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Genji Monogatari: Hon’yaku to Gensaku

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 68, Number 1, 2013
pp. 53-68 | 10.1353/mni.2013.0023

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“Nowadays, one often sees Genji monogatari and collections of Gide’s works lined up side by side on bookstore shelves,” a man in publishing remarked as we chatted about this and that. “Japanese classics like Genji seem to be becoming popular just as Gide has.”

I made up my mind to finish The Brothers Karamazov, come what may, so I’ve been going at it a little at a time, reading a Japanese translation I had on hand. I’m not making much progress, though. I first started reading the book nearly four decades ago, when I got a copy of what was evidently the first English translation, and I have yet to reach the end.

As it happens, even as I continue wrestling with this late-nineteenth-century Russian work, I’m trying to plow my way through a second long novel: that representative Japanese classic, Genji monogatari. I was curious to see what sort of impression it would make on me if I approached the original directly, just as it is, without relying on notes, or being harassed by them. I managed to dig up the volumes in the Library of Japanese Classics series, which survived the firebombs, and began reading from the opening lines, the one part of the book that I’ve had memorized ever since I was a boy: “Izure no ontoki ni ka, nyōgo kōi amata saburaitamaikeru naka ni, ito yangotonaki kiwa ni wa aranu ga, sugurete tokimekitamau arikeri,” etc., etc. But while I started out smoothly enough, I didn’t feel the sort of thrill that the author of Sarashina nikki did as a girl when her aunt sent her a mountain of fifty-four hand-copied chapters and she completely lost herself in them, forgetting everything else. The voices of all the ordinary people who have given Genji its reputation as a dreadful bore rose up in my mind, elbowing aside literary history with its pompous, infinitely effusive assertions of the tale’s gorgeousness, splendor, and profundity. So much has changed in our national language, in writing, that after decades spent reading books of all sorts, ancient and new, I am still unable to read with any freedom a novel, a monogatari, that a girl in her teens most likely skimmed right through. Everything is vague, murky—it’s like peering through a fog. I feel as if I’m walking on cobblestones. Each stone may be lovely and elegant on its own, gleaming in all the colors of the rainbow, but we have trouble making our way over the bumps. An annotated text may help us clear the stones one by one, but it starts to get annoying and we lose interest.

Maybe that’s how it is with the classics. Western classics are easy to follow because we read them in translation, but if a contemporary reader were to tackle a work in the original language, just as it is, would the volume, packed with text, perhaps seem like a cobblestone road, irksome to walk upon? Matters are worse for people like me who, born in the early years of the Meiji era, enjoyed being buffeted by new winds, by imported notions of civilization and enlightenment, and scorned Japan’s classical literature. I had that scorn, at any rate. The same held for young men in the public universities, who took pride in being students at what was then the highest educational level: if one of them, or a group, turned out to be studying the national literature, then he was regarded as a dolt without any aspirations, hopelessly behind the times. If you wanted to study literature, it was thought, you ought to study English or German literature, or perhaps try your hand at Greek or Latin.

When I was a child—or perhaps in the years just before that—there was a sudden surge in respect for Western learning, and Chinese learning and Kokugaku [National Learning] were suppressed. The ideas of Fukuzawa Yukichi and others dominated the world. Fukuzawa’s encouragement of Western learning meant, in essence, the importation of a new civilization. This “Western learning” of the early Meiji years is fascinating. Reading a...

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