The Tale of Genji

Classical Japanese literature is known for its attention to detail, but this attention is selective. Sure, The Tale of Genji attends to some things (perfumed clothing, women’s hair, stationery) but leaves out so many others (war, politics, time, the working class) that the 1200-page novel seems somehow minimalist. I found Cao Xueqin apolitical – until reading Murasaki Shikibu.


Overconcern about refinement can be counterproductive, inviting a work to judge itself. “Her choice of paper was just right,” declares the unreliable narrator as I thumb my own edition. Within a novel so concerned about being just-so, using a blank page to represent a death becomes not only tasteless but a scandal.

Some of the most noteworthy of the book’s million or so sentences deal with animals. The worst: “Dawn came for them, as always, as it comes for mountain pheasants.” The best: “Most cats hardly recognise anyone, but I am sure that a clever cat actually has a soul.”


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