At the House of Gathered Leaves: Shorter Biographical and Autobiographical Narratives from Japanese Court Literature (review)
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Reviewed by
Joshua Mostow. At the House of Gathered Leaves: Shorter Biographical and Autobiographical Narratives from Japanese Court Literature. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 2004. 211 pp. ISBN 0-824-82778-3, $44.00.

For several decades now, approaches that foreground the aesthetic practices of texts from the Heian period (794–1180 A.D.) have been under steady attack. Scholars like Joshua Mostow recognize that this kind of approach grew out of modern, nationalist impulses in Japan, and was further fed among Western scholars by an Orientalist mindset. These new(er) scholars have gone in different directions in providing correctives to the more "traditional" (in quotation marks because it is an invented tradition of fairly recent origin) approach. Michael Marra problematizes the notion of aesthetics itself. Doris Bargan turns to anthropological studies of witchcraft and contemporary notions of feminism to offer a startling re-reading of the several spirit-possession episodes that so greatly affect the plot of the eleventh century novel Tale of Genji. Joshua Mostow takes a somewhat less adventurous tack, but uses it to analyze a set of biographical texts from the mid-to-late Heian period that [End Page 500] have mostly been passed over by literature scholars because they did not pass muster for the aestheticians.

Mostow argues that a man's success in courtship and romance—a literarily prescribed narrative of love that dominates most of what is now canonical in Heian literature—is one mark of his power and prestige. As Mostow puts it: "The ability to attract and possess women was a status symbol for Heian aristocratic men" (35). Thus, he reads the life writings he presents in this book either as attempts on the part of a particular person to construct a literary record of his romantic adventures (and thus augment his prestige), or to ridicule or undermine the romantic reputation of a political rival. Mostow ties this in to the constant factional disputes that swirled among the Heian aristocracy (2–3). These biographical stories, then, become weapons in the political in-fighting at court.

But there is another layer of story here. As Montrose and others have argued, it is not entirely accident that some texts gets passed on while others get passed up. So, why did these texts survive?

Any discussion of texts that are over a thousand years old is complicated by the fact that, at least for the works Mostow treats in this volume, the "originals" no longer exist. In all the cases here, what Mostow somewhat misleadingly refers to as the "base text," or occasionally, and more accurately, "my base text" (emphasis mine) for his translations is rarely more than two hundred years old—800-some years after the fact! Interestingly, all these "base texts"—and there are other textual lines still extant that modern editors could have chosen—derive originally from a line of texts copied by Fujiwara Teika, the thirteenth century poet who is more responsible than just about anyone else for what we now know as the canon of Heian literature. In other words, it is Teika who gathered the leaves in Mostow's book. Just as the tales and diaries themselves sought to construct protagonists who deserved the mantle of power because of their romantic prowess, so Teika, through his assiduous bibliographic activities and tireless copying of older texts, sought to construct a Heian canon over which he, alone, could claim mastery. This served him in his own struggle to assert the primacy of his family in literary matters, and his construct has remained remarkably authoritative down to the present day.

Mostow is aware of the issues this raises. Indeed, in his book Pictures of the Heart (U of Hawai'i P, 1996), he argues for an approach to translation that takes into account commentaries that have, over the centuries, shaped our understanding of ancient texts, and Teika's vision of earlier poetry is Mostow's focus in that book.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, Teika's main patron at court was the Kujö house, whose earlier ancestors are the central characters in the texts [End Page 501] translated by Mostow in At the House of Gathered Leaves. Although...