My copy of Arthur Waley’s translation of the Tale of Genji is the single-volume Modern Library Edition from 1960 and it’s falling apart. I’m teaching it this semester so I was poking around on abebooks.com the other day looking for a used copy in better shape. Waley’s translation originally appeared in six volumes, released between 1925 and 1933 and just for fun, I thought I would check to see if any of the first editions were for sale. When I typed in “Wreath of Cloud,” the title of the third volume which appeared in 1927, the most expensive item listed was not a first edition but a typewritten manuscript of a review of that volume by the novelist Anne Douglas Sedgwick.

The bookseller included a tantalizing scan of the first page of the review, which began, “In A Wreath of Cloud Mr Arthur Waley gives us the third volume of his marvellous, his magical translation. Is it Murasaki who inspires him or he who sustains her? Which gains the most from the transfusion?”  In the scan you could see a burn mark in the middle of the page that looked like it had been made by a candle or a cigarette lighter.  In the fourth line, the word “tranquilly” had been crossed out and replaced with “blandly” to avoid redundancy with the phrase “diffused, tranquil gaiety” that appeared later in the same sentence. The bookseller noted that the review was published in an obscure modernist journal called The Bermondsey Book that ran from 1923 to 1930. I figured I could track it down at the library. But a quick search revealed that it would not be all that easy to find. Princeton is the sole US library that has the journal, but I couldn’t find an index of the contents.  I could find no mention of the review on the internet or in any of my books on the Genji. The Modernist Magazines Project has archived a scan of a single issue of The Bermondsey Book from 1928-29, but Sedgwick’s review is not in this issue.

Even if I could find the printed version of the review in a library somewhere, it would not have the burn mark and the handwrittten corrections, traces of the writer sitting at her desk a century ago. My thoughts kept returning to the manuscript over the next week, until I woke up one day and thought, “Of course I have to own it!”  So I bought it for one hundred dollars.

By the time the manuscript arrived from Los Angeles, the package having been delayed many weeks by the pandemic, I had almost forgotten about it.  Then one day I came back from a jog to find a large flat object hanging off the end of our mailbox. Our mail delivery person had attached it there with a rubber band. It was starting to rain. I brought the package in, opened it, and took Sedgwick’s manuscript out of its plastic sleeve.  The paper was of very high quality and the last two pages were stamped on the back with what looked like the name of an English estate:

Far End,

Kingham,

Oxon.

I flipped the pages over and started to read.

Sedgwick begins by providing some comparisons so that her English readers can start to imagine just what kind of book the Tale of Genji is. Murasaki Shikibu, she writes, is like Jane Austen in her “preoccupation with the detail of human activity and human inconsistency.” The Genji’s “long, undulating pattern, so fluent, so unobtrusive,” is like Proust. But the writer that Murasaki resembles most, according to Sedgwick, is the French memoirist the Duc de Saint-Simon, who wrote forty volumes of lively memoirs about the court of Louis XIV. Both Murasaki and Saint-Simon, Sedgwick writes,  take us “into the very heart of the exotic, exquisite, cruel and competitive life of a court.” [1]  Whereas Saint-Simon’s work is “dyed with vehemence and personal rancor,” Murasaki’s is “lifted to [a] realm of classic contemplation.” And yet her “sly, soft pinches of irony are perhaps as deadly in effect as his rapier thrusts.”

The comparisons were spot on and beautifully phrased. This was the work of a writer at the height of her powers reading Genji with the sensibility of a novelist.  I wanted know more about Anne Douglas Sedgwick so I did a little research. She was born in 1873 in New Jersey but moved to England with her family when she was nine years old and stayed there for the rest of her life. She had a string of twenty successful novels from 1912 to 1929. But now she is largely forgotten. The only scholarship I could find on her was a short biographical essay and summaries of a few of her novels in a book called The Women Who Make Our Novels, published in 1928. Summing up her style at one point, the author, Grant Overton, writes that Sedgwick “turns her people inside out like gloves—and she does it slowly, delicately, sympathetically, without hurting them, without their splitting along the seams.”[2] One could say the same about Murasaki Shikibu, which may explain why Sedgwick so appreciated Murasaki’s “sly, soft pinches of irony.”

For women writing in English in the 1920s, the sudden appearance of a major work by a woman written a thousand years before must have been astonishing. When Virginia Woolf reviewed Waley’s translation for British Vogue in July of 1925 she admired the “unabated fertility [with which] story after story flow[ed] from the brush of Murasaki,” all while Europeans were still “fighting or squatting in their huts.” She also made a point of noting that while the novel’s protagonist Prince Genji is a man,  “Lady Murasaki, being herself a woman, naturally chose the medium of other women’s minds” to describe him.” Listing the major female characters who appear in the early chapters, she continues, “Aoi, Asagao, Fujitsubo, Murasaki, Yugao, Suetsumuhana, the beautiful, the red-nosed, the cold, the passionate—one after another they turn their clear or freakish light upon the gay young man at the center.” [3]

