Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Short Stories Should Be Required Reading

Elizabeth Bowen is the kind of writer that teaches us how to write short stories. Born and raised in Ireland, when Bowen married, she moved to London where she lived and wrote before, during and after the Blitz. Her settings of half-bombed out homes of the aristocracy, small London flats and families getting by in their survivalist modes, still taking tea at four o’clock, in the suburbs and in the countryside merely indicate what has happened and what may take place at any tense moment around the clock. Her beautiful landscapes hardly evoke war but rather burst forth in light and color, nature, flowers, trees and life.

Bowen’s characters are very English. Their thoughts and dialogues rollick along in quick, cheeky cadences. These are often ordinary settings made rich with Bowen’s sumptuous depictions. Sunday Afternoon takes place in the Irish countryside outside Dublin. Henry is from London on a short visit after having lost his flat and everything in it to the Blitz. His aristocratic friends living in Ireland do not know quite how to feel about the bombings. In one of Bowen’s many Jamesian moments, out on some green, sloping lawn, one of the picnickers says, “Henry’s not sure… he looks pontifical.” The writer adds to the unsettling atmosphere by creating a beautifully turbulent milieu out of the landscape.

Another cold puff came through the lilac, soundlessly knocking the blooms together…
a breath of coldness fretted the edge of things.

Henry, slow to voice his quick thoughts, ruminates to himself: With nothing left but our brute courage, we will be nothing but brutes.

He seems duty-bound on returning to London. Bowen is a romantic; the strain of little romances electrifies nearly every story. Love does not stop for war. Hardly in an amorous frame of mind, will Henry be paired with Mrs. Vesey, who is older, or with the very pretty and spirited Maria, who is much younger and inexperienced? Maria thinks that London will be an adventure with heroes.
She looked secretively at her wristwatch. Henry wondered what the importance of time could be.
Mysterious Kor is said to be among Bowen’s very best short stories. Something of the supernatural enchants this tale, with its moon and its Mysterious Kor, a forsaken, possibly imaginary place, alluring the three main characters. On this night, the blackout is ineffectual, as there is a full, bright moon shining down on all of London.

London looked like the moon’s capital … from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whitened kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened islands would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead.

From the Underground, a young couple emerges into the shadowed, moonlit streets, arm-in-arm. Arthur is a soldier and Pepita is his diminutive yet headstrong girlfriend. They seemed to have no other destination but each other.

The atmosphere of the quiet, illuminated night is heightened by small, singular acts, like a woman peeking out and calling her cat timidly, a clock striking midnight and resounding in the dazzling distance.

Pepita’s roommate, Callie, has not yet met Arthur and she anticipates him as if she were in love. She goes to bed, tired of waiting up for them, and the moonlight takes on a new significance. Diverse and brilliant light pervades Callie’s room. Searchlights protecting the city move across the spaces and crevices not covered by the blackout curtains, and moonlight shines-on invincible and powerful.

Before sunrise, Callie hears Arthur lighting a cigarette. She steps out of her room, still glowing, it seemed, from the moonlight that infused her as she slept. They have a quiet, friendly chat in the otherworldly shadows of her living room, and Arthur tells her about Mysterious Kor. Callie asks, “the core of what?” She has never heard of it. Arthur construes that Kor is where Pepita goes when she sleeps so soundly. When Callie tells him that Pepita does not always sleep so soundly, he remarks, “then she doesn’t always make it” to Mysterious Kor. Their conversation eventually trails off, and Arthur asks Callie, “So, how’s your moon?” She marvels over the familiarity, ‘her moon.’

“Not so strong,” she says.

Yet, Callie’s naïve question to Arthur, “The core of what?” is meaningful. This mysterious place, Mysterious Kor, seems to be at the core of something large… as large as the human spirit or humanity. One interpretation suggests that Elizabeth Bowen’s three characters are actually in Purgatory working out the unfinished business of their previous lives when they were killed in the Blitz.

