I’ve long had a bit of a weak spot or the Heian era. Doesn’t Japanese history between the years 794 to 1185 get you all excited, with the black teeth as beauty standard, constant fires ruining the capital and literary achievements? (It doesn’t? Who are you people?). It started with The diary of Lady Murasaki and The pillow book of Sei Shonagon that I read one after the other after reading an article about them. It is fascinating that of the very few written texts remaining of that time, two by women are the most known (given that it was a very patriarchal society) . I’ve been told that poems cited in The pillowbook of Sei Shonagon are some of the first ting Japanese schoolchildren learn.
Of the two, Shonagon has always been closer to my heart. Her “voice” is surprisingly modern and translates well to our time, with her little lists and the snippets of gossip. Part of that is probably due to the format, a pillow book is looser then a diary, in a sense only the fun stuff. Its her IG feed if you will, curated to make her look fab and be the envy of all of the court. Murasaki is a good girl but also as a writer, to me she is too detached in her diary because she observes so much. I get the sense that she is highly sensitive but in many ways she is the “good girl” according to the standards of the time.
The world of the shining prince by Ivan Morris is great reading to complement the diary and the pillow book despite Morris’s partiality; it gives a lot of insight in to what it all means, and it’s nicer to read that then read all of the footnotes in the actual books. When Ivan Morris wrote about them, and their cultural and historical context, he clearly favours Murasaki in my opinion. Maybe after reading The Tale of Genji I will change my tune and declare her the genius. It should be noted that I don’t dislike Lady Murasaki, quite the opposite, but always felt closer to Shonagon.
Oh well, the time has come for me to attempt, yet again, to read The tale of Genji. I did try once and didn’t get very far. I know now that I can blame the translator for everything. This time around I have done my research, although I somehow ended up with the version that not a lot of people seem to like. But it’s also the newest one and how often to people read book that are around 1200 pages (In my case? At least once a year. What can I say? I like big books).
Judging by this article that I found online and that is very helpful in that it provides examples of the different translation, I think that my previous attempt was a version by Royall Tyler and all the footnotes distracted me, and that I should try Seidensticker this time. The latter has homogenized the titles so the characters do not change names/titles as the story unfolds. If I’m to have any chance of getting through that is of the essence. I’m shit with names so they really need to stick to one. Over time with the Russian novels I have learned the diminutives so I understand know that “Sasha” isn’t a new character but a previously mentioned Alexandre. Not so with Japanese lit.
However the Washburn wasn’t published when that article was written. Ian Buruma, for whom I have a lot of respect, reviewed the Washburn version in The New Yorker which you can read here. It gives some insight and he touches on some very important points but does not think the Washburn adds much to the canon of Genji translations.
How come I ended up with it then? I did some snooping on Goodreads and other forum and Washburn has his fans. Accessibility is another reason, this is not a bestseller and some of the older versions can be difficult or expensive to get a hold of. This? It came in soft cover for €15 and was delivered in three days. So I’ll give it a go.
There are more books by Morris that I would like to read in conjunction with this but those have not been delivered yet. And you can expect the reading of this to be reported contiouasly on the blog, that it will probably inspire a couple of kimonojackets and what not. A cocktail maybe?
So the plan is to start reading on October 1st and finish before the year is over. I haven’t figured out how I will tackle this gigantic read but I will consult my own list of strategies that you can read (again) here. Anyone who wants to join me in reading this?