The Tale of Genji

by Lady Murasaki. Translated by Arthur Waley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1925. 8vo. ix+291 pp. $3.00.
THE prospect of a ‘six-decker’ novel might well seem formidable to the reader, much more to the translator, yet few will question the value of the service which Mr. Arthur Waley has performed in translating the first volume of The Tale of Genji. The author of this novel, the Lady Murasaki. who was born about 978 A.D. and became a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko in 1005, had written at least part of the tale by 1008. Her hero, Genji, was the son of the Emperor by a well-beloved but secondary wife, and the story of his amorous adventures brings to light the cultivated and sophisticated society of the time. Elegant ladies and gentlemen exchange their poetic efforts and live in an atmosphere of wit and fashion. The roving fancy of the Prince leads him into a succession of escapades with ladies of high and low degree, but whether he is reading the ‘unpleasant jangle of syllables’ masquerading as a poem from a plain princess, whose ‘amazingly prominent’ nose is most unbecomingly tipped with pink, or pursuing some dazzling beauty of the people, his debonair air never deserts him. It is a day when all things Chinese are dominating fashion. He who would pass muster as a cultivated man must be able to turn a Chinese poem in a Chinese hand and comport himself with Chinese manners. When in defiance of social usage he adopts a little girl, Murasaki, he good-naturedly gives way to the unfashionable ideas of her grandmother and does not insist on having the child’s teeth blackened.
Indeed, the Lady Murasaki and her characters are amazingly modern. It is simply an accident of history that they live in Japan among the furniture and adornments of the East. Translate the tinted writing-paper and brush pens, the screens and veils, the coaches and outriders, into terms of the modern West, and the essential life of the story is in no way affected. The little Murasaki even has ‘a doll’s kitchen only three feet high but fitted out with all the proper utensils’ just as any little girl of to-day. Nor is the Emperor free from modern prejudices, for the sight of his son at the age of four months merely draws from him the remark that he ‘had an idea that handsome children were all very much alike at that age.’ With sure touches the Lady Murasaki can depict the pathos of an old nun, and the simplicity of a child. Her humor is discreet and subtle and her satire certain and effective.
Mr. Waley is to be congratulated on his translation, which has succeeded in bringing the life and spirit of the East one thousand years ago into the West of to-day. We trust that this is merely the beginning of a sumptuous feast.