This comment by Bathrobe (on the recent Hexabook post) linked to an interview so interesting I had to give it its own post: Hope Leman’s Interview with Michael Emmerich, Author of “The Tale of Genji.” I won’t quote the lengthy description of A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji (Nise Murasaki inaka Genji), because Bathrobe did so in that comment, which I urge everyone to read. Instead I’ll select some earlier bits and encourage you to click through to the whole interview:
You write, “Genji is literature that can only ever be read again.” What do you mean by that?
Certain works of literature are so famous and have been discussed so much, and cited so often in popular culture, that it is almost impossible to approach them without being quite strongly guided by certain expectations about what the work is like, or about how much it matters, or more to the point how much it has mattered.
To some extent, of course, we always have certain expectations about the books we read: knowing that a work belongs to a particular genre, for instance, changes the way in which we read it. I remember reading a book by Donald Barthelme for a class as an undergraduate, and being stunned to learn that one of the students in my discussion section had ended up with a sort of freak copy – halfway through, the novel’s pages had gotten mixed up with the pages of a cowboy novel. Presumably there had been some kind of accident at the bindery. The thing that really impressed me, though, was that the woman who had this copy didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with it – she just assumed the sudden switch was more of Barthelme’s postmodern weirdness. […]
This is a fascinating passage, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” Could you elaborate? What do you mean, for instance, by “non-readership?”
This goes along with the notion that particularly famous books, books that occupy a preeminent place in a particular literary canon, can only ever be read again. Even people who have never read Hamlet, for instance, may well be familiar with certain phrases from the script or images from film versions. These people, non-readers of Hamlet, nonetheless participate in what has conventionally been called the play’s “reception.” Hamlet can be thought of, then, as a sort of node that connects people all around the globe who have very different takes on or images of the play or its characters, and are even reading or watching it (if they are reading or watching it) in translations into different languages. In 1875, the popular Japanese writer Kanagaki Robun began serializing a version called “Western Kabuki Hamlet” (Seiyō kabuki hamuretto). Very few people in the U.S. have any idea that this soon-aborted translation ever existed, but as one version of Hamlet, it can still be thought of as contributing to the creation of a sort of community centered on the play. Its readers knew Hamlet, readers today know Hamlet. But the Hamlets these two groups knew or know are not the same. The community of Hamlet’s readers is linked by something they do not share.
And I heartily agree with him that “it’s much less interesting and instructive to talk in abstract terms about this issue than it is to actually dig into the specific history of the replacement of a particular work”:
My instincts tell me that the sort of story I tell about The Tale of Genji in my book isn’t at all uncommon – indeed, David Damrosch has noted a wonderful irony in his book What Is World Literature: Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, which recounts Goethe’s coinage of the term Weltliteratur (world literature) in 1827, is itself “an interesting example of a work that only achieves an effective presence in its country of origin after it has already entered world literature; in a movement that would hardly have surprised Goethe, the book’s reception abroad set the stage for its subsequent revival at home” (32).
Emmerich’s book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature sounds so interesting (and gorgeously produced, with many illustrations from Nise Murasaki inaka Genji) that I’ve added it to my Amazon wishlist. (M. A. Orthofer has a pretty detailed discussion of it at The Complete Review, which points out that in Japan itself “the Genji monogatari-as-we(and especially the Japanese)-now-know-it really only finally crystallized in Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s translation into modern Japanese — Tanizaki being one of the two writers Akutagawa cited [in 1927] as having actually read the book.”)