Tales from Japan

26 Apr

It was suggested in a recent Classic Bookclub session that we should perhaps read The Tale of Genji. I’d heard of it, and ages ago, knew quite a bit more about it from reading  The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby, the fictionalised biography of  The Tale of Genji’s author, Murasaki Shikibu. I vaguely remembered something about Genji being the world’s first ever novel. And that it was written by a woman. As a teenager, I’d come to read Murasaki because I’d read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. It had led to an obsession for all things Japanese. I even bought a copy of The Pillow Book by Shei Shonagon, although I never got round to reading it.

After discovering that Genji was only available in quite pricey editions (not surprising, given that its over a thousand pages long!), a few more clicks led me down the Japanese classic fiction aisle, and to an unknown world. There was of course The Pillow Book, the racy collection of stories and musings on courtly life in early 11th Century Japan. Also written by a woman, the book caused scandal when some of it was circulated amongst the subjects of Emperor Ichijo’s court.

Alongside this was a collection of stories by the modernist master Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which included ‘Rashomon’, the story that partly inspired Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking film of the same name (although apparently the film is in fact an adaptation of Akutagawa’s story ‘In a Grove’). The story itself is a kind of existential exploration of human survival, mediated by a starving servant and destitute woman stuck in an abandoned part of Kyoto. The collection also includes satirical pieces, such as ‘The Nose’ and as well as the previously mentioned Samurai saga  ‘In a Grove.’

Another book I came across was The Makioka Sisters. Written in the forties by Junichiro Tanizaki, it is thought to be the major modern writer of Japan’s masterpiece. It tells the story of four sisters, born to a wealthy family from Osaka, and deals with the impact of  the Second World War on the middle-class suburban way of life. Apparently, it was written following the completion of the author’s translation of The Tale of Genji and as a result, the book is heavily influenced by it.

To me, all three present a literary universe about which I know diddly-squat, and therefore I’m eager to suggest them for our next Classic Bookclub book. I think I’m leaning toward the Tanizaki, being a modern classics-lover, but I’m also very tempted by The Pillow Book. We’ll just have to see which one gets the vote.


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