only Westerner to have become a geisha, which she did as research for her Ph.D. and her books Geisha and Kimono. She is a consultant for Steven Spielberg's upcoming film adaptation of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and three children.
From the Trade Paperback edition.