My Knopf paperback of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji arrived in the mail today. It has a lovely, delicate cover, the print is the perfect size for reading by a nearsighted woman with bifocals (me), and it is illustrated with exquisite woodcuts from a 1650 Japanese edition. It is also very hefty, about the size of War and Peace (1090 pages).
I already am finding Edward G. Seidensticker’s lyrical translation (1976) of this 11th-century Japanese “novel” more elegant and readable than Dennis Washburn’s (Norton, 2015), which I began last summer. Both have their merits, but Washburn’s prose is often awkward and wordy, perhaps more literal: I’m sure each translator has a different philosophy. I’ve often thought twentieth-century translators wrote better than the new crew of writera (the Maudes’ translation of Anna Karenina is the best). Well, I’m a worshiper of the past. It’s not a nostalgia thing: it’s why I studied classics.
Of course Washburn will be somebody else’s classic, too.
Here are the opening paragraphs of both translations.
First the stunning Seidensticker:
In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful. Probably aware of what was happening, she felt seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court.
And here is Washburn’s more verbose version.
I N WHOSE reign was it that a woman of rather undistinguished lineage captured the heart of the Emperor and enjoyed his favor above all the other imperial wives and concubines? Certain consorts, whose high noble status gave them a sense of vain entitlement, despised and reviled her as an unworthy upstart from the very moment she began her service. Ladies of lower rank were even more vexed, for they knew His Majesty would never bestow the same degree of affection and attention on them. As a result, the mere presence of this woman at morning rites or evening ceremonies seemed to provoke hostile reactions among her rivals, and the anxiety she suffered as a consequence of these ever-increasing displays of jealousy was such a heavy burden that gradually her health began to fail/
Very different books, yes? It’s a matter of preference.
I’ll check in here occasionally to express my thoughts on this classic.
THE SASSINESS NEVER STOPS.
Reviewers can be nice, reviewers can be nasty. I have no doubt that a sassy review at a mainstream publication has the power to kill a book.
But sassiness is not only endemic at mainstream book review publications. It is also in many ways the main character at Goodreads. Mind you, there are Goodreads reviewers who write thoughtfully and analytically about the context of Lawrence Durrell’s modernist novels, but yesterday I was floored by a one-star review of The Tale of Genji by someone named “Smenkhare.”
“Smenkhare” doesn’t have an elegant way with words. He/she writes:
i hate this book only a little less than i hate ‘twilight’. the historical and literary significances are really impressive (it was the first novel written – and by a woman, for that matter), and it’s the source of pretty much everything we currently know about heian court life, but genji is the wimpiest, rapiest protagonist ever. he is literally so mind-crushingly whiny, childish and just plain unlikeable that in my opinion, he ruins what is otherwise a pretty compelling story.
“Smenkhare” deals in superlatives, you will notice.
N.B.: I should tell you: The Tale of Genji is NOT the first novel. The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote novels long before the 11th century . Seidensticker refers to The Tale of Genji as “a very long romance,”and Washburn “a long fictional narrative.”
THE SASSIEST REVIEWER OF ALL IS:
No, I’m joking. But she has gotten a lot of play at the Guardian lately. In a new essay at The Guardian, she says she stopped publishing her popular book blog/webzine Bookslut partly because advertisers have ruined the internet.
I know that nostalgia is a stupid emotion, but still I regret the day money found the internet. Once advertisers showed up, offering to pay us to do the thing we were doing just for fun, it was very hard to say no. Or understand exactly what the trade-offs would be.
She discovered through her stats that readers were less interested in reviews of the small-press books she favored than in the same few books reviewed in every mainstream publication. She writes,
You have to indulge in clickbait. You have to narrow your conversation down to the one that is already happening elsewhere.
I’ve never heard that word “clickbait.”
We’re pretty much under the radar at Mirabile Dictu. Clickbait wouldn’t work here: there aren’t enough readers. Heavens, I get complaints if I “disrespect” Jane Austen, which I don’t do, but which someone thought I did. I don’t sell ads–it’s too much trouble to be an Amazon associate and add book links to Amazon, on top of all the scribbling I do. Anyway I’m only a one-woman operation and “review”only a couple of books a week. The rest of the time I’m writing about vaguely bookish topics that don’t sell anything except whether I heart (or don’t heart )reveiwers/writers/ bloggers, depending on what I’m saying.
True, when I get sassy and critical the numbers of readers spike. After Jenny Diski’s recent death, I noticed dozens of people flocking to a post in which I defended Doris Lessing from Diski’s LRB columns complaining about Lessing’s opinions and behavior when Diski was kicked out of Peter Lessing’s school and invited to live with the Lessings.. I immediately hid the post–took it out of the “published” categroy and made it private–because I did not want to upset Diski mourners or fans. After all, de mortuis nil nisi bonum (“about the dead say nothing except good.”). I don’t knuckle under to everybody, because (a) it doesn’t pay (yet another money metaphor), (b) I’m not great at slavishly concealing my opinion, but I really don’t want to add salt to any wounds.
Periodically, when the nuances get too much for me, I even shut off my comments. Sometimes I like silence. Lawrence Durrell in Justine writes, “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”
I do keep up with six or seven blogs–not nearly enough, I know–and try to leave comments, hoping I write enough to show my very real interest. It all takes a certain amount of time, because I’m not a master of the comment. I think it would be easier if I branched out and read blogs about subjects I know very little about. I’m not in any particular network of blogs: I just visit the ones I like!
So have I used any clickbait? What do you think about clickbait and sassiness?