Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

The Tale of Genji: A Timeless Novel of Messy Relationships

“Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.”

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

I read through The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu over the course of the summer and autumn, and I finally finished last week. I’d read it in the early morning with my first cup of tea and cat in my lap. The cat becomes upset and depressed if I don’t hold her for a little while in the morning so it was a good fit to settle in and read as much as I could from the 1200 page novel before moving into the rest of the day, accompanied by one happy cat. Now when I get up, blearily make myself a pot of tea and settle down, it’s a strange sensation not to reach out for the massive, multi-generational novel.

Set during the 11th century in Ancient Japan, The Tale of Genji spans three generations and is loaded with all sorts of characters, locations, and religious observances. It deals with the relationships between people, nature, the arts, and the gods. Emotions are celebrated in waka poetry, seasonal changes are closely noted and cherished, religious observations of Buddhism and Shintoism dominate daily life, and people’s lives change due to the current Emperor in power. At the center is the story of Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji) and later on in the novel, his descendants. Despite having a father as Emperor, his mother was a low-ranking consort and as such, he has commoner status– but for all that, lives a wealthy, fabulous life. Added on top of this is his intense, near-otherworldly beauty and grace, acknowledged by both men and women. Loaded with money and charm, he seduces and sleeps with many. Hundreds of pages are devoted to his thoughts and feelings on his lovers (to whom he sends piles of poetry and presents) and in turn, the thoughts and feelings of his lovers are revealed privately to the reader. Nearly every woman who comes in contact with him (and a few men) has deeply conflicted feelings about Genji and his behavior.

Noble women’s lives in the Heian Era are so delicately arranged that any mere whim of Genji’s can affect their futures deeply. The women live entirely at home, tucked into the deep recesses of their houses. They rarely even stand—though if a noblewoman does get up and walk, life is about to get spicy. To express their sadness and depression over Genji’s cavalier behavior, they watch the seasons change through a veil of tears, lie face down on the floor, refuse to talk to him, or can’t stop sending him messages. Whatever their behavior, they ultimately have accept his treatment of them. It is not an easy path to walk. They find consolation in the surrounding world: by reading, writing, playing music, observing the seasons, flowers, and birds, caring for their children, and talking to other women.

Seasons, religious observances, and rulers flow by and the main characters change too, from Genji and all the people surrounding him, to his grandsons and the women they love. There is a possibility that different author wrote the story of the grandsons, Kaoru and Niou. The style is different, somewhat smoother, and the characters’ thoughts and motives are revealed in more depth. I like to think that it was Shikibu’s work, a return to her great story after many decades of refining her craft.

“The world know it not; but you, Autumn, I confess it: your wind at night-fall stabs deep into my heart.”
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

The final third of the book centers on a succession of autumns, and a melancholy light flickers through the last few hundred pages. Genji is remembered but in passing—little of him is left except for his great house and his descendants. Kaoru, Niou, and three sisters that they love are on center stage. Genji’s grandchildren live in much the same way he did and though their personalities are different, their lives are just as fleeting and as frail. People make many of the same choices as the previous generation; the circle of life wheels around and around as the seasons flash by. The story has no neat conclusion: the book ends abruptly with protagonists still navigating their lives and affairs. I imagine Kaoru, Niou, and Ukifume out there in another dimension or time, wrestling with their lives, emotions, and circumstances, trying to make do with the choices available to them.

The Tale of Genji is an immersion into another life and era; it is an ancient gift that has survived for nearly a millennium. It is a book of shadows and barriers, a world that exists in lamplight.

“In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

It is miracle that so massive a book, copied out by hand year after year, decade after decade, century after century, then at last into print, should survive into the modern era. Due to its venerable age and old language, many translations of The Tale of Genji have been written: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s in Japanese and Edward Seidensticker’s in English are among the most well-known. I read Royall Tyler’s translation, occasionally dipping into Arthur Waley’s and Seidensticker’s earlier ones. What comes through strongly, regardless of the translation, is how incredibly easy The Tale of Genji is to read despite being nearly 1000 years old. Part of this is Shikibu’s very modern skill of weaving plot points in and out of characters’ motivations and thoughts. Shifting narrative perspectives and stream of consciousness prose both play a part; but an even bigger contributor to the story’s strength is its centering of relationships. If readers love anything, it’s hot, messy love affairs, tangled family and friendships, and all the accompanying emotions that go with them. Genji, full of tumult, even ghosts and possessions, is ultimately about human nature and all the triumphs, frailties, and failures that come with it.

