Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Why is chick lit from 10th century Japan somehow acceptable to me? I am thoroughly enjoying Genji’s romp through the various social classes in Heian Japan. At the moment I prefer Koremitsu, Genji’s confident and manservant, to Genji. He is appropriately annoyed (though he hides it well) with Genji’s rather overexcited libido.

Beyond the chuckle factor, The Tale of Genji is fascinating. I love the intricate social stratification and the coded conversations. Imagine if people still spoke to each other this way, alluding to famous poems and stories in all exchanges. Well, okay, we do this, a little, but in The Tale of Genji, a vast population of courtiers and commoners routinely cite words and half-phrases from an extensive library of classic poetry. I’m impressed at their ability to just whip out a poem to communicate a delicate situation or feeling.

And again, I am in absolute awe of Royall Tyler’s translation work. It took him eight years. Which seems amazingly short for such an incredible undertaking.


I’m still getting over Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I knew what had to happen, but I wouldn’t have minded Tess and Angel taking off to Australia instead. Those last few scenes were fantastic. In a literal sense – the blood dripping from the ceiling, the lovers’ hideaway, and then Tess’s exhausted nap upon the altar at Stonehenge…I loved it, all the while I imagined Hardy’s contemporary readers must have been absolutely shocked.

Hardy’s bold depiction of the sexual double standard surprised me; I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so explicit.


On the schedule for this week is the third Agota Kristof but I think I might hold off and finish Le Rouge et le Noir, which I started randomly yesterday. And I am currently eyeing several Balzac. It’s going to be a 19th century kind of week.

11 Responses to “tuesday reading notes”

  1. jacob Russell

    I read both the Seidensticker and Arthur Waley translations–one of my most treasured reading experiences. The seamless transition from courtly comedy to a kind of tragic Buddhist moral tale is breathtaking. I can’t imagine Murasaki knew where she would take this when she began… a Bridge of Dreams.

    • verbivore

      Jacob – I couldn’t agree more about Shikibu’s movement from comedy to moral tale, what a nice way to put it. I think you’d also love the Tyler translation, it’s incredible. I haven’t read the Waley, just the Seidensticker but I’m actually getting a lot more out of the Tyler.

  2. Colleen

    You’ve taken me back to when I first read Tess…I too was amazed at how fearlessly Hardy engages with the double standards around sexuality. It made me fall in love with him a little.

    Also, for Balzac, read Pere Goriot!!

    • verbivore

      Am taking your advice and got Père Goriot all ready to go. Just have to finish Le Rouge et le Noir first and then I’m set!

  3. Amateur Reader

    A 19th century kind of week – all right!

    Lilian, how can you say the 19th century rocks? The 1890s swing, the 1820s boogie, the 1870s sway gently. The 1810s dance reels, the 1880s are totally into experimental noise music. The 1840s are boisterous but rhythmically kludgy.

  4. Steph

    I have yet to read any Hardy! Hard to believe, but true! I think Tess might the perfect place to start with him, however… Somehow it seems a lot more accessible than his other works, for whatever reason.

    Also, my e-reader came with a French version of Le Rouge et le Noir, which I’m curious about, but I’m not sure my French is up to snuff…

    • verbivore

      If you do try the Stendhal, I’d love to know what you think. I’m loving it so far, and I was surprised to see it’s set just over the border from the canton where my husband grew up, so the places are all familiar. Makes it more fun.

  5. びっくり

    I have never read Genji. It is so commonly referred to that I really should if I hope to be culturally literate. This make me think of a poem I once knew… 😉

    On other news, my sister has now moved to Helvetica. She got her PhD and found a facility in Zurich which could put it to good use. Her husband will be resigning his post and moving there soon.

    • verbivore

      How exciting for your sister, if I were closer to Zurich I’d try to extend a welcome or a hello. I’m certain she will have lots of people to help her out, but if she has any questions about anything (except Swiss German!) I’d be happy to help.

      I’d be very curious to hear your reaction to The Tale of Genji. You have vastly more experience with Japan than I do, and I suspect you’d love the poetry.

  6. Stefanie

    Maybe in 500 or more years our current chick lit will be interesting at last too 😉

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: