Matthew is hosting a read along for The Tale of Genji. In this first week we have read chapters 1 – 4, so in this post I will try to summarise my first impressions of the book.
I was right to be apprehensive about reading The Tale of Genji. It isn’t that it is long, as I often enjoy books with a longer, more complicated plot; or that the language is hard to read, because I have found it no more difficult than many modern books. The thing that makes it so difficult is that the world this book is set in is so different to the one we live in today. The structure of the society is completely alien to me, and so even simple things like who the Emperor can take as his wife need careful explaining.
Footnotes fill the bottom of every page, and I am finding them very distracting. They ruin the flow of the narrative and so I have decided to ignore them on the first reading, going back to read them all at the end of each chapter. This means I am effectively having to read the whole book twice, but I think this is necessary at the moment, as I am struggling to remember who’s who and understand the complex structure of the society.
Genji, the central character in the book, is the son of the Emperor. His mother was very low ranking and dies when he is just three-years-old. Genji is beautiful and very talented, and the Emperor longs to make him his Heir Apparent, over first born son, but knows the court will not stand for this. So the Emperor gives him a gives him a surname, so making him a commoner. At the age of twelve Genji marries Aoi.
Chapter Two is much more conversational;, and we start to get a better feeling for the attitudes of the characters, especially their thoughts on women. Several of the men (I haven’t quite grasped who they are yet!) discuss their lovers. We also find out a bit more about the structure of their homes – I loved finding out some of the domestic details:
The chapter ends with Genji hiring a young boy as a messenger. I was a bit confused by the final paragraph of this section:
Genji had the boy lie down with him. The boy so appreciated his master’s youth and gentleness that they say Genji found him much nicer than his cruel sister.
Is this a sexual sentence? Does it imply Genji slept with the boy and his sister?
I loved seeing the game of Go mentioned. When I was at school I competed in several Go tournaments, and actually won a few trophies. I love playing Go, but unfortuanetly no one will play me any more, as I always win!
Genji wants to seduce one woman, but she resists and runs off leaving Genji holding her outer robe. Genji tries to break into her room, but accidentally ends up in the room of someone else. He pretends that he did it on purpose and ends up spending the night with her instead.
Genji goes to visit his dying nursemaid and spots a beautiful woman in a nearby house. They exchange a few notes until finally Genji manages to meet her. They spend the night together only for Genji to wake up in the morning and find her dead beside him.
Overall the beginning of The Tale of Genji has been quite a challenge for me. I still have no idea who 3/4 of the characters are, or how they relate to each other. I hope everything just falls in to place soon, and perhaps some other members of the read-along will shed some light on a few things I have missed. It looks as though Genji is just seducing every woman in sight at the moment. I hope he calms down a bit soon!
How are you finding the read-along?
Do you know who everyone is?
What has been the hardest aspect of reading the book?