Tag Archives: writers

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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Writers most important to me, then and now

Then

Long, long ago, when I was finishing high school the (then-) living writers who were important to me, whose new work I’d seek out were

 

John Cheever (Falconer)

Vladimir Nabokov (Invitation to a Beheading)

Katherine Anne Porter (Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Noon Wine)

Philip Roth (Goodbye Columbus)

Jean-Paul Sartre (The Flies)

Mishima Yukio (After the Banquet)

Gore Vidal (Burrr)

Pär Lagerkvist (The Death of Ahasuerus)

Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange)

John O’Hara (Pal Joey)

Walker Percy (The Moviegoer)

 

The last three are mostly forgotten (by others) now, but not IMO reprehensible choices. Only one of those on this list  is still living, and he is retired.

 

I made another list in 2000 with the now-dead Penelope Fitzgerald, Michel Tournier, Muriel Spark, Mary Lee Settle, plus the still living (in 2018) Matthew Stadler, Hanif Kureishi,   Alan Hollinghurst, and Mark Salzman, and some writers who are also on my current list.

Now

Michael Ondatjee (Coming Through Slaughter)

Edmund White (Nocturnes for the King of Naples)

Andrew Sean Greer (Less)

Peter Cameron (The City of Your Final Destination)

Josip Novakovich (April Fool’s Day)

Louise Erdrich (The Master Butcher’s Singing Club)

Joan Silber (Fools)

Elizabeth Spencer (The Salt Line)

Chang-Rae Lee (Native Speaker)

Alan Gurganus (Adult Art)

Rabih Almeddine (KoolAIDS)

André Aciman (Call Me by Your Name)

Schnitzler’s (very!) posthumous Late Fame

Late Fame is a long-“lost” novella that Arthur Schnitzler wrote in 1894-95. An editor wisely decided that it could not withstand being serialized over the course of eight weeks, and it was filed away, transported to Cambridge after the Anschlüss by the British Embassy, finally published in German in 2014, and now (2015?) in English.

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I can more than sympathize with the situation the new fan, Meir, exclaims about to the long-forgotten poet (who has even forgotten he once aspired to be a poet, Saxberger:

“It’s the same old story. At the start, we’re satisfied to have just our own pleasure in our work and the interest of the few you understand us. But when you see those coming up around you, winning a name, and feven fame for themselves—then you would rather be heard and honored as well. And then come the disappointments! The envy of the talentless, the frivolity and malice of reviewers, and then the horrid indifference of the public. And you get tired, tired, tired. You still have a lot you could say, but nobody wants to hear it, and eventually you yourself forget that you were once one of those who wanted great thing, who perhaps even already achieved the.” (5)

Saxberger himself says, “No one takes any notice and then, by and by, I lost my appetite for it, along with my youth” (4).

He is perplexed but pleased to be taken up by a new generation of aspiring writers. He is unable to write anything new, but consents to have work from decades earlier performed in their recital, enjoys the applause—at least until he realizes that every participant’s work is cheered. And the whole event attracted practically no notice from the press. The rejuvenation ends and Saxberger returns to his dull routine.

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Schnitlzer himself did not live Saxberger’s life of neglect and giving up writing. I don’t have much interest in having the key to the roman de clef, except that the shy young blond Windler is a twist on the dark-haired Hoffmanstahl “who liked the sound of his own voice,” and whose talent was recognized very early. (The distortion of Schnitzler himdelf  is Christian.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see Reading Schnitzler 1 and 2.