Other stories, not part of the War Years, are among my favorites: the precision of Ann Lee’s, the fearlessness of The Parrot, and The Storm, which is a bit of a ghost story about an English couple who travel to Rome. The story begins with some harsh bickering, a startling lover’s quarrel:

“Don’t come near me,” she said, turning sharply. “I hate you! Why do you keep on following me about?”

The husband takes this in stride. He is used to her minor explosions. However, their histrionics have been overheard by three Danish girls who sit by the fountain taking pictures of each other. Here the writer switches perspectives, first from the wife’s point of view, then the husband’s and finally from the perspective of the Danish travelers. “The English lady seemed to be finished scolding her husband.”

The couple is exploring a villa, and as they argue a wind seems to be following them through the many rooms, terraces and the chapel. She has become so annoyed by her husband that she tries to lose him, but then this wind harasses her. She is convinced that the wind is the ghosts of nuns. Then she panics when she realizes her husband is nowhere to be seen. It is a story of emotions, of power-struggles – who can win-over whom? And finally, of people who need each other despite resentments great and small.

Bowen uses powerful personification of windows, the sky, the air and rooms, not only to create a beautiful, spellbinding landscape but also to heighten suspense and intrigue.

The air was warm and tense, stretched so taut that it quivered… forms assumed a menacing distinctness, blade-like against the architecture of the clouds… the insistence of the fountains… the dark room within was attentive… little bald, square windows, lashless eyes staring out on to the darkening sky.

The writer’s best stories portray her connection with nature and landscapes, and her brilliance at conveying dialogue and the feelings of adults as well as of children. The stories about children, for example, Charity, The Jungle and The Visitor present extraordinary perception for both the inner and outer dramas that children experience along with their childish and also very mature responses.

The happiness that she had been waiting for all day seemed to have something to do with light behind the trees, the rooks, and the dry chintzy smell of the curtains when she leant back her head against them into the room. Also, there is something very heroic about dangling one’s legs at a height.

– from Charity

Comparing Notes on the Centennial of Joyce’s “Dubliners”

In reading Paul Theroux’s short story, Action, which appeared in
The New Yorker, (August 4th, 2014), one can’t help but draw parallels to James Joyce’s Araby from the beloved short story collection, Dubliners, (1914). Both Action and Araby comprise a boy’s coming-of-age in a working class neighborhood with very little money and a mother who has died.

Theroux’s Albert lives in Boston with his father, a shoe salesman, who uses gruff-love and over-protectiveness – a father who relies on not only his sense of smell but a keen, sixth parental sense to deftly sniff-out where his son, Albert, has been and what he has been up to.

The way my father worried about me made me think I was dangerous.

Albert’s father is overly suspicious as well as thrifty: as if he’d been through World War II and had to conserve everything including words.

“Where?,” meaning, “Where have you been?”

And, “No Eddie,” meaning Albert is prohibited from seeing the older Eddie, whom Albert’s father considers a bad influence.

The story takes place during a time when doughnuts cost a dime, yet, Albert’s father is hard pressed to dole out a little spending money for his son, just as the boy in Joyce’s Araby, does not receive a shilling for the bazaar from his uncle until it is almost too late to go.

In Araby, both parents are apparently dead, so that the boy lives with his aunt and uncle, and possibly for this reason, Joyce’s Dublin boy has more freedom than Albert has. The boy is allowed to go to the bazaar and take the train to Araby by himself late at night – not as an errand but, conceivably, to have fun.

Theroux’s Albert rides the Boston train specifically to run errands for his father, but these chores across the city into its shadowy corners become a catalyst for discovering himself and learning more about his father. For Albert has learned that both he and his father have two sides.

Albert encounters a number of nefarious characters along the way and starts to feel as if he’s been running or “escaping” the whole way. When he finally reaches the warehouse of his father’s vendor, the man behind the counter is unfriendly,

He didn’t greet me or even comment.

