Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan
Publisher: Stanford University Press | 1968 | ISBN: 0804706530 | Pages: 280 | PDF | 1.75 MB
Something about "The Tales of Ise" really grows on you. If you are expecting characterization and psychological depth or even just a continuous narrative, you won't find it here. In fact, most any of the standards by which we tend to judge literature nowadays are conspicuous in their absence. And yet it doesn't seem to matter. The grace, elegance, and intense regard for the varieties of emotional experience found in these episodic vignettes gets you all the same.
There is also much of historical interest in this work, and that helps it out a little, too. First of all, in terms of literary history, this is definitely a transitional work, as the translator points out in her introduction. In the Kokinshu poetry anthology, for instance, each poem is preceded by a short prose passage explaining its social and situational context, but the poem is the main thing. In later prose narratives like the "Tale of Genji" or the many literary diaries, poems pop up in the characters' conversations but the story is paramount. "Tales of Ise" falls somewhere in-between. The poems are still much in focus, but the prose surrounding them has increased in length, importance, and development, transcending the status of headnotes though serving a similar function. And in terms of social history, this is of great interest, too, for each story gives us a precious fleeting glimpse of Heian courtier society and its values, and of the role of poetry in their social interactions (romantic and otherwise).