As Smoke I Shall Rise Uncertainly to the Heavens – Tale of Genji, Part 4

For the Literati Corner 2016, I have been reading The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shibiku as part of a year-long reading program – details are in my Literati Corner Guide for 2016, please see the menu bar at the top of the page for the Literati Corner page where assignments and questions will be posted for the year.

We begin this post with chapter 35, “New Herbs: Part Two,” which continues the storyline of the Third Princess.  The chapter kicks off with an archery competition at the Rokujō house with Kashiwagi and Yūgiri in attendance.  Kashiwagi is obsessively plotting to steal the Third Princess’ cat to ease his upset after losing her to Genji.  When he visits the crown prince, it turns out the royal cat has just had a litter of kittens, and that interests him as well as upsets him further, reminding him of the Third Princess.   Kashiwagi inquires of the crown prince, who makes arrangements to have his sister’s cat – his sister is the Third Princess – delivered to Kashiwagi to admire.  Kashiwagi asks to keep the cat a short while when he visits the crown prince again and is given permission.  He is delighted with it and doesn’t return it no matter how insistently the crown prince asks.  This is quite a delightful passage to read.

This chapter also looks at the troubles of another losing bachelor, Prince Hotaru.  A widower, he is disappointed that his new wife, Makibashira daughter of Higekuro, doesn’t look just like his deceased wife, so he doesn’t visit her much, which upsets her relatives.

The emperor abdicates at last, and a whole host of successions are named.  Most shocking of all is that Genji’s favorite wife Murasaki wants to become a nun!  Genji doesn’t give her permission but goes on a pilgrimage to fulfill the vows the Akashi wife’s monk father had written for him to perform.  This time he insists that Murasaki should go with him, and they end up leading a huge procession of dancers and musicians to the coast.  At this point in the story Yūgiri finally lets Genji see his grandchildren.

Genji also visits with the Suzaku Emperor, who is now approaching age 50, and this becomes an opportunity for both men to teach the Third Princess the koto.  They arrange a concert at Genji’s house:

The sliding doors were removed and the several groups separated from one another by curtains. A cushion had been set out for Genji himself at the very center of the assembly. Out near the veranda were two little boys charged with setting the pitch, Tamakazura’s elder son on the shō pipes and Yūgiri’s eldest on the flute. Genji’s ladies were behind blinds with their much-prized instruments set out before them in fine indigo covers, a lute for the Akashi lady, a Japanese koto for Murasaki, a thirteen-stringed Chinese koto for the Akashi princess. Worried lest the Third Princess seem inadequate, Genji himself tuned her seven-stringed koto for her.

“The thirteen-stringed koto holds its pitch on the whole well enough,” he said, “but the bridges have a way of slipping in the middle of a concert. Ladies do not always get the strings as tight as they should. Maybe we should summon Yūgiri. Our pipers are rather young, and they may not be quite firm enough about bringing things to order.”

Yūgiri’s arrival put the ladies on their mettle. With the single exception of the Akashi lady they were all Genji’s own treasured pupils. He hoped that they would not shame him before his son. He had no fears about the Akashi princess, whose koto had often enough joined others in His Majesty’s own presence. It was the Japanese koto that was most likely to cause trouble. He felt for Murasaki, whose responsibility it would be. Though it is a rather simple instrument, everything about it is fluid and indefinite, and there are no clear guides. All the instruments of spring were here assembled. It would be a great pity if any of them struck a sour note. (Chapter 35)

During another conversation with Murasaki about becoming a nun, which he again rejects out of hand, he reviews a few of his collection of ladies and their good points and bad points.  Then he goes to spend the night with the Third Princess.  Murasaki seems to be unhappy with his absence:

As always when he was away, Murasaki had her women read stories to her. In the old stories that were supposed to tell what went on in the world, there were men with amorous ways and women who had affairs with them, but it seemed to be the rule that in the end the man settled down with one woman. Why should Murasaki herself live in such uncertainty? No doubt, as Genji had said, she had been unusually fortunate. But were the ache and the scarcely endurable sense of deprivation to be with her to the end? She had much to think about and went to bed very late, and towards daylight she was seized with violent chest pains. Her women were immediately at her side. Should they call Genji? Quite out of the question, she replied. Presently it was daylight. She was running a high fever and still in very great pain. No one had gone for Genji. Then a message came from the Akashi princess and she was informed of Murasaki’s illness, and in great trepidation sent word to Genji. He immediately returned to Murasaki’s wing of the house, to find her still in great pain. (Chapter 35)

This begins Murasaki’s long illness at age 37 which gains her Genji’s full attention as prayers and services are given for her.  Everyone expects Genji to become a monk and retire from the world upon her death, and the entire city is wild with anxiety over her illness.  She improves and then has a relapse quite a few times.

