Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The voices of the nameless women

New Year’s Eve is on us. Just time to salute Murasaki Shikibu in her jubilee year of 2008.

Who was she? We really don’t know. She wrote an extraordinary book, The Tale of Genji, with a cast of 400 characters who evolve and age in step with each other over 1100 pages of the English translation, with insight so deep and emotional intensity so believable that in the end you feel familiar with a world completely alien to ours: that of the court of Heian era Japan, in the early eleventh century. Even if you have to read the work in English as I do, the communication feels immediate.

It’s a world where everything takes place behind paper screens, far too slight for privacy, but more than enough to cast shadows and maintain mystery. Women wait in the half light for men to come to them from their lives of action. Emotions remain half-expressed and motives confused. Although so much is concealed huge effort is devoted to protecting, usually unsuccessfully, reputations based on the little that is visible.

That’s the book. What about the writer? She may have been Fujiwara Takako but that’s speculation. At the time, it was regarded as impolite to use people’s names openly. Even in the novel, the male protagonist is referred to only by the surname he’s given, Genji, while the leading female character is called after purple wisteria, Murasaki, with which she’s associated in a poem.

Murasaki Shikibu’s diary contains an entry for 1008 in which an officer seeing her and realising she is the author of the Tale of Genji says ‘I think Lady Murasaki must be somewhere here!’. She comments ‘I listened, thinking, “How can she be here in a place where there is no such graceful person as Prince Genji?”’ The officer was trying to be clever; her silent put down is to compare him unfavourably with her shining Prince. But to others she was already the Lady Murasaki, after her own character. As for Shikibu, that’s a title which had been held by her father. So she’s known by a former title of her father’s and the nickname – not the name, which is unknown – of one of her characters.

It’s that diary entry that made 2008 the millennium year of the book, since it was clearly known by then. But that doesn’t mean that it might not have been available earlier.

Murasaki’s father did her the great favour of giving her a boy’s education. Culture was the preserve of men and culture was Chinese, not Japanese. Murasaki’s book is in Japanese, the language of trivial, frivolous writing, suitable for women, but she had learned her skills in the language of intellect. A similar phenomenon took place in the West: three centuries after Murasaki, Boccaccio wrote his remarkable collection of short stories, The Decameron, in his native Italian claiming that this was appropriate in a lightweight work intended for the entertainment of women: again, everyday language is linked with women. His serious work was in Latin. The Decameron continues to be read by millions, the Latin works by a handful of academics. Similarly, the ‘great’ Chinese poetry of the Heian period is the subject only of weighty erudition, whereas the Genji continues to be read by many: there are even three English translations available.

Murasaki isn’t the only woman writer of the period. Her rival Sei Shonagon left us her Pillow Book which is widely read both in Japan and in the West. She may have been Kiyohara Nagiko but again that’s speculation. ‘Sei’ is a clan name and ‘Shonagon’ a title, though who held it we don’t actually know (except that it was presumably a man). She is more outgoing than the reserved and gentle Murasaki, much more open both about her loves and about her intellect: she makes no secret of having mastered Chinese as well as any man. Through gossip, insight and wry observation, she again talks to us directly down the ten centuries between us.

A little later, the Sarashina Diary gives us a portrait full of wistfulness of a woman who spent her life in aspiration and hope but for whom joy was muted by loss or disappointment. One unqualified joy was the gift from her aunt of a complete copy of The Tale of Genji. This nameless writer was Takasue no Musume – the daughter of Takasue.

The much earlier Kagero Diary, often translated as The Gossamer Years, is by Michitsuna no Haha, the mother of Michitsuna, defined by her son as the Sarashina lady is defined by her father. She was apparently one of the great beauties of her age, and felt that such beauty entitled her to a glittering destiny. She indeed married Fujiwara no Kaneie who later became Regent of Japan, but she was a secondary wife only. She spent most of her time at home, only seeking relief in later life with an increasing number of pilgrimages to monasteries. Shut indoors she waited for Kaneie who seldom came – indeed, what came much more often was news of his dalliances with other women. The sense of claustrophobia is oppressive. It’s also hard not to sympathise with her railings against the frustrations of her existence but just as hard not to feel put off by the arrogance she betrays and her intolerance towards others. The frankness of her self-portrait, with its defects as well as its strengths, is breathtaking.

2008 was the official millennium of The Tale of Genji, whether it was really the thousandth year since its publication or not. As the year slips away tonight, I’ll raise a glass to Murasaki Shikibu, to Sei Shonagon, to the daughter of Takasue and to the mother of Michitsuna, to all those nameless women whose gentle voices sing to us still today.

And wish all my friends, including the ones I haven't yet met, a happy 2009.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

Aw, very touching. I'm impressed you got all the way through the book (or did you not, but are pretending for the sake of the blog?). Happy new year to you too