This chapter begins Jane Smiley's reading of 100 novels that is presented in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. View the complete list here.
1 . Murasaki Shikibu . The Tale of Genji
trans. Edward G. Seidensticker
(1004; repr., New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 1,090 pp.
The Tale of Genji has two parts. Genji, the hero of part one, of some 41 chapters and 734 pages, is husband of the mother of Kaoru, the hero of part two, and the grandfather of Niou, Kaoru's friend and nemesis. Each part is self-contained, and each part, in form, is a different sort of novel. Genji's story is about the whole arc of one man's life—his mistakes and his virtues, his experience and what he learns from it, over some forty-eight or fifty years. Kaoru's story begins when he is a young adult and follows out the ramifications of a single relationship, covering some seven or eight years. It seems to be unfinished.
The author, a woman of the eleventh-century Heian court of Japan, also wrote a diary (or may have—the novel is so famous in Japan that it is possible the diary is an early fraud), but there is otherwise not much information about her except what can be inferred from the text. She does seem to have written all but a few chapters of the novel, and she does seem to have served at the emperor's court at the very beginning of the eleventh century.
The structure of Genji's story is simple but inspired. Early in the novel, Genji and his friends, who are all well-born young men of the court, are sitting around comparing notes about women. They discuss women they've known and heard of, trying to decide the relative advantages of women who are great beauties, or of women who are good conversationalists or housekeepers. Are all relationships with women doomed to failure? Are all women doomed to be found tedious in some way? The young men finally give up the discussion, but Genji, who is of an amorous turn of mind, sets out, more or less unconsciously, to test their hypotheses. A secondary main character, who contrasts with him and whose life intertwines with his, is his best friend, To no Chujo.
The modern American reader understands from the beginning that social arrangements in the tenth-century Japanese court are considerably different from ours. Well-born women live in seclusion, surrounded by other women and removed from the gaze of all men except their husbands. A husband customarily has more than one wife; each has a separate room in his palace. All of his children are legitimate. Their claims to status depend in part on the power and influence of their mothers' families and in part on their own good looks and accomplishments. The Tale of Genji is about domestic rivalries and intrigues. Whatever might have been happening politically and militarily in tenth-century Japan is entirely absent from the novel, though the male characters often have titles such as "minister" or "general." Much of the novel is taken up with descriptions of clothing, interiors, gardens, and the ritual progress of the seasons. The characters communicate most often by letters and poems, which are reproduced in the text, and which have traditional forms and symbols.
Genji (called "the shining Genji" when he dies) is the astonishingly good-looking son of an emperor and a woman of little power. He is superior in every way, but his superiority doesn't extend to what Westerners would consider moral probity. In particular, he is often guilty of rape and seduction. His most profound relationship is with Murasaki,* whom he takes into his house when she is ten years old, promising to be a father to her. He later seduces and rapes her, then installs her as his favorite wife. When she dies toward the end of the Genji section of the novel, he goes into despair himself and dies soon after. They do not have any children of their own, but she raises several of his children by other women.
The Tale of Genji proceeds at a dreamlike, deliberate pace, rather like a long scroll depicting a journey. The author is adept at description and dialogue, and at reporting the inner workings of the minds of the main characters. The novel is always indescribably exotic, because of what the characters do and the world they live in, but it seems familiar because the details of their relationships—jealousy, frustration, desire, gossip, anxiety, rivalry, intimacy, good fellowship—are utterly understandable. There is nothing even remotely primitive about The Tale of Genji. If anything, the level of luxury and convenience depicted, as well as the complexity of daily life, with all its errands and responsibilities and conflicting demands, seem almost modern.
Kaoru's story is structurally more sophisticated, full of dramatic irony of which Kaoru himself doesn't understand the meaning. Born in unhappy circumstances, Kaoru is, to all appearances, an exceptionally sober and unamorous young man. He is very good-looking, like Genji, but of a more serious turn of mind. Kaoru's most interesting quality is his natural fragrance, which is repeatedly compared to the most beautiful and rare sort of perfume. Kaoru seeks enlightenment, and hears of an old prince who has left the world and become a scholar in a villa in a small mountain village. The old prince has two daughters, and Kaoru agrees to watch out for them. He falls in love with the elder daughter, and promotes the affair of the younger daughter with his friend Niou, who is already married to the eldest daughter of the emperor. Kaoru's beloved cannot bring herself to live in the world, and dies shortly after the death of her father. The second daughter marries Niou, but he treats her badly, and Kaoru falls in love with her. A third daughter is found, the daughter of the old prince and a former lady's maid, and she is so like the first daughter that Kaoru falls for her. But Niou finds out that this beautiful secret is being kept from him, and he imposes himself upon her. Kaoru then hides her, but Niou finds her and rapes her. She falls in love with him, realizes she has gotten herself into an insoluble dilemma, and throws herself into the river. The plot twists and twists, and one feature of Kaoru's story that is a development over Genji's story is the social setting—serving women and collateral characters promote and retard the aims of the main characters, and also comment on everything at length in highly characteristic voices. Kaoru's story, some three hundred pages, has a very sophisticated structure indeed, as if the author invented the picaresque eighteenth-century novel (like Tom Jones) first, and then the social novel (like Pride and Prejudice) a few years later. One thing that changes is the balance of action and dialogue relative to description and narration. Genji's stately progress gives way to Kaoru's dramatic torments; descriptions of nature and ritual give way to a cascade of action that the narrative can hardly keep organized.
The Tale of Genji demonstrates that psychological analysis is one of the inherent features of all lengthy written prose narratives with protagonists: a character acts and the narrator offers a theory of why he acted as he did. Characters in The Tale of Genji, like characters in later novels, are sometimes mentally or physically ill. The narrative details the ways in which monks and healers come and perform exorcisms, and evil spirits who are possessing them leave them, often identifying themselves and their motives for possession. These incidents are reported so matter-of-factly that they seem utterly plausible, rather like the medical theories Balzac suggested in the nineteenth century. It is the form of the novel itself, which contrasts distinctive individuals with their social surroundings, that demands some sort of psychological theory. The conventions of the epic, the romance, and the history, which base characterizations on traditional types, aren't complex enough to give rise to the same sorts of ideas.
The Buddhist world of tenth-century Japan is always at the forefront of the narrative. Monks and nuns are characters (Kaoru's mother becomes a nun at a very young age, after Kashiwagi, Kaoru's real father, rapes and impregnates her). Poetic pleas and responses always refer to traditional images of the fleeting nature of love and life, which are also commonplace in the conversation of the characters with one another. In the fifty to sixty years covered by the novel, the fleeting and illusory nature of the world is invoked again and again—children are said to be too beautiful for this world, death strikes suddenly, blossoms fall, seasons pass. Eleven hundred pages seem long but are actually short. It takes something like a week to read about sixty years. Life is short, but a book is shorter. And yet, it has been a thousand years since Genji's tale was set to paper. Long or short? Or simply haunting?
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Excerpted from Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley Copyright © 2005 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.