Then the story turns back to Kashiwagi, who finally married the Second Princess of the Suzaku Emperor and has become a confidant of whichever emperor is on the throne.  He really wanted to marry his wife’s sister the Third Princess that Genji married, however, so he develops a relationship with one of her maids to get close to her.  Genji has too many women to spend much time with the Third Princess, and Kashiwagi sees an opportunity in his neglect, though her maid thinks Kashiwagi is just being greedy to want two princesses when he already has one as his wife.  He finally convinces her maid, and he gets his chance at the Kamo festival.  But when he approaches her bed, she realizes he isn’t Genji and is terrified.  He falls asleep, dreams of his beloved cat, while the Third Princess feels her loyalty to Genji will be questioned.  After some awkwardness, the realization that she isn’t interested in him makes him run to his father’s house, fearful that someone will discover what he has done.  Genji is called when the Third Princess falls ill; he has been spending all of his time with Murasaki in her illness and rushes to see what is the matter with the Third Princess.   The Second Princess, meanwhile, feels abandoned by everyone and rejected by her husband in spite of her beauty and accomplishments.  He is more interested in her sister than in her.

Genji is very distraught over Murasaki’s illness, which strongly parallels his first wife Aoi’s illness and death.  They call a medium to speak for the evil spirit bringing the illness upon Murasaki, and the spirit demands a meeting with Genji!  There is a suggestion that it is again the spirit of Lady Rokujō.  Genji agrees for Murasaki to take token vows to become a nun as she requested before she fell ill.  She recovers, and Genji has a little time to visit the Third Princess, but he finds a love letter Kashiwagi sent to her and reads it while she is asleep.  Quite hypocritically, Genji considers Kashiwagi’s behavior worse than seducing one of the Emperor’s women, which Genji himself had done upon more than one occasion even to his own father!  (This is why the Chinese and Koreans had palace eunuchs incidentally.) It also irritates him that she has distracted him from his true love, Murasaki.  When Kashiwagi finds out about the Third Princess’ carelessness, it kills his desire for her, too, though it doesn’t really matter since she is pregnant.  Finally, an awkward party at Genji’s mansion brings him face to face with his rival, Kashiwagi, who mysteriously falls deathly ill and leaves the party for his parents’ house.

In chapter 36, “The Oak Tree,” Kashiwagi’s condition doesn’t improve, and he tries to write the Third Princess of his misery again and see her before he dies.  His family gets a group of monks to come who determine that Kashiwagi’s problem is that the spirit of a jealous woman has taken possession of him.  (I would have guessed it should have been Genji’s jealous spirit, but this is Heian Era Japan after all.)  The Third Princess gives birth to a child that Genji fears may look like Kashiwagi because of the affair, and he reflects on karma, probably referring to his own concerns about Fujitsubo’s child resembling him so much it would reveal to the court that the boy wasn’t the Emperor’s child.  Genji remains cold toward the child and the Third Princess because of his suspicions.  When her father the Suzaku Emperor comes for a visit during the night, she takes her vows to become a nun with Genji’s blessing.  Kashiwagi dies, and Genji does determine after the child gets a little older that he is indeed Kashiwagi’s rather than Genji’s because of the strong resemblance.

I thought the next chapter, “The Flute,” was interesting for its focus on drooling and vomiting children.  There are all kinds of toddlers running around in just about every scene.  Genji watches the Third Princess’ little boy for a time, and Yūgiri returns to a houseful of children after visiting the Second Princess’ very oppressive and quiet manor.  Both of them spend some time with the toddler royal grandchildren visiting Genji.   While he’s there, Yūgiri notices the Third Princess’ child resembles his best friend Kashiwagi and is suspicious, intending to investigate and notify Kashiwagi’s father, Tō no Chūjō.  He tries probing Genji for the truth but doesn’t get a definitive answer.