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Tides of Snow and Ice

This winter has been a continuous series of freezes and thaws: it’s the warmest winter on record, the tenth one in a row. A more usual winter starts with a deep freeze and then stays cold for months. Instead, snow falls, piles up and vanishes; rises up again and retreats, now falling as rain, swelling rivers and creeks. Rain and snow mingle together until everything runs with water; hillsides and flat-sides are coated in a deep, dark mud.

I stopped on my walk today, halted by a sudden flash of gold. The sunset rays were falling into a tiny puddle spanning the space between the root and trunk of a maple. The puddle reflected gold and silver on top and below was dark mud, black and brown, full of microorganisms and other tiny creatures unseen by the human eye. I briefly considered putting my hand to the shining surface. It beckoned, winking like a diamond, but pull of my walk was irresistible and I continued forward. 

Mud is for March and April, mud so thick and heavy that it can pull shoes off and make them disappear like a magic trick beneath the solemn and still brown. Mud in February is a strange slight, an awakening that shouldn’t be occurring yet. It’s all the more cruel because even though the temperatures rise, they inevitably dip into the single digits and everything freezes solid. Many times I’ve spotted squirrels and tiny birds on the creek’s ice, searching for openings to drink from.

During this particular thaw, the creek casts off ice, it’s center opening like a dark cut. The water sings as it cascades over the rocks, proclaiming it’s momentarily relief from the grip of winter. In Scandinavian folklore, there is a belief that given the proper offerings, a creek could teach a human how to play the most bewitching music. I crouch down near the creek, record a video of it singing on my phone and replay its music in the evening while lying on the couch. I should give something in return for the pleasure of its song and I consider. Perhaps some lavender buds I have stored away for a certain recipe, or a small pinecone I keep on a shelf to admire, or birch bark I retrieved from a favorite tree cut down years ago. 

The next day I return, and after waiting for a few dogs and their owners to pass by, I crouch next the side of the creek and sprinkle lavender buds into the small, clear stream. The buds vanish as soon as I drop them into the water– as if they never existed. I drop some more in and the same occurs; they’re gone before I can blink. The current flows by, washing over stones, fleeting by banks of mud, until it vanishes around the bend where the pine trees tower overhead.

As I gaze at the water, first downstream and then upstream, my own self quiets, stills, and momentarily dissolves into the landscape. The relief, though short, is palpable. Alone becomes together and perhaps that is what’s this practice of thanking the creek has been about all along.

Winter in the Time of Climate Change

There is a stream near my home and I walk along it nearly every day; I know its moods and seasons nearly as well as I know my own. We are family and our connections are pure: we’re both made of water.

Every day brings more distressing news about the environment. Big changes need to happen but whatever change that does happen is so slow. Global warming is now being felt by everyone, some more than others. I go out and walk along the stream when the news and all the unfortunate future unknowns press in too hard. Right now, it is running fast. This winter has been a series of freezes and thaws. November hit hard with a heavy, deep freeze and I expected this to lead to a  white Christmas but instead, it’s been a muddy, wet winter, full of more temperate days than frosty ones. The thermometer rides up and down, every day propelled by a bouncing ball rather than a steady progression of tiny fluctuations.

The stream locks and then unlocks. It accepts each freeze and thaw with inestimable grace. After reading the news, it is hard to know what is near or far, here and up in the sky, in the mind or in the present moment. But the stream is always present, it knows no other moment. It lives in eternity; as David Hockney said, “It’s always now. It’s now that’s eternal.”

The creek is still here, I think to myself whenever I see it, it is still living. It runs forward through this strange January, sometimes under the ice and sometimes not. Patches of green moss dot the banks nearby, beyond that the nearby plants are broken, brown, and dried. They are asleep, listening to things I cannot hear, dreaming of things I barely know of.