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The Tales of Ise
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B+ : interesting period piece, well-presented
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
In his Introduction, translator Peter MacMillan says that The Tales of Ise is: "one of the four most important works in Japanese classical literature", and that in the Edo period (1603-1868) it was: "the bestselling book of the era". He also notes:
the aggregate of the diverse episodes of the Tales creates a unified perspective of the cultural mores, aesthetics and the 'way of love' of aristocratic society in the early part of the Heian period (794-1185).The Tales of Ise is an unusual collection of 125 tales, likely written, MacMillan suggests, over more than a century. Most focus on real-life poet Ariwara no Narihira -- though he is almost never referred to by name -- and include short narratives that "function as suitable contexts" for the poem or poems that are the centerpiece of each text.
These tales are very short -- some exceptionally so, with only a few words accompanying a(n almost always) five-line poem ("Long ago, a fickle lady left a man. His poem:" is among the most succinct texts to go with a single five-line poem  -- but hardly extraordinarily so). So these are often not 'tales' in the way many readers might expect. A separate section that provides commentary for each of the tales does, however, reveal how much more can be read into each one. Offering various interpretations, noting connections between the various pieces, and explaining some of the wordplay and translation choices, the commentary's 130 pages have a considerably higher word-count than the texts themselves and truly fill them out.
Certainly standing on their own, especially in translation, these tales are neither easy to approach nor appreciate. As MacMillan comments on one example:
Episode 86 is typical of the kind of tale that is effective in the original Japanese but appears flat in translation. There is too little narrative to stir interest, and it is very hard to interpret the real meaning of the poemThe poems almost all begin: 'Long ago' (MacMillan noting about the lone exception: "Despite centuries of exegetical work, the reason for the omission is unclear and likely to remain so"), and then refer to 'the man' -- generally Narihira, though there are tales devoted entirely to other characters as well. The tales cover a wide variety of situations -- most often, however, ones of meeting (or hoping to meet, or the inability to meet again, etc.), a poem penned to mark the occasion, whether in the hopes of initiating contact, or as day-after reflections, etc. Narihira is presented as quite the playboy -- or (not always) ideal lover. With sexual mores of the times more liberal than in later times, as MacMillan emphasizes, it is not unusual for either the men or the women to take on other lovers. Incest is touched on, and the most problematic area tends to be when class differences interfere; the differences between cultivated city folk and the more common country sort are also addressed.
These are not necessarily neatly rounded-off tales either, and certainly there's little 'happily everafter' here, to the extent that MacMillan even sees fit to mention that:
Episode 22 is unusual in that it describes a mostly happy and passionate relationship between two lovers, whereas many episodes in the Tales end in tears.Often what is best-conveyed in these tales is a feeling (often melancholic) or a moment that is captured. Some conclude entirely unhappily -- "He returned to the capital, weeping bitterly."  -- while there's a nice display of weaknesses of the heart throughout, right down to a tale  that concludes:
The man thought that she was extremely rude, but he fell even more in love with her than ever.While many tales present only a single, central poem around which they are structured, others include two or several -- often times a back and forth between lovers. Episode 21 is among the longer stories, with quite a bit of back and forth -- yet even here, the conclusion has things run their course:
In the end, despite their poetic interludes, they both took new lovers and became estranged.The poetry, and differences between Japanese and English, pose particular problems. MacMillan notes that: "Where possible I have incorporated the wordplay and the punning of the original". Of course, when a: "poem plays on the word Mirume, often employed in love poetry as it means both a kind of seaweed and 'to meet one's beloved', the results can sound rather awkward. The commentary helps in explaining the poetry, but the poetry can often feel a rather odd fit. (In his Foreword Donald Keene puts MacMillan in the (favored-by-him) 'school of Waley' -- as in Arthur Waley, in the tradition of Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, i.e. focused on sounding good in English, rather than strict, literal faithfulness, and while MacMillan's detailed commentary aids with the literal issues some of us, however, do prefer a more directly literal approach in the poems themselves as well .....)
As 'different' as the tales in The Tales of Ise are from most of what we read, readers likely will only rarely react as one of the characters [in 32] does:
His poem, however, seems to have made little impression on the lady.The extensive and helpful supporting material on offer here is certainly vital to the proper -- or indeed most -- appreciation of the collection, which makes it a bit more difficult to read (requiring some leafing back and forth and around), but it is worth the effort. Ultimately, The Tales of Ise is a quite fascinating volume, and this presentation -- the translation, and the supporting material that goes with it -- a good introductory one.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 November 2016
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