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An absorbing fictional memoir of the author of “The Tale of Genji”

Reading Lisa Dalby’s imagined life of the author of what some call “the first novel,” The Tale of Genji,  in the hospital, I read many paragraphs more than once, and at least one sentence four times. That and the constant interruptions that caused me to lose my exact place did not lessen my esteem for Dalby’s feat of historical empathy for the Heian-era writer (whose world is explored by Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince, which I intend to reread.)

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Dalby provides a plausible portrait of the author of The Tale of Genji, pressed into imperial service after her tales had started to circulate and interested the regent, Michinaga. He wanted her around to influence her portrayal of the shining prince to be like himself. He did less to act to like Genji, except in multiplying sexual conquests, than he hoped to see himself in what his courtier wrote. He forced her to write reports of the ceremonies after the birth of a boy child to his daughter, Shôshi.

Dalby used the surviving poetic output of “Murasaki” as well as surviving diary fragments. I think the makes an interesting, unpretentious character who would rather observe than be observed hates being talked about, as she was by other female courtiers),] has a low sexual drive, but two passionate relationships, the first with a female peer, Kerria Rose, the second with the son of a Chinese diplomat whose father was negotiating with her own father, a self-styled expert on Chinese poetry, though he was quite ignorant of the culture. Ming-Gwok explains much to the enraptured but discreet young Japanese woman. And she tells him about Japanese culture, though not yet having her own experience of the court in Miyako (Kyoto).

Before accompanying her father to the frontier province of Echizan (a posting that was based on his knowledge of written Chinese), she had been pledged to the promiscuous, rich Nobutaka, a marriage she evaded as long as she can. She genuinely missed him after he dies and does not take up with any other men. (She admits she enjoyed thwarting Genji’s seductions, though she first conceived him as an imagined ideal lover.)

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(Hioshige illustration of the usual screen barrier between male and female interlocutors)

She does meet and is intrigued by the former courtier whose Pillow Book is another Heian era classic, Sei Shônagon. The novel’s heroine feels pity for Shônagon’s fall from the palace and finds offputting her Pillow Book stories that all seem to end in self-celebration. Murasaki is more self-annulling Buddhist, as unconcerned as a woman in her position can be about the esteem of others (which her book, nonetheless, draws).

 

“I had exhausted myself trying to capture the nature of the twisted relationships into which men and women fall… I had been concerned lest Genji succumb to flights of magical fantasy. I wanted him to be wonderful but at the same time believable, and my readers, judging from their responses, found him so. I amazement for over twenty years I watched Genji grow until eventually it seemed I myself was merely a tool for his shining persona. Was I writing Genji? Or was Genji just using me…. Finally, I came to the realization that fiction ultimately creates its own truths.”

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