Every time I read that list of Genji heroines in Woolf’s review, I experience a little thrill at the thought that these names passed through her great brain, and I’m reminded of Valerie Henitiuk’s counterfactual fantasy that Woolf herself would have been an ideal translator of Murasaki’s work if only she had known Japanese.[4] Of course Woolf did not know Japanese, and it’s wonder enough that she even found Waley’s translation. In fact she might never have found it had she not known Waley personally.  [5]

The critic and editor Raymond Mortimer, another acquaintance of Waley’s, had published the very first review of the translation in English a month before Woolf’s review, on June 20, 1925, in The Nation & The Atheneum, where Woolf’s husband Leonard served as the literary editor. Mortimer began his piece by putting the Genji on his own list of the world’s twelve greatest novels alongside such works as La Princesse de Clèves, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, L’Éducation Sentimentale, and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.  In The Tale of Genji,  he wrote, “almost all of the qualities which the European novel has been slowly gathering through the three-hundred years of its existence are here already.”  Chief among these qualities for Mortimer was the representation of psychological interiority. As he wrote, with great precision and perceptiveness, “[Murasaki] describes the state of mind of her characters when faced with the possibility of an event, and the state of mind resulting from it; but the description of the event itself is dispatched in a few sentences or written only between the lines.” Hers was a book in which “people are always wondering what impression they are making and what is going on in other people’s minds.” Showing a profound understanding of “how the image of the beloved is created by the lovers imagination” the Tale of Genji, for Mortimer, was the product of a  sensibility “uncannily like our own.” He loved it so much that he read it twice.[6]

Aside from its uncannily modernist focus on the characters’ interiority, Mortimer appreciated what he saw as the relative lack of sexual repression in the Genji. Mortimer was gay, and as he read Murasaki’s tale, he was in a relationship with Harold Nicolson, the husband of Vita Sackville West, who was herself having an affair with Virginia Woolf. It’s easy to see why these people loved the Tale of Genji so much. As Mortimer writes, “During the course of this volume at least seven different affairs rouse in [Prince Genji] serious and delicate emotion. Is there any novel which recognizes the possibility, and indeed the commonness, of such an experience?” Waley himself had emphasized this aspect of the Genji in his own article in Vogue in advance of publication, on the assumption that “the relative promiscuousness of an elite cultured society, such as the one depicted in the Genji, would be intriguingly familiar to his Bloomsbury friends (de Gruchy, 125).”

Woolf’s focus in her review was on Murasaki Shikibu as a fellow woman writer. And yet she was not as effusive about Murasaki’s work as her lover’s husband’s lover had been. Mortimer had titled his review, “A New Planet,” an allusion to Keats’s poem on another famous translation “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: (“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken…”)  In her review, Woolf picks up on the astronomical image, praising Waley’s translation as a “beautiful telescope” through which we can now “take our station and watch” this “new star” rise, secure in the knowledge that it will be “large, and luminous, and serene.” And yet she professed herself certain that this new star would not be “of the first magnitude.”For Woolf, Murasaki was “a quiet lady with all her breeding” focused on the “queer savors of life,” whose work, ultimately, was missing “some root of Experience” that “has been removed from the Eastern world so that crudeness is impossible and coarseness is out of the question.” It is upsetting to see an author you love traffic in orientalist stereotypes like this. More importantly, it is a shame to think that such thinking may have kept Woolf from seeing other aspects of Murasaki’s work. [7]

Anne Douglas Sedgwick came closer than Woolf to appreciating how the Genji is more than just a book about the “queer savors of life.” This may be because she had read more of it: she was reviewing the third volume while Woolf had only read the first of six. Sedgwick also includes close readings of specific passages, while Woolf wrote in generalities.

One of the passages that Sedgwick examines happens to be one that I often discuss with my students. It’s from the end of the “Usugumo” chapter, when Genji’s former lover Lady Rokujo has died and Genji has agreed to take care of her daughter Akikonomu by acting as her adoptive father.[8] Akikonomu has come to stay at Genji’s Nijō villa when Genji visits her there and takes advantage of his prerogative as her adoptive father to come “straight to her side with only a thin lattice between them.”  As he tries to come closer still by reminding her, in a poem, that he too is grieving over her mother’s death,  Akikonomu realizes that he is trying to seduce her. The Waley translation continues, “Matters would surely have come a good deal further had she not at once shown in the most unmistakable manner her horror at the sentiments which he was beginning to profess.”  Realizing that he has been behaving with “childish lack of restraint,” Genji backs down and returns to his own rooms. In the aftermath of the scene, even the lingering scent of Genji’s “richly perfumed garments” has become “unendurable” to Akikonomu, and she asks her maids to air out the room. The maids, for their part, are oblivious to what has happened and go about gushing to each other, starstruck by Genji’s fragrance. “‘Just come over here and smell the cushion his Highness was sitting on!’ one of them called to another.”