In chapter 38, “The Bell Cricket,” we see the elaborate ceremony of the dedication for the conversion of the Third Princess’ bedroom as a chapel.  Genji talks with Lady Rokujō’s daughter Akikonomu about her mother’s troubled spirit.

Chapter 39, “Evening Mist,” has Yūgiri remaining attentive to Kashiwagi’s widow the Second Princess, though she does not seem open to receiving suitors.  Therefore, Yūgiri masks his true intentions when he visits.  His wife Kumoinokari has already become suspicious of his attentions to the Second Princess and watches the developments from afar.  A change in location makes him bold enough to tip his hand to the Second Princess, and he corners her so she can no longer avoid seeing him in her chambers by demanding she take him to the monk staying with them to pray for her demon-haunted mother.  After some discussion, he retreats.  The Second Princess agonizes over whether to tell her sick mother what happened, but the priest had sharp eyes and saw Yūgiri leave in the morning and asks her mother directly about the love affair.  This sets off a drama between the Second Princess’ mother, Yūgiri and Kumoinokari with some scuffle over a note from the old lady in response to news of his interest in the Second Princess.  When the old lady dies assuming Yūgiri has brought trouble down on her daughter, the Second Princess is despondent and is ready to follow her mother in her grief.  Upon hearing of the old lady’s death, Yūgiri goes to attend the funeral.

A lot of controversy follows regarding the Second Princess’ fate and Yūgiri’s interest in her. Yūgiri pursues the affair, which causes Kumoinokari and all of her daughters to leave their home and desert all of their male children to return to her father’s house.  He is unable to convince his wife to return.  This was the first time he ever had a real affair, quite in contrast to his father Genji, and he reflects on what he has done by starting the affair after being happily married for so long:

Lying down among the children, he surveyed the confusion he had managed to create in both houses. The Second Princess must be utterly bewildered. What man in his right mind could think these affairs interesting or amusing? He had had enough of them. (Chapter 39)

Chapter 40, “The Rites,” has Murasaki recovering from her illness a little but still coming closer to death.  Both she and Genji ponder whether they should take holy vows and what their final separation will be like.  The Empress comes to visit with one of her children Niou, and they spend some time with Murasaki, who dies shortly afterward.  Genji arranges memorial services for her.

In chapter 41, “The Wizard,” Genji takes the time to reflect back on his relationship with Murasaki and his behavior.  Time has given him a different perspective on his earlier affairs:

He would remember, now that romantic affairs meant so little to him, how hurt Murasaki had been by involvements of no importance at all. Why had he permitted himself even the trivial sort of dalliance for which he had felt no need to apologize? Murasaki had been too astute not to guess his real intentions; and yet, though she had been quick to recover from fits of jealousy which were never violent in any event, the fact was that she had suffered. (Chapter 41)

He receives some visitors but is quite bleak company.  Reminiscing with many of the women, he considers once again taking holy vows at last.  A year passes.  He finally gives his attendants old letters, including some from Murasaki, to destroy as he is about to renounce the world.

Chapter 42, “His Perfumed Highness,” begins with the sentence: The shining Genji was dead….  News of his death is very briefly given, then the story turns entirely to the younger generation, particularly Niou and Kaoru.  Yūgiri sets about reordering both of Genji’s household so they don’t fall into ruin.  The Reizei Emperor dotes on the Third Princess’ son with Kashiwagi, Kaoru, who has some mysterious scent of incense that follows him and irritates him by drawing people’s attention.  His chief rival is Niou, one of the royal grandchildren raised by Murasaki.  The two compete with one another and spend time together; Kaoru helps Niou try to get the attention of the Reizei Emperor’s daughter once she catches his eye.  Yūgiri also tries his hand at matchmaking with the two young men.

The last chapter we will look at this time, chapter 43, “The Rose Plum,” switches to a new character I don’t recall reading about earlier, Kōbai, who is Tō no Chūjō’s oldest son and Kashiwagi’s older brother.  This chapter details his matchmaking of his daughters to high court officials.  For his second daughter he sets his sights on Niou for a potential husband.  The courtship begins slowly, and Niou isn’t excited about the prospect, instead continuing to pursue the princess he had set his heart on.  The princess for her part can hardly believe he is seriously considering her given her comparative disadvantages politically.

We’ll pick up the story at this point next time.

Part four of a six part series.


About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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