by Brenda Roger
I have recently embarked on the adventure of writing labels for an art exhibit. I’m attempting to learn what a curatorial assistant does, so that I can pretend to be one for three months while a real one is on maternity leave. The topic of my first adventure in label writing --Japanese woodblock prints of characters from Noh theater. Oh crumps, as my grandmother would say. I know nothing about that! This will require research and reading and learning to pronounce Japanese words. Yikes! Yinz, know I’m from here. I can’t say or even remember Japanese words. Ok. Deep breaths. When in doubt, read.
As is usually the case, during my reading for the new exhibit, I found out something fascinating that relates to one of my many personal interests. Some of the Noh plays are based on stories or characters from what is considered the first novel ever written! The book is called Tale of Genji, and both its author and its historical context are fascinating.
Tale of Genji is a large work. It consists of fifty-four chapters and when translated into English is over a thousand pages. (How long is War and Peace? I’ve blocked it out). Tale of Genji was written in the early part of the 11th century by a Japanese noblewoman named Murasaki Shikibu. She was a bit unconventional in that she was raised by her father and was educated like a male.
The historical context of Tale of Genji is what I find most fascinating. Apparently, an upper class Japanese woman was to be seen by only two men during her lifetime –her father and her husband. She literally spent her time closed up in her rooms, sitting behind a screen or peeking out of a crack in her carriage on her way to the temple. Take a moment to imagine that existence. Then imagine you get your hands on a book that contains romance, travel, the supernatural and an ideal hero. I don’t know about you, but I would devour it. Diaries from the time indicate that the upper class female audience in 11th century Japan agreed that there had never been anything like it.
Tale of Genji has a key element that makes a book successful. The author knew her audience. Is today’s book market really any more complex than that? What do you think?