Tag Archives: women’s lit

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.

The Irresistible Short Stories of Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin, (sho-pan), was a master short story writer. She was a natural who, like most women of her time, had no formal training in the craft of writing. Equipped with just a French, Catholic school education in St. Louis and many interesting experiences in French Louisiana, Chopin taught herself to write with only her natural talent and the influences of Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola and Walt Whitman, her favorite contemporary writers.

But Chopin developed an alluring style all her own. Indeed, the shortest of her numerous stories seem to end too quickly; many of these shorter works are about three pages long in hardcover – ending often with the milieu of a very personal, spiritual revelation. Thus, the reader wants more of the story and more of the characters; they linger, like music, creating a delicious surround-sound of Chopin’s writing-voice.

Her characters are vivid with life and personality, namely that of the Cajun and Creole people of French populated Louisiana; although, this locale is not always obvious. An Egyptian Cigarette, told in the first person, is a tale, which could take place almost anywhere, about a woman who smokes an exotic cigarette given to her by an architect friend who travels. Chopin renders sweet, sumptuous details – as in the very box containing the cigarettes: covered with glazed, yellow paper – you want to touch the paper and feel its crinkly texture – and to hold between your fingers the tobacco of the same golden color.

The woman gets high from the cigarette and has a disturbing “dream” told in intricate, burning detail. Her induced vision seems to reveal the promise of more hidden encounters, yet she snatches up the remaining cigarettes.

I walked to the window and spread my palms wide. The light breeze caught up the golden threads and bore them writhing and dancing far out among the maple leaves.

Chopin is not bogged down by scene-changes; she shifts from one event, or timeframe, to the next as easily as gliding out of a room. Plots and characters vary, so that one story will be verdant with Southern vernacular while the next will ring with Ivy-League pomp and English suspense.

When you meet Pauline this morning she will be charming; she will be quite the most attractive woman in the room and the only one worthy of your attention…

So begins, A Mental Suggestion, a short, suspenseful love-story – about nine pages long in hardcover. The main character is a young professor of psychology, Don Graham, whose primary, scientific interest is in mental suggestion. Chopin’s setting is rife with lush maple trees, green lawns and sprawling tennis clubs. Graham decides to test his mental suggestion theories on two of his friends who have no interest in each other, and the professor’s experiment works brilliantly, causing the couple to fall in love and thereby giving Graham a huge ego boost. But, when his friends decide to get married, the professor worries and obsesses over how long his ‘spell’ will last. So he resolves to break the spell in order to test their love.

This is where Chopin’s skills of suspense come in. Like an all-powerful god or Cupid, Graham works his counter-mental suggestions in the cozy living room of his friend, Faverham, the newly wed husband – as rain dashes the window outside.

…the two forces, love, and the imperative suggestion had waged a short, fierce conflict within the man’s subconsciousness, and love had triumphed.

Hence, for once, Chopin allows love to overcome the dark intimation of doubt.

Desiree’s Baby might be the most well known of Chopin’s short stories, having been in the literary canon of most high school and college English curriculums. It is a brief, exquisitely told tale concerning the country’s racial past, particularly in the South. Beauty pervades Chopin’s story in these lush, Southern surroundings and in the lovely, innocent Desiree. However, the ugliness of racism becomes the driving theme, and the final loathsome truth of slavery and deep seeded racism arrives at the very end of the story.

The Storm is one of Chopin’s more erotic short stories. Like her novel, The Awakening, which was criticized and rejected by society at the time, The Storm is filled with the secret desires of married women and men who are in a turmoil of feelings that can’t be expressed verbally. These stories are delightfully rich with a colorful mixture of people and languages: the Patios, a fusion of either Spanish or French plus the dialect of the region; Creole people who were born in Louisiana but were of French or French-Canadian ancestry; the blacks and Indians of Louisiana and always the presence of children.