Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On "The Tale of Genji" by Murasaki Shikibu, translated and abridged by Edward G. Seidensticker ***

This abridged version includes just twelve of the first seventeen chapters in Murasaki Shikibu's epic. There are fifty-four chapters total--amounting to six volumes in Arthur Waley's original translation--the first forty-one of which are about Genji, and the last thirteen of which are about his son. The chapters chosen for Seidensticker's abridgment focus on Genji's love life, which is, to put it mildly, active. Genji has good looks and natural ability to go with just about everything he does as well. Perhaps this accounts for why women--and men--find him so attractive.

He does have his enemies, namely the emperor's first wife, who wants her own son placed on the throne. Genji is thus demoted to commoner status, though he has court privileges (not being an expert on ancient Japanese affairs, how some things work in the novel are a little lost on me). This is to his own good, as far as love life is concerned. Without responsibilities, he has time to woo five to ten ladies at any given time and even knock up his father's concubine (the son that results from the affair later becomes emperor).

Genji has a wife too. She's pretty cold, but no doubt, as much as Genji may complain about her and blame her for his seeking solace in the company of others, his continued dalliances with other women only add to her coldness. It is only when she dies as a result of childbirth that he finally finds some way to appreciate her and that mostly through excessive grief. Is it guilt that drives him? I don't know. It seems a short repentance, for within a year or so, he's back to his philandering ways, and this brings its share of troubles, which I won't go into here. At some point, we learn that a soothsayer has told him he will have three children (all by different women apparently)--two to become emperors. And the abridgment ends at a convenient spot, with Genji no longer quite as interested in romantic affairs, wishing to leave court life, but now devoted to seeing that his children are well provided for.

This is a novel written a thousand years ago. The mannerisms seem foreign, but the characters and passions involved seem as current as ever--save that much of the seduction takes place by the point of a pen (forget what the women look like--how nice is their handwriting?).

Seidensticker notes that if the abridgment causes one to want to read the full book, he's done his job. I can't say he quite worked his magic on me. I enjoyed his abridged version, and I'm curious to know where the story goes from here, but I'd be just as happy to read a synopsis of the rest of the plot as to read the other thirty-seven chapters.

An online version of another translation of the book is available here.

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