There is an intense feeling of alienation. In the process of blindly and innocently exploring the city, Albert has embarked upon a personal odyssey leading to some profound revelation. As well in Araby, the boy rides the train to Araby amidst a palpable sense of isolation as he sits alone, oppressed by the crunch of the city. Then, once inside the bazaar, he also encounters an unfriendly and “not encouraging” welcome. The milieu of the bazaar has become dark and hushed, its tables mostly bare, its broad catacombs empty yet open to the night sky, and this is where Joyce leads up to his epiphany.

I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the center of the bazaar timidly.

Both boys linger at shops to look at or buy something and they both receive similar versions of indifference and contempt from the people there. Both say “No” when asked whether they want to buy anything from a selection of what now seems to be only meaningless objects. Still, amidst the harshness and shame, love or compassion seem to come exclusively from a parental figure or a neighborhood girl.

In Araby, and all of the Dubliners tales, Joyce is exquisite in a way that is rarely found in today’s literature. Yet, Theroux describes the provocative smells and anxt of the city more poetically as he treks deeper into the streets:

Now it was a summer afternoon of hot sidewalks and sharp smells and strangers, the air of the city thick with humidity under a heavy gray sky. It all stank pleasantly of wickedness, and if I’d known anything I would have recognized it as sensual.

This harkens to Araby and Joyce’s ash-pits of the back lanes that are “odorous” and damp and “filled with odours.” Joyce’s lyricism, alliteration and repetition have made every line of the Dubliners stories poetry, as with his alliteration in, “silent streets, dark, dripping gardens, and feeble lanterns,” and the sublime image of his love, the neighbor girl across the way: “The white curve of her neck,” is repeated twice in the tale and held in his mind as a holy image…

I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing.

Joyce infuses the boy’s infatuation for the girl with poetic, holy enchantment. Just thinking of her image under the light and brooding over the events that will lead up to seeing her again throw the boy into an existential crisis. He wanders through the house and murmurs “O love! O love!” in a kind of prayer.

The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.

The boy’s passion is so thoroughly described – the way it interferes with his usual life, which seemed now “child’s play,” that it is hard to believe he is only a boy. He mourns, “my eyes were often full of tears,” and, “Her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.” Indeed, he bares a chalice for his love, “safely through a throng of foes,” as he shops at the outdoor markets with his aunt.

Whereas Joyce’s boy in Araby is filled with passion for the neighborhood girl, Theroux’s Albert seems not to have reached such levels of fervor. Upon meeting Paige, Albert admits to being, “out of my depth.” He stands in Paige’s doorway, but she can’t see his face, as he is backlit by the sun – a sort of reversal to Joyce’s light from the lamppost illuminating Mangan’s sister.

Paige is described with admiration and the kind of sensuality that doesn’t quite know where it is leading. Her face is framed by wisps of hair as she works at an ironing board, and there is a lingering reminder of Mangan’s sister in Araby by the way Paige “bowed her head and went on ironing.”

With many parallels in the two stories: not least of which is in their settings, as in Action depicting “houses that all look alike along the hill,” reflecting the houses in Araby which “gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces,” Albert is actually more lonely than the boy in Araby. Albert has a rather dismal, secluded life living under the strictures of his father, while Joyce’s boy in Araby is not isolated until he falls in love. Before this he is part of a tribe of the neighborhood children. However, both reach a crisis point in which a crucial truth comes to light. Joyce seems to have invented it: the literary epiphany, where there is an unexpected, and often simple, sudden insight or revelation that ends the tale.


“Action” is included in Paul Theroux’s book of short stories, “Mr. Bones”


James Joyce’s “Dubliners” includes “Araby,” one of only three of the tales told in the first-person.

The Lady Vanishes on The Night Train to Darjeeling Limited Mashup


Over the weekend I watched Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” plus “Night Train To Munich,” and both these classic movies seemed to lead to Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited”. Finding similarities was as fun as trying to spot Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in his own films, as indeed there is near the end of “The Lady Vanishes”.

Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson are certainly Hitchcock fans and classic movie fans. Aside from the universal traveling-by-train theme, I was constantly delighted with a treasure trove of parallel vignettes. The beginning scenes in both “The Lady Vanishes” and “Darjeeling Limited” for example, take place in hotel rooms: Hitchcock’s zany, old world hotel scenes are a picturesque inkling to Anderson’s film-short, The Hotel Chevalier, the introduction to the main story of “Darjeeling Limited”: a man and woman ending up in the same room and the same bed. Of course, Anderson’s version is much more steamy and therefore quite a bit more exciting; although, Hitchcock’s classic mystery and suspense build up to plenty of thrills, once they’re all on the train,

Margaret Lockwood does resemble Natalie Portman, a bit, who plays Jason Schwartzman’s wild girlfriend in “Darjeelling Limited,” but Lockwood is distinctly British. She plays an alluring role in both of the older films. Lockwood was the quintessential, lovely, English brunette with soulful, penetrating eyes; a hidden weakness for romance and a biting wit. In “Night Train to Munich,” her leading man is Rex Harrison, a dashing and cheeky British Spy. I honestly did not realize that Rex Harrison was ever that young or handsome. The only other film in which I’ve ever seen him was “My Fair Lady,” where he is much older and rather curmudgeonly. But he has the same delightful, British cadences, which crackle like a schoolboy whose voice is changing.

I have yet to see Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” but I suspect this latest Anderson creation was also partly inspired by these two older films, with their snowy, foreign vistas and featured train motifs. Also, Anderson often presents us with his fondest actors and actresses time and again. As well, in these two older films, some of the same characters pop up, specifically the two British chaps, Charters and Caldicott. In “Night Train to Munich,” these two exceedingly English gents banter back and forth calling each other “old boy” as they travel together with an indifferent eye toward anything except cricket. They only want to get back to London and not be drawn into anything complicated, until… the Nazis start getting pushy.

The essential difference I see in these films lies in their thematic backdrop. Wes Anderson replaces the old World War tropes with his own signature touch, which is to say with his unique, loving portrayal of the story and its characters. Anderson does away with warfare hostilities and deals mainly in personal relationships, usually within a domestic, suburban setting, at least up to “The Darjeeling Limited,” where he begins to cross borders into ever more exotic lands but retains the essential feeling for the fragility in relationships while tenderly, and humorously, exposing the family dynamic.

The Darjeeling Limited

Night Train To Munich, cover illustration

Tolstoy’s Three Marriages

Grigory Grigorevich, 1890

Grigory Grigorevich, 1890

Leo Tolstoy’s original title for Anna Karenina was to be, Two Marriages, initially serialized between 1875 and 1877 in a Russian periodical. This first title, with its Shakespearean ring, might have been altered slightly to Three Marriages, for the story can be segmented into three key relationships.

The novel does not concentrate solely on Anna Karenina, as the title suggests, though Anna is unquestionably the most captivating character. Her marriage to Karenin, the marriage of Dolly and Oblonsky as well as the budding relationship between Levin and Kitty, which grows and matures with such beauty and sensitivity, are the three pivotal relationships that Tolstoy develops by weaving them together through interactions and near-associations that work in concert as an elaborate Russian dance.

The first chapter begins with the wearisome marriage of Oblonsky and Dolly, centering on the awkward and ridiculous, illicit affair carried out by Oblonsky, which Dolly, a strong woman, will not tolerate. She is not the kind of wife who will avert her eyes and look the other way, as many of the society women will do by compromising and finding lovers of their own. Next, Tolstoy introduces Levin. An idealistic man, he dreams of Kitty and wonders if he still has a chance with her. These are the beautiful scenes on ice with brightly rendered skaters circling as the couples meet within a dazzling milieu of sunshine and snow. Tolstoy gives Kitty and Levin deliciously restrained dialogue, and particular enchantment is given to Levin’s thoughts:

“Yes,” he thought, “now this is happiness! Together, she said let us skate together! Speak to her now? But that’s just why I’m afraid to speak – because I’m happy…”

Even at this early stage, Levin and Kitty strive to understand one another, and when Levin fears he has lost the thread in conversation, he panics inside:

“What’s wrong? I have offended her. Lord help me!”

