The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion, by Melissa McCormick
Princeton University Press, 2018. 254 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

I don’t know what your copy of Tale of Genji looks like. Mine is the old one-volume 1960 Modern Library edition, trans. Arthur Waley. 1,135 pages in (I would say) about ten-point type. The two-volume Seidensticker translation from 1976 has 1,090 pages, with better margins. There are also two more-recent versions, Tyler and Washburn; those I haven’t looked at.

I haven’t read Tale of Genji. I’ve read the first nine chapters. When Waley published his translation during the years 1925 to 1933, he divided Lady Murasaki’s masterpiece into six volumes: the first nine chapters (of fifty-four total) constitute Volume I of the Waley version. Got it? I’ve read “Volume I,” but it’s not really Volume I. The only divisions in the original are the chapters. 

Why haven’t I read the whole thing? I will. I hadn’t read any of it, ’til a few weeks ago, and I’m going to kill off another “volume” or two, during Winter Break. I’ll probably have my nose in Murasaki on New Year’s. The reason I never embarked upon it before is basically because I was waiting (without knowing it) for the book under review to come into existence.

What is it. It’s a full-color reproduction, in some ways better than the original, of a 1510 Tale of Genji picture album. Backstory is some rich Japanese dude commissioned a pile of famous artists and calligraphers to make him a fancy, one-of-a-kind pleasure blob, consisting of one painting and one calligraphy sample for each of the fifty-four chapters of the Tale. The artists were commanded to aim at perfection, and they pretty much attained it.

Does looking at this picture album help clarify the narrative for the person reading it a thousand years after it was written and five hundred years after the pictures were executed—? O mais oui. It clarifies the living shit out it. And it’s not just about visualization; it’s also the fact those old boys are basically telling you which are the crucial moments in the chapters. This helps prevent the whole thing from turning into a pot of homogenized mush in your brain. 

The Tale of Genji is, among other things, an avalanche of details. The plot centers on this beautiful and sensitive male, Genji, who is born under sad circumstances and grows up the object of envy and admiration in the Court. He sets off on a career of love and sex, and most of the first chapters are named after the females he gets mixed up with. I say “females” instead of “women” because the most important of them is ten years old when he meets and (more or less) abducts her. Meanwhile, every one of these women has attendants and relatives, all of whom are named, and Genji himself has attendants and relatives, all of whom are named, and everyone has some part to play in the developing action, and the whole shmakunga is in grave danger of becoming, as I say, mush, unless you either take notes, or have some kind of “companion” volume to help you. 

The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion doesn’t just reproduce the images, by the way. Melissa McCormick, the author, knows very well these pictures don’t speak for themselves, so she provides a perfectly chaste and efficient summary of the chapters as she goes along, so you know what she’s talking about at all points, and she even provides photographic zoom-ins on details in the pictures, so that itty-bitty goodies don’t escape you. She even explains what’s going on in the calligraphy. Anyone who attempts to read Tale of Genji and who (as often happens) must set it aside for a while could totally refresh his or her memory using McCormick’s book. I can hardly imagine a better book for this purpose.

One final point. Suppose you don’t honestly want to read Tale of Genji, but you want to want to read it. The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion could help with this. Because! When you look at a picture, say, of some random-to-you dude (with an attendant) peeping through a fence at a busy scene with women chasing a sparrow, you just naturally want to know what’s up. Who are these people. Why is he peeping. Why are they chasing. You imagine the better and more cultured version of yourself who might spot this image in a museum and turn to whomever-you’re-with and go: “Oh!! I know what this is! This is the scene from Tale of Genji where [blah blah blah]…!” That would be a tasty moment, you must admit.

Anyhow, Amazon-Prime it. Thirty bucks.


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017).