Ochikubo Monogatari, by [Unknown]

This is the first book I’ve read in a short series I’m going to do on Heian-period Japanese literature, which consists of the work published in roughly the tenth and eleventh centuries. This Heian-period is seen as a Golden Age of Japanese novel-writing; its two outstanding works are Genji Monogatari by Murasaki Shikibu and The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogon. (I see them somewhat as a Japanese Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – two different but equivalent masters of their art who didn’t much get along with one another). Ochikubo Monogatari (which you’ll find under the name The Tale of the Lady of Ochikubo) was written before these two great works, probably around 970AD, and according to the claims made for it in my edition is the first novel proper to be produced in Japan – previous works had been mere collections of tales (monogatari means tales), whereas this novel forms a coherent whole (which indeed, from my reading of it, it does); or they were essentially myths or fairy tales, whereas this is told in a realistic manner. I guess in general I have a reticence towards reading old novels – certainly I find English novels pre-Daniel Defoe pretty hard-going (he may not have been the first English novelist, as is often claimed; – but the first good English novelist perhaps), I never much cared for Boccaccio, and the ancient Greek novels are more or less unreadable. Perhaps though foreign novels have more of a chance because, if their subject matter is alien, their translations – and therefore their styles – tend at least to be modern. But – usually so cautious when it comes to approaching old novels – I enjoyed this. – There is though something very play-like about it: one scene of dialogue follows another; nothing extraneous to the immediate plot is included (I read pretty much the same complaint today about the modern American short story). The scholars I’ve read on Ochikubo all seem to agree that it’s an atypical work for the Heian period in that it shows no interest in the natural world – there are in fact no long description of things (other than feasts, perhaps) – but it is only concerned with human affairs and actions. The plot is generic: the first part is the archetypal love story (boy and girl fall in love; there is an obstacle to its consummation; which is overcome), crossed with the evil-doing of a typical wicked step-mother; then the second part is a traditional revenge drama. Yet the use of stereotypes isn’t to be condemned in itself; it depends what use the artist makes of them. Another thing scholars comment on is its lack of poetry – by which they don’t mean, as we might, that it is merely full of dull prose; – but quite literally, that there aren’t enough poems in it. – Well, Heian literature must certainly then be replete with poems, because there seemed a fair few in it to me; and in many ways they were what I found most interesting about it. Like a lot of early literature, Ochikubo is absent for the most part of emotion and the inner life of its characters, with this one difference: their real feelings are made explicit through its use of poetry (often, admittedly, written into letters; but occasionally also used in direct speech), such as:

If the desires that I have expressed, have any Hope of flowering, Then like a miscanthus flower, In gentle breeze, nod to me.

or

No more do I find It in my heart to write you; I will write no more, For when I have no answer, It does but feed my sorrow.

Usually I find I skip over poems in novels, or scan them briefly – getting in the way, as they do, of the narrative; – but the oblique nature of these pithy poems (they are called waka, 31-syllable verse) came to fascinate me as a method of evoking emotion. Finally, though most Heian literature was written by women, scholars are pretty unanimous in attributing Ochikubo to a man because – and I’m quoting here –

“in their opinion the style is too direct and too outspoken, and not verbose and vague”,

and, besides, it contains too much coarse humour.


I was thinking of getting a hold of a copy of The Gossamer Years / The Kagero Diary to read next, but the apparently better edition, trans. Sonja Arntzen, is a bit on the expensive side; and I’ve been warned off the Seidensticker translation (besides, it’s suspiciously half the length of the Arntzen). So I’ve a choice of going on to either Sei Shonagon or Genji – both of which I’m finding fairly imposing.

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