With this stirring scene, the reader gains a kind of bond and trust in the two characters. We root for Levin and Kitty even through their lost hopes and their flaws.

Vronsky, on the other hand, never fully gains our trust. Right from the beginning, Tolstoy portrays him as questionable. Vronsky “had never had a real family life.” He did not love his mother. His mother was a wealthy society woman who later had “notorious” love affairs, while Vronsky was away being educated at a military school. He hardly remembered his father. Knowing this about Vronsky’s past, one naturally draws conclusions about his aversion to Anna’s son and complete, almost contemptuous denial of Anna’s marriage to Karenin and the sacredness of her family life. Vronsky pursues her and doggedly, almost fanatically, lures her away from the family lair.

Indeed, Tolstoy paints Vronsky as rather spoiled, privileged and vain:

“He had often before had this sense of physical joy in his own body, but he had never felt so fond of himself, of his own body, as at that moment.”

Yet, these sensations are brought about by Vronsky’s anticipation of seeing Anna.

“And as I go on, I love her more and more.”

Vronsky’s character is uniquely sensuous and not altogether wicked, but consistently surrounded by beauty – and beautiful himself:

“… the roofs of the houses shining in the rays of the setting sun, the sharp outlines of fences and angles of buildings, the figures of passers-by, the carriages that met him now and then, the motionless green of the trees and grass, the fields with evenly drawn furrows of potatoes, and the slanting shadows that fell from the houses, and trees … everything was bright like a pretty landscape just finished and freshly varnished.”

Vladimir Volosov, Russian Landscape, 2002

Vladimir Volosov, Russian Landscape, 2002

However, there is a vanity and an unnamable dread in the beauty of Vronsky. Froufrou, the name of Vronsky’s horse, is more than a little telling. In French, froufrou means swish, rustling, pomp, show. These meanings describe Anna, especially at the point when she and Vronsky meet: on the train and then at the magnificent Russian ball. Anna is beautifully dressed in a swishing, rustling gown surrounded by a show of pomp and aristocratic pageantry. What’s more, in English, froufrou implies something that is not taken very seriously, something ephemeral and not lasting. Vronsky himself shows signs of the latter meaning with regard to women. Originally, with Kitty when she feels so certain of his love for her, yet Vronsky, all the while, thinks nothing of Kitty once he leaves her side. For the reader, his reputation of fleeting romance stays, even as he appears to be devoted to Anna. We are never completely certain that his devotion is lasting.

Communication and misunderstanding are a driving theme here in relationships. Anna and Vronsky, despite their grand passion, never fully understand each other. There are great lapses in interpretation between what is said and what is heard. While Kitty and Levin, on the other hand, understand each other, often with only a look but also via long, tirelessly wrought conversation. Theirs is the lasting, spiritual relationship of a true marriage. Vronsky may love Anna, but regrettably he fails to express his love for her and she fails to believe in anything he says. They do understand one another through their bodies. However, verbal exchanges only get in their way, disfiguring their love to utter confusion. As when Anna tells Vronsky about having confessed their affair to her husband, Karenin. Vronsky’s response is actually quite chivalrous.

“‘Yes, yes, that’s better, a thousand times better! I know how painful it was,’ he said. But she was not listening to his words, she was reading his thoughts from the expression on his face. She could not guess that that expression arose from the first idea that presented itself to Vronsky – that a duel was now inevitable. The idea of a duel had never crossed her mind, and so she put a different interpretation on this stern expression.”

