- Objects of Discourse: Memoirs by Women of Heian Japan
Objects of Discourse—"hardly a title that makes the heart beat faster in eager anticipation of the book's content. To some readers, indeed, the very mention of "discourse" may be a red rag that stampedes them into premature rejection of a solid contribution to scholarship. Yet the memoirs by women of Heian Japan are widely regarded as some of the finest texts in a golden age of premodern Japanese literature. It is a genre engaging in its own right and important as a context for the period's prose fiction, whose Tale of Genji stands out as a major work in the whole of world literature, regardless of period.
Happily, for readers put on guard by the title, closer inspection reveals that only rarely does the cloven hoof of theory peep out from under the cassock of explication de texte. Insightful passages of close reading are embedded in an impressive marshaling of the Japanese scholarship on the genre of women's memoirs, although some may find regrettable the limiting of this book's purview to the most highly canonized works of the genre: Kagerō nikki, Izumi shikibu nikki (or monogatari), Murasaki shikibu nikki, and Sarashina nikki. Now that a number of lesser-known primary texts throwing light on the author's thesis are available in translation, it would have been good to have drawn them into the critical debate sooner rather than later. [End Page 506]
The book's structure is straightforward. It begins with an introduction that contrasts the differences in thematic focus and temporal pacing that have led the author, John R. Wallace, to choose nonstandard translations for some titles rather than the generic "diary" (Gossamer Years, Lady Izumi"s Story, Lady Murasaki"s Journal, and The Sarashina Memoir), though he acknowledges the commonalities of general topic and tone that make them cohere generically. Here Wallace also lays out the principles underlying his choice of translation style, terms and literary titles, names and personal titles, and romanization. This is followed by a chapter on "contexts and pre-texts," a chapter on each of the four major texts, and a conclusion. Sixty further pages are devoted to three appendixes (on early manuscripts, monographs that were primary resources for translating the memoirs and for further research, and a voluminous table of historical background information), a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.
Chapter 1 provides most of the background pertinent for the works studied in detail in later chapters. Wallace covers the emergence of hiragana, the social position of women, and the question of literary and language gender specificity, though he tends somewhat to set up the earlier generation of scholars such as Edward Seidensticker and Ivan Morris as "straw men" for underestimating the quality of life of aristocratic women and exaggerating the gender specificity of literary forms. Even some more recent scholars receive this treatment. Yet at least in the decade before the appearance of this monograph, several Western scholars, such as Aileen Gatten, have published articles giving a much more nuanced picture. These questions come to the fore in chapter 2, on Kagerō nikki. Wallace offers a detailed account of the social expectations of the author, Michitsuna no haha, and of four elite women of comparable status. The presentation itself is excellent. Of special note is a chronological table contrasting the political achievements of the children of Kaneie (the author's husband) by his several wives that is as concisely revelatory as another table indicating how the author depicts Kaneie's other women's children. Wallace combines the latter table with some outstanding close reading of relevant passages. He neglects, however, to treat two texts—Tōnomine no shōshō monogatari, of c. 962, and Jōjin ajari no haha no shū, covering c. 1067—1073—that, as comparable exemplars of spousal/maternal love, longing, and recrimination, provide crucial evidence of the literary and social context that shaped women's memoirs in this period. The failure to...