Akikonomu blames herself for the incident, says nothing about it to anyone, and remains “for a time very much scared and distressed.”  In Waley’s translation, the scene can be read as describing an incident of sexual harassment. It may also be a kind of parable about the dilemma of desire in Buddhism. In her review, Sedgwick reads it psychoanalytically. “Both in beauty and implicit irony,” she writes, the scene “is a marvel,” as  “tender, mellifluous, affectionate Genji hardly himself perceives the underlying motive of his enthusiasm until the lady’s growing distress reveals it to him.” After returning to his rooms where his wife Murasaki is waiting for him, he speaks to her casually and boldly as if nothing has happened. It is a transparent attempt, Sedgwick writes, “to exorcise the humiliation and disarm suspicion,” in which “the most subtle revelations of psychoanalysis are illuminated for us.”

When Akikonomu rebuffs Genji, Sedgwick cheers her on, writing, “A glimmer of absurdity hangs round the debonair figure of Genji…and we like to think that we share with [the author] Murasaki a sense of malicious satisfaction in now seeing him withstood…” But this whiff of feminist solidarity doesn’t last long. Sedgwick ends with her own prediction of how the book will end. “Will Murasaki’s pattern complete itself in Genji’s final discomfiture? We do not think so. We do not think she perceives his sinister aspect and it is that lack in her that sets her back in her remote century and among her alien people.”

Unlike Woolf, who thinks that Murasaki’s work “never passes the bounds of decorum,”  Sedgwick sees the “horror” it contains, only to assert that the author herself does not see it. Only Sedgwick and “we” can see it. Is this another form of orientalist othering? Or is it a vital, even ethical acknowledgment of the historical and cultural gulf that separated 1920s Britain from Heian Japan?

Questions like these come up every time I read or teach the Genji. It’s fascinating to see them here already in the responses of some of the earliest and most eminent readers of the Genji in English, their views shifting as Waley slowly released his volumes. As the Times review of “A Wreath of Cloud” put it, “This masterpiece by Lady Murasaki is a source of constant delight: and the inevitable slowness with which its translation progresses is a constant source of irritation and anticipation.”

Anne Douglas Sedgwick also had a personal connection to Arthur Waley.  Her husband, the journalist Basil de Sélincourt, was previously married to Beryl De Zoet,[9] who would later become Arthur Waley’s lifelong, unmarried companion.  In The Women Who Write Our Novels, Overton says that Sedgwick and Basil “reside at Far End, Kingham, Oxfordshire.” I was delighted to see that this matched the stamped address on the back of the manuscript of which I am now the proud owner. Just for fun, I googled it and turned up the architect’s rendering of the house. It looks like how I imagine Howard’s End.

 

I’m happy to share a scan of Sedgwick’s review. Just email me.

 

 

[1] I haven’t read Saint-Simon but he sounds like a lot of fun. An article on his influence on Proust describes his “insatiable curiosity for gossipy anecdote, his vanity of a grand seigneur” and his “penetrating eye for characteristic human traits as revealed by peculiar mannerisms.” See D. C. Cabeen, “Saint-Simon and Proust.” PMLA 46, no. 2 (1931): 608–18.

[2] Overton, Grant Martin. The Women Who Make Our Novels /. New and Completely rev. ed. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928. 297.

[3] Two years later, a review of the Wreath of Cloud in the New York Times echoed this notion of Murasaki’s precocity on the world stage. Here was a woman writer “dealing out literary criticism before European Literature, as such, had begun.” New York Times, May 29, 1927.

[4]See Valerie Henitiuk, “Going to Bed with Waley: How Murasaki Shikibu Does and Does Not Become World Literature.” Comparative Literature Studies 45, no. 1 (2008): 40–61.

[5] In letters Woolf describes Waley at a dinner party as “a little demure and discrete,” and makes fun of his “white flannels.” By 1930 she had apparently begun to treat him “as a figure of fun.” See John Walter de Gruchy. Orienting Arthur Waley: Japonism, Orientalism, and the Creation of Japanese Literature in English. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003. 181.

[6] For more on Mortimer’s review, see Michael Emmerich. The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

[7] Takeshi Watanabe has put it well. “Woolf perpetuates orientalist stereotypes about Asian literature” by circumscribing “Genji’s range to the appreciation of the finer, subtler details of elegant court life,” when in fact “she was a chronicler who crafted and bequeathed to her readers a prose language that could grapple with their turbulent experiences at the court, occupied with merciless political intrigue, unsettling gossip, and dangerous envy.” Watanabe, Takeshi. Flowering Tales: Women Exorcising History in Heian Japan. 1st ed. Vol. 427. Women Exorcising History in Heian Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2020. 2.

[8] Waley translates the title of this chapter as “Wreath of Cloud” and uses it for the title of the third volume.

[9] De Zoet was a fascinating figure in her own right: a translator of Italo Svevo and Alberto Moravia, a dancer, and a scholar of Indonesian dance.

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