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julianmeynell

Julian Meynell's Books

I like Books.

The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu, Royall  Tyler Some people here are commenting that the book is extremely misogynist. The book is misogynist but the book was written in early eleventh century Japan, so of course it is misogynist. I don't really know what people were expecting. Books tend to reflect most to all of the values of the culture of the author and that was one of the most misogynist cultures in history. This seems to me to be a way of dismissing books from cultures different from our own. In the Iliad, Achilles sulks because Agamemnon steals his slave girl who he is using for sex. That's misogynist too. Anyway, these kinds of critiques drive me crazy. Also, we must keep in mind that the author was a woman, so as a matter of fact the book is a woman's perspective. In fact, so far as I can tell it is the earliest major piece of literature written by a woman.

Taking the book on its own terms, the first thing to notice about it is that it is extremely long. In effect Murasaki Shikubu was writing one book as her entire oeuvre and that means that it is a significant commitment. The book follows a variety of characters over time, with the main character shifting as the book progresses. That in effect means that it ends up being structured more like real life and less like a typical narrative. It just does not have a defined beginning, middle and end. The genre that it is closest to of our own genres is the soap opera.

The book is more infused with the spirit of poetry than any other prose work that I have ever read. Characters regularly quote poetic couplets to each other and make poetic illusions. It is vast and sprawling and it is easy to get lost in its serpentine labyrinths of plot and character. I do not find the characters to be that compelling, but there is an impressive amount of psychological realism to them. There are a very large number of extremely beautiful scenes and it is heavy with symbolism and really deep insights into the way humans behave. But man, it also rambles on.

My addition is the Seidensticker translation. Apparently, in the original the characters do not have names and we know who they are by subtle indicators of things like status. Seidensticker does not try to translate this but just assigns names. I can't imagine trying to keep things straight in other additions where this is not done. There are also very beautiful 16th century woodcut illustrations, which work very well as an addition to the text.

It is a real mixed bag, doing somethings extraordinarily well, and other things not even doing at all. Sometimes it can be a delight to read. At other times you find yourself grinding at it.

The bottom line is: Is it worth reading? I think because of its immense length that it is only worth reading if the reader does a huge amount of serious reading or if they have a special interest in the subject matter. Think hard before jumping in.