The Tale of Genji | Pushing the Wave

The Tale of Genji

Murasaki Shikibu, as translated by Royall Tyler

Viking 2001

Culture, 23 February 2018
by L.A. Davenport
Before I talk about The Tale of Genji, I should perhaps talk about time. For it is the delusion of youth to think that time is infinite, that we have infinite time and there will always be enough time for us to get done everything we want to achieve in life.

It is clear, however, that the more we experience time, the more we realise that, while time itself is theoretically infinite, our time is not, and that we will never accomplish even half the things we would like to before we die.

Tale of Genji Front Cover

I was reminded of this recently when I glanced at the first page of my edition of The Tale of Genji, translated by Royall Tyler and beautifully published by Viking. I saw, with somewhat of a shock, that it had been bought for me as a Christmas present in 2002. I thought back to that time. I was in my twenties, George W Bush was president of the USA and Tony Blair was still British Prime Minister, having been re-elected the year before. In 2002, Will Young won the first Pop Idol, Paul McCartney married Heather Mills and Amélie was nominated for five Oscars. It all seems like a different era. And yet, some things remain the same. There were innumerable films sequels released, and the likes of Paul Auster, Elena Ferrante, John Grisham and Stephen King all published novels. Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.

As I contemplated all that had happened since 2002, I also looked back with regret. My failure to finish reading The Tale of Genji more than 15 years after it had been bought for me was a firm rebuke to my younger self and my idle assumption that I would passively achieve everything I wanted to in life. If I cannot manage even to read a single, if long, book in 15 years, how can I ever imagine that I would do all the rest of the things that I consider important? Of course, I had started reading the book not that long after it was bought for me, but I don’t think I really understood it at the time and I put it to one side, from where it would prick my conscience every time I saw it. From time to time, I would proudly tell people that I was reading The Tale of Genji, but the lie would sting me each time it passed my lips.

A couple of years ago, something changed, however. In me, or around me, it doesn’t matter, but the result was that I woke up, as if from a long, long dream. I woke up, not only to the world around me but also to my own mortality and to time, or my lack of it. In short, I finally accepted that I would get done all those things I wanted to only if I made a concerted effort, and so I started putting huge energy into all those projects that had lain idle year after year. This included taking up once more The Tale of Genji, and I began to read it intensely. And it is through reading this book that I have realised just how much I have a changed as a person, and how much my thoughts and actions are being shaped by my new-found awareness of time.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is these sorts of preoccupations that haunt the characters in The Tale of Genji. They are all acutely aware of the passage of time and of their own mortality and, as a consequence, it becomes as much of a part of the drama as any action undertaken. As such, this book, written over a thousand years ago, and concerning as it does the rarified lives of princes and their courtiers, speaks to modern life as clearly as any current novel. This sense is aided by its structure, writing style and, for want of a better word, plot.

It should be said that The Tale of Genji doesn’t actually have a plot in the typical definition of the word but merely recounts in huge detail the lives of an entire court, over several decades, with numerous characters living their entire lives within its pages. This almost postmodern approach to storytelling feels natural in the hands of Murasaki Shikibu, who recounts the worst and best of human nature with a delicacy and refinement that allows us to see ourselves reflected clearly in the travails of these remote people. Everyone in the novel is trapped by convention and social expectation and, as in real life, there are no tossed comebacks, no dramatic interventions, no convenient escapes, but merely the day-by-day sufferings of people having to deal with the consequences of their actions. Moreover, the book is about doubt, humiliation, shame and, above all, love.

Tale of Genji Back Cover

It has its flaws, of course, and there is something quite noticeable that happens about four fifths of the way through that makes you wonder whether you’re reading the same book, or whether the rest of it was written by someone else. For a while, some of the beauty goes but, then, little-by-little it settles back into what it was before, and the final part of the book is, at times, very moving.

It is also a puzzling, difficult and confusing book in places, largely because of the endless and intricate references that the characters make to, what was at the time, classical poetry. This means that either you constantly flick down to the footnotes to get a better sense of what the characters mean, or you miss out on the many intricacies of the writing. For us, the modern audience, there is no easy compromise, and so one is taken constantly out of the story to be able to understand it.

Above all, The Tale of Genji is a book that will stay with me forever, and has influenced me hugely as a reader, as a writer and as a person, and I think that, having read this, I’ve grown immeasurably through spending so much time in the presence of these wonderful characters. I just wish that I had started it earlier.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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The Tale of Genji | Pushing the Wave