Lesley Downer, The Tale of Genji - Slightly Foxed Issue 22

All about Love

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I grew up on the outskirts of London with a Dad who sat in a deckchair and read books in oriental languages while other dads mowed their lawns or fixed their houses. Our house was certainly in dire need of fixing, but it did have a lot of books in it. The rooms were lined with shelves of Chinese and Japanese volumes printed on rice paper, bound with silk and fitted into boxes, along with some translations. Among them was The Tale of Genji, ‘the world’s first novel’, as my Dad told me. The translator was Arthur Waley, a shy awkward man who never actually visited the East but who translated magnificently from many Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Ainu and Mongol.

It was not until the late Seventies, however, that I sat down to read Genji. By then I had caught the Japan bug and was determined to go there. I assumed that this enormously long classic, written by a Japanese court lady a thousand years ago, would be hard going; but in fact I was utterly enthralled. I fell in love with Genji, a handsome, roguish, charismatic, badly behaved prince; although his behaviour was not bad by the standards of his day, only by our more buttoned-up ones. Genji was not in the least like Beowulf (written two hundred years earlier) or The Canterbury Tales (written three hundred years later). It seemed to me to be much more like Jane Austen.

The author of Genji kept a diary, so quite a bit is known about her, but not her name. She is normally referred to as Murasaki, the name of one of her most dearly loved characters. Her ‘surname’, Shikibu, is the title of one of her father’s court positions. She was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko in the city we now know as Kyoto. While men wrote poetry in Chinese (the language of the educated élite, rather as French was in England after the Norman Conquest), women of the time used the Japanese alphabet, ideal for writing about everyday matters.

The Tale of Genji is all about love and the search for the perfect woman, and is infused with a woman’s sensibility. Genji is so extraordinarily beautiful that people crowd to watch hi

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About the contributor

Lesley Downer has spent far too much time in Japan. She is au fait with the incense-guessing game, is rather good at the tea ceremony and has wielded a samurai sword – none of which are useful accomplishments in London, where she now lives. Nineteenth-century Japan is the setting for her historical novel The Last Concubine.

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