Ancient History & Civilisation


1. Fiction

Lady Murasaki—The “Tale of Genji”—lts excellence—Later Japanese fiction—A humorist

If Japanese poems are too brief for the taste of the Western mind, we may console ourselves with the Japanese novel, whose masterpieces run into twenty, sometimes thirty, volumes.18 The most highly regarded of them is the Genji Monogatari (literally and undeniably “Gossip aboutGenji”), which in one edition fills 4,234 pages.19 This delightful romance was composed about the year 1001 A.D. by the Lady Murasaki no-Shikibu. A Fujiwara of ancient blood, she married another Fujiwara in 997, but was left a widow four years later. She dulled her sorrow by writing an historical novel in fifty-four books. After filling all the paper she could find, she laid sacrilegious hands upon the sacred sutras of a Buddhist temple, and used them for manuscript;20 even paper was once a luxury.

The hero of the tale is the son of an emperor by his favorite concubine Kiritsubo, who is so beautiful that all the other concubines are jealous of her, and actually tease her to death. Murasaki, perhaps exaggerating the male’s capacity for devotion, represents the Emperor as inconsolable.

As the years went by, the Emperor did not forget his lost lady; and though many women were brought to the palace in the hope that he might take pleasure in them, he turned from them all, believing that there was not anyone in the world like her whom he had lost. . . . Continually he pined that fate should not have allowed them to fulfil the vow which morning and evening was ever talked of between them, the vow that their lives should be as the twin birds that share a wing, the twin trees that share a bough.21

Genji grows up to be a dashing prince, with more looks than morals; he passes from one mistress to another with the versatility of Tom Jones, and outmodes that conventional hero by his indifference to gender. He is a woman’s idea of a man—all sentiment and seduction, always brooding and languishing over one woman or the next. Occasionally, “in great unhappiness he returned to his wife’s house.”22 The Lady Murasaki retails his adventures gaily, and excuses him and herself with irresistible grace:

The young Prince would be thought to be positively neglecting his duty if he did not indulge in a few escapades; and every one would regard his conduct as perfectly natural and proper even when it was such as they would not have dreamed of permitting to ordinary people. . . . I should indeed be very loath to recount in all their detail matters which he took so much trouble to conceal, did I not know that if you found that I had omitted anything you would at once ask why, just because he was supposed to be an emperor’s son, I must needs put a favorable showing on his conduct by leaving out all his indiscretions; and you would soon be saying that this was no history but a mere made-up tale designed to influence the judgment of posterity. As it is, I shall be called a scandal-monger; but that I cannot help.23

In the course of his amours Genji falls ill, repents him of his adventures, and visits a monastery for pious converse with a priest. But there he sees a lovely princess (modestly named Murasaki), and thoughts of her distract him as the priest rebukes him for his sins.

The priest began to tell stories about the uncertainty of this life and the retributions of the life to come. Genji was appalled to think how heavy his own sins had already been. It was bad enough to think that he would have them on his conscience for the rest of his present life. But then there was also the life to come. What terrible punishments he had to look forward to! And all the while the priest was speaking Genji thought of his own wickedness. What a good idea it would be to turn hermit, and live in some such place! . . . But immediately his thoughts strayed to the lovely face which he had seen that afternoon; and longing to know more of her he asked, “Who lives with you here?”24

By the coöperation of the author Genji’s first wife dies in childbirth, and he is left free to give first place in his home to his new princess, Murasaki.*

It may be that the excellence of the translation gives this book an extraneous advantage over other Japanese masterpieces that have been rendered into English; perhaps Mr. Waley, like Fitzgerald, has improved upon his original. If, for the occasion, we can forget our own moral code, and fall in with one that permits men and women, as Wordsworth said of those in Wilhelm Meister, to “mate like flies in the air,” we shall derive from this Tale of Genji the most attractive glimpse yet opened to us of the beauties-hidden in Japanese literature. Murasaki writes with a naturalness and ease that soon turn her pages into the charming gossip of a cultured friend. The men and women, above all the children, who move through her leisurely pages are ingratiatingly real; and the world which she describes, though it is confined for the most part to imperial palaces and palatial homes, has all the color of a life actually lived or seen.* It is an aristocratic life, not much concerned with the cost of bread and love; but within that limitation it is described without sensational resort to exceptional characters or events. As Lady Murasaki makes Uma no-Kami say of certain realistic painters:

Ordinary hills and rivers, just as they are, houses such as you may see everywhere, with all their real beauty of harmony and form—quietly to draw such scenes as this, or to show what lies behind some intimate hedge that is folded away far from the world, and thick trees upon some unheroic hill, and all this with befitting care for composition, proportion and the life—such works demand the highest master’s utmost skill, and must needs draw the common craftsman into a thousand blunders.26

No later Japanese novel has reached the excellence of Genji, or has had so profound an influence upon the literary development of the language.27 During the eighteenth century fiction had another zenith, and various novelists succeeded in surpassing the Lady Murasaki in the length of their tales, or the freedom of their pornography.28 Santo Kioden published in 1791 an Edifying Story Book, but it proved so little to its purpose that the authorities, under the law prohibiting indecency, sentenced him to be handcuffed for fifty days in his own home. Santo was a vendor of tobacco-pouches and quack medicines; he married a harlot, and made his first reputation by a volume on the brothels of Tokyo. He gradually reformed the morals of his pen, but could not unteach his public the habit of buying great quantities of his books. Encouraged, he violated all precedents in the history of Japanese fiction by demanding payment from the men who published his works; his predecessors, it seemed, had been content with an invitation to dinner. Most of the fiction writers were poor Bohemians, whom the people classed with actors among the lowest ranks of society.29Less sensational and more ably written than Kioden’s were the novels of Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848), who, like Scott and Dumas, transformed history into vivid romance. His readers grew so fond of him that he unwound one of his stories into a hundred volumes. Hokusai illustrated some of Bakin’s novels until, being geniuses, they quarreled and parted.

The jolliest of these later novelists was Jippensha Ikku (d. 1831), the Le Sage and Dickens of Japan. Ikku began his adult life with three marriages, of which two were quickly ended by fathers-in-law who could not understand his literary habits. He accepted poverty with good humor, and, having no furniture, hung his bare walls with paintings of the furniture he might have had. On holidays he sacrified to the gods with pictures of excellent offerings. Being presented with a bathtub in the common interest, he carried it home inverted on his head, and overthrew with ready wit the pedestrians who fell in his way. When his publisher came to see him he invited him to take a bath; and while his invitation was being accepted he decked himself in the publisher’s clothes, and paid his New Year’s Day calls in proper ceremonial costume. His masterpiece, the Hizakurige, was published in twelve parts between 1802 and 1822, and told a rollicking tale in the vein of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club—Aston calls it “the most humorous and entertaining book in the Japanese language.”30 On his deathbed Ikku enjoined his pupils to place upon his corpse, before the cremation then usual in Japan, certain packets which he solemnly entrusted to them. At his funeral, prayers having been said, the pyre was lighted, whereupon it turned out that the packets were full of firecrackers, which exploded merrily. Ikku had kept his youthful promise that his life would be full of surprises, even after his death.

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