The Tale of Genji, Lugging It in a Bike Pannier, & The Coffeehouse Umbrella War

tale of genji cover2Well, I’ve done it.  I’m well into my Big Book of the Summer, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, a stunning eleventh-century Japanese classic, which is sometimes billed as the first novel (though the Greeks and Romans actually were first.). Murasaki Shikibu, an elegant writer who served in the court of the empress Akiko after she was widowed,  entertained both the empress and emperor with parts of The Tale of Genji, her absorbing story  of the amorous adventures of  Genji, the son of the Emperor and his concubine.  At this point I haven’t gleaned enough about the culture  to understand exactly how Murasaki views her characters, though I appreciate the subtlety with which she shows the women do not always find his advances  acceptable.   In one chapter, after Genji is repeatedly rejected by the woman he is courting, he accidentally climbs into bed with the wrong lady but gallantly pretends she is the one he wanted.  In another chapter, he courts a reclusive princess simply because she never sees anyone,  and then rejects her because he finds her unattractive and unstylish.  In a very disturbing scene, he mocks the unattractive princess and makes fun of her red nose to a little girl he is raising.

So what are we to think of Genji?  My reading will gradually reveal more, I am sure.

Why am I reading this?  The gorgeous language. Genji and his girlfriends exchange poems.  It is delightful to read them.  As for the beautiful language of Murasaki’s prose, it’s  like being in an opium den, not that I’ve ever been in one, where language flows over and around you like smoke and you go into a dream and you aren’t aware of anything else  I hope I’ll eventually understand the tradition of the Japanese romance better.

Meanwhile I am fascinated by Murasaki’s life.  In Diary of Murasaki, she tells us about  learning Chinese, though women did not study languages.

When my brother Nobunori was a boy my fahter was anxious to make a good Chinese scholar of him,  and often came to hear Nobunori’s lessons.  On these occasions I was always present, and so quick was I at picking up the language that I was soon able to prompt my brother whenever he got stuck.  At this my father used to sigh and say, “If only you wore a boy how proud and happy I should be.

But she learned to conceal her knowledge of the least Chinese character, because she was told it would make her unpopular with men..

Sound familiar?

Being a girl, I meant so little to my father that he confronted me when he saw my name in the newspaper on the honor roll.   “We didn’t think you did well,” he said.

I didn’t bother to correct him. I was numb from years of put-downs and insults.  Yes, I was an honors student, I said blandly.  I knew it made him angry. All my life he had talked a lot of garbage like “Women can’t play chess,” “Women can’t do math.”  I once sassily said, “Not ‘can’t” but “refuse to.'”  Certainly he didn’t understand my interest in languages and literature.  And he didn’t give me any of the money from my so-called college fund until my last semester of college, after I had paid for my education through part-time jobs and small loans and was finally exhausted. Turned out I wouldn’t have had to take any loans. Great to know at the end of school, right?  But never fear, I paid back my loans with no problem. School was not expensive in those days.

tale of genji modern library 81wldFQ881LWhen we talk about Genji, we don’t think of the weight of the book.  But if you want to carry it on the bus or your bike, you should know  that the oversize 1,090-page Knopf paperback of Edward G. Seidentsticker’s 1976 translation weighs three pounds.

I thought I could solve my summer-reading-on-the-go problem if I found a less hefty copy.  It turns out the 1960 Modern Library copy of Arthur Waley’s original translation weighs only two and a half pounds.  I figured it wouldn’t break the bike pannier.


The bike can’t even stand up with this book in the bag.  The pannier came unhooked from the  rack!  I had to stop a couple of times and fix it.


Genji at the coffeehouse.

Once at the coffeehouse,  I had a few problems because of the translations.  Reading the Seidensticker at home, I was introduced to the character Tayu, “a very susceptible young lady who was in court service and from time to did favors for  Genji.”  She  distracts him from his pining for a governor’s wife with the story of a reclusive princess fathered by the late Prince Hitachi in old age.  But in Waley’s translation she is called Maubo:  her whole name , it turns out, is Taifu no Mayubo.   Thank God there is a list of characters at the front.

And then there are the coffeehouse umbrella problems.

On the terrace, in the bright 80-degree sun, there were several tables but only one umbrella.  The umbrella shaded one table.  And so I huddled at the table behind it, which at least caught a little triangle of shade. And then the guy moved the umbrella so the girl had more shade.  And then I had no shade.  Very exasperating, but what can you do?  Start a coffeehouse war?  I don’t think so.  The minute a slightly shady table opened up I was there!

The Tale of Genji, Sassy Reviewers, & Clickbait

tale of genji cover2

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).

tale of genji_woodblock

A woodcut from a 1650 edition.

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.


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.”


Jessica Crispin?

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.

She writes:

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.”

Your_brain_on_clickbait-400x258We’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?