Daigaku Z: The Greatest Story (for)Ever Told

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Around 1000 CE, Murasaki Shikibu wrote what most scholars of literature consider to be the first Japanese novel, Genji Monogatari (or The Tale of Genji). A massive doorstopper by today’s standards, the story is in fact unique in early Japanese literature because of its sheer length and prosaic format. Prior to Genji the most famous works were the Kojiki, the creation myth of Japan, and the Man’yoshu, a collection of poetry from the earliest times of the Japanese people. Both were short, poetic in form, and by and large written in a mishmash of Chinese and Japanese, owing to the nascent and scattershot importation of kanji into the island nation.

Genji, on the other hand, was written in chaptered installments, much like the Victorian-era “chapbook” publishing plans favored by Dickens and later experimented with by Stephen King for The Green Mile. Furthermore, the language used in Genji was, although arcane and peculiar to the Heian court, undeniably Japanese, allowing a full translation into modern Japanese to be undertaken some nine hundred years later. Even considering the rather groundbreaking aspects of the book, that such an important text in world literature was not even readable in anything approaching its original form by modern or classical audiences for almost a millennium meant that one could be forgiven for overlooking it… but only for so long.

Three English translations of The Tale of Genji exist, and each of them has their own flaws. Last semester’s course on how to better understand translated works, and to comparatively read them, was very influential in my decision to take on the book before actually enrolling in a class about it. While Pitt does offer a course on Japanese literature, that course uses an abridged version of Genji that clocks in at just under 400 pages. The full version of the text (in my case, the Tyler translation) is over 1100, for just the text of the novel alone; including footnotes, appendices, and other material it’s over 1300 pages. So, hooray for digital books, I guess.

When I put out the call for suggestions on which translation to read, a friend sent me a message to the effect of “I’m sorry you’re being forced to read that huge book”. I responded, of course, that it was my own decision, that of all things I was doing this for “fun”. It’s also worth mentioning that I picked up a digital copy of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms at the same time, as that particular novel has been on my list for a while; a different friend is an ardent scholar of that book, and has long advocated that people read it. If I’m going to be reading ancient books, I might as well go for the really big ones.

Still, even considering the massive undertaking of reading both of them, I feel fairly confident that I’ll manage it. I did, after all, plow through Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle over the course of a year, and that series is easily three times as long as Genji and infinitely more esoteric; unless there’s something I’m not aware of, that is, and Genji can top having a syphilitic maniac as a main character alongside Sir Isaac Newton as a mildly deranged alchemist. I’m betting it won’t, and that because of that it should be much easier to read. Almost by definition it would have to be.