Ilya Repin, 1899

Ilya Repin, 1899

Time and again, Vronsky tells Anna that he loves her and wants to devote his life to her, but she simply will not believe him. She feels certain that she can read his thoughts and that he could never love her now that she is in such a humiliating “position”. Yet, the writer builds upon small horizons of hope throughout the story.

Tolstoy illustrates many contradictions such as these. Anna yearns for Vronsky’s love, while rejecting it; her pompous husband, Karenin appears harsh, even severe, at times, yet he embodies the Christian virtues of compassion and mercy, even with Anna, up to a point. Levin, who constantly searches for spirituality and meaning, stumbles into murky territory even in the simplest of situations. The entire story reaches for clarity, with religious perseverance, yet Tolstoy’s central characters are habitually tangled up in confusion and ambiguity.

Indeed, it seems that Tolstoy has painted Anna into a corner. She is a remarkably intelligent woman; however, she remains so troubled that she cannot reason lucidly nor even turn to God. Consequently, Anna has little choice, and the one choice she truly desires eludes her, because she deeply believes that Vronsky can’t possibly love her. The words “shame,” “hopeless,” and “disgrace” repeat themselves in her mind, and she feels these things not only in society and in her own household but also in the eyes of Vronsky. It’s as if Vronsky represents society itself. Their only chance would be to somehow escape the era in which they live.

Dolly presents another character altogether. A matronly woman, the perfect example of a good mother and wife, ultimately, her choices are either to forgive her husband for being free and promiscuous or to leave him. Still, leaving him is not a real option. Dolly entertains the idea in fantasies, but in reality, it would be no life for her in 19th Century Russia.

Conversely, the highly circumspect Levin, tortured with his incessant soul-searching and philosophical labyrinths to find the meaning of life, finally reaches his answers, first, through a mere peasant and this peasant’s uncomplicated answer; “To live for God and for the Soul” and secondly, through a higher Divinity while gazing up at the stars, which appear to be moving across the sky. The celestial illusion suddenly puts to rest all of Levin’s questions about religion. And a clear understanding is shared when Levin looks into the bright, incomparable eyes of his wife.

Anna Karenina is a brilliant, expansive novel with too many small, beautiful scenes and nuances to include in a blog post… or a film, for that matter. I have seen two film adaptations and both were not able to represent the tale fully, although, the 2012 version is spectacular. Keira Knightley portrays Anna wonderfully, and it was interesting to hear Knightley describe Anna as an “anti-heroine” rather than the heroine of the tale. Perhaps Anna could have changed her fate; however, the writer chose to make a statement about a woman and her position in relationships and in the world.

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, A Painting

anna karenina painting
Anna Karenina, a painting.

He knew she was there by the rapture and the terror that seized his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the opposite end of the rink. There was apparently nothing striking either in her dress or her attitude. But for Levin she was as easy to find in that crowd as a rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her. “Is it possible I can go over there on the ice, go up to her?” he thought. The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable, and there was one moment when he was almost retreating, so overwhelmed was he with terror. He had to make an effort to master himself, and to remind himself that people of all sorts were moving about her, and that he too might come there to skate. He walked down, for the long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking.

I am currently reading Anna Karenina and am already thoroughly swept away by the exquisite world of Leo Tolstoy. Russian literature, in general, has a deeply emotional effect on me, and Tolstoy, in particular, strikes a resonant chord with Anna Karenina.

The translation I am reading is by Constance Garnett from The Modern Library. Another excellent and more current translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky from Viking as well as other publishing houses. It would be interesting to compare translations.

Whether I continue with this version or another one, you can be sure, I will be writing a blog-post on this book as soon as I’m finished with it!

