I chose to read The Tale of Genji as part of my quest to read classic books by female authors from around the world for the Classics Club 2016 reading challenge (and yes I am slightly late in finishing it!) I chose this particular book as it is one of the earliest novels in existence (written in 10,000 AD) and I have been interested in Japanese literature since I went there a few years ago, although I have to admit I didn’t realise how long the book was until after I had pledged to read it!
This is such a long book it is difficult to know where to start with a summary, but the plot loosely follows the fate of Prince Genji – a man of dazzling beauty and many accomplishments, who it seems seduces the whole of Kyoto. He is the son of the emperor and his concubine so does not have a direct claim to the throne, but nevertheless holds a high position in court which is accentuated by his other talents. He has several wives and so many relationships with other women that it is almost impossible to remember who is who. As Genji grows older and eventually dies – an event which happens well before the end of the book – the narrative follows his descendants and other characters related to Genji.
Genji himself I found an ambiguous character. On the one hand he is loved by almost everyone who comes into contact with him, mainly due to his looks but also because of his talents at calligraphy, poetry and musical ability (all of which seem to be what a person’s character at this time is judged by). He is nicknamed ‘the shining one’ and it is impossible to not admire him in some ways as his virtues are sung non-stop by the author. Yet, judging him by today’s standards he could be viewed as a rapist and a paedophile and, although I had to remind myself that today’s standards did not exist at that time, it was impossible for me to not judge Genji (and many other characters) for his actions towards women. Often his pursuit of women seems like a sport:
“As a matter of fact, he was not very desperately in love with her ; but her apparent indifference had piqued him and he was determined to go on till he had gained his point.”
The (un)fortunate women lose their reputation whether or not they give in to the men’s relentless advances, and seem to have little choice in anything once they have been singled out. Yet Genji does look after and provide for all the women he has made a conquest of, which is the feature I admired most about him.
I had mixed feelings about this book, yet the fact that I finished and never got particularly frustrated at it (at over 1100 pages) indicates that I did enjoy it overall. I found it a fascinating insight into Japanese culture and history, and the language of the book was particularly poetic (I think accentuated by the edition I chose) as well as being surprisingly readable. Although the plot meanders along without any cliff-hanger moments, there was plenty going on in the narrative and despite getting repetitive after a while I never felt as though I couldn’t go on. Despite this, there is no getting away from the fact that it is a very long novel and I am sure that many people will feel about it as I did about Don Quixote. It was impossible not to feel sorry for the poor women who did not seem to have a good time of it no matter what happened to them. The ending is abrupt and doesn’t finalise anything – one gets the impression that the author could have gone on and on without ever finishing had she the time to do so. After the umpteenth story of a man chasing after a reluctant woman and an account of all of the poems that are exchanged it certainly feels like the same story with different characters. Yet something kept me reading and, due to the beauty of the prose and the glimpse into a fascinating past, this is a book which I am glad I read.