A Japanese Literary Masterpiece

The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman who served among the royal court in the tenth century Heian period in present day Kyoto. This fascinating tale, the length of Wuthering Heights and Dickens’ David Copperfield combined, is revered as the finest work of Japanese literature and indeed one of the world’s greatest novels. Written in the lyrical style exclusive to Japanese poetics and prose, The Tale Of Genji flows in its original form as uninterrupted poetry. English translation does alter the original with paragraph-breaks and punctuation, yet the tale was so well crafted that the integral feeling of beauty holds forth, delighting and inspiring us.

Murasaki Shikibu, who was brought into the royal court as a girl, wrote her story probably with a brush and ink in the exquisitely painted characters of the syllabary, or alphabet, which had been developed over time as intrinsically Japanese and therefore distinguishable from its derivative Chinese. The Tale of Genji was written at the height of Japanese literary excellence, when artistic brilliance was cherished throughout the country, and women in particular were known to be the greatest writers of poetry and prose. Moreover, to be gifted in poetics was revered as a supreme talent in the royal court and among society at large and remains so today.

Of Japanese poetry, the Japanese poet, Kino Tsurayuki, has said,

The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart.

The Tale Of Genji, a masterpiece of poetics, reads as something of a Siddhartha tale; although, Genji, unlike the young Buddha, experiences a number of pivotal romantic relationships on his journey rather than spiritual encounters: Siddhartha, the son of an emperor, chose to leave the sanctuary of the court and follow his own yearning to know the world and all of human suffering first hand. In Genji’s case, his father, the emperor, forces Genji out into the world to save his beloved son from the jealousies and intrigues of the court, where highly contentious political backbiting could, his father believed, kill a spirit of such divine charisma as Genji’s.

In the genre of courtly romance, the extraordinary infuses Genji’s environment even as a commoner living amidst a realm far from the royal court. Beauty and refinement are written into the flowers, trees and things of nature. Coming from a tradition of, not only Buddhism but, firstly, the Shinto religion, in which reverence for feminine nature-deities, as the sun, mountains and rivers, Murasaki draws from these nature-tropes to imbue her tale with a subtle, supernatural ambiance. Here, the various relationships of our chivalrous Genji include the poetry, symbolism and quiet eroticism of flowers. Cantillation, or the reading out loud of poems as declarations of love, describes Genji’s character while also exhibiting Murasaki’s rarified art of poetic verse. Genji learns through his adventures the poignancy and anguish of romantic love as well as that of death’s shadow.

The evening sky was serenely beautiful. The flowers below the veranda were withered, the songs of the insects were dying too, and autumn tints were coming over the maples. Looking out upon the scene, which might have been a painting, Ukon thought what a lovely asylum she had found herself. She wanted to avert her eyes at the thought of the house of the ‘evening faces.’ A pigeon called, somewhat discordantly, from a bamboo thicket. Remembering how the same call had frightened the girl in that deserted villa, Genji could see the little figure as if an apparition were there before him.

‘How old was she? She seemed so delicate, because she was not long for this world, I suppose.’

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter entitled Evening Faces. Other chapter titles include: Lavender, The Sacred Tree, Wisteria Leaves, Evening Mist, The Wizard, Beneath the Oak, and The Drake Fly. Within these wilderness motifs, Genji embarks on his romantic adventures. As an Orpheus hero, the prodigy evinces the nobility of his ancestry, knows something of its effects, but disavows any show of rightful hubris.

Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a low ranking nobleman and was recognized as a gifted writer with superior potential and was thereby invited to serve in the salon of a royal consort. Shikibu’s father preferred the education of boys, but he too saw his daughter’s genius and so allowed her to live outside of her home, inside the opulence of courtly-life. It was here, in these most ideal surroundings, for classical education and writing, that a tenth-century Japanese woman wrote the world’s first novel.

It has been observed that any English translation of The Tale of Genji loses much of the natural grace of the original, and this may be a metaphor for the Japanese culture at large: we as Westerners are captivated by its charm, find mystery and adoration in it’s artistry; yet, we can perhaps never fully appreciate the essential beauty of its enigmatic language.