“lightning” and other fake chapters

Murasaki's Tale of Genji is a work of such richness and depth, the characters and situations so compelling, that readers over the centuries and even in exotic languages like English continue to dip into it for enlightenment. It must be somehow that Murasaki managed to leave spaces in the work—spaces that different readers always fill with their own understandings.

‍   Her tale is psychologically interactive, one could say—a mark of truly great literature. There is even more space now than originally existed for 11th century readers. One of the ways the most deeply engaged readers react to those spaces is to try to fill them by writing. The tradition of apocryphal writings pertaining to The Tale of Genji goes back to within a century of the composition of the work itself. Readers have burned to know certain things that Murasaki left out, and some of them have taken brush in hand to satisfy the craving. The texts for a few of these "pseudoclassical supplements" survive, others are merely mentioned in other sources but no longer exist.

‍  The chapter that fills in Prince Genji's death cried out to be written. Kumogakure, or "Hidden by Clouds" is a 14th century attempt to tie up that loose end. In the twentieth century French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a very clever short story, Le Dernier Amour du Prince Genghi, with her take on that subject. Another topic was the early stages of Genji's affair with the Rokujō Lady, a subject dealt with in the 18th century piece called Tamakura "Arm Pillow." The most developed of all these narratives is the late 12th century Yamaji no Tsuyu "The Dewy Mountain Path," which treats the theme of what happened to Ukifune and the characters Murasaki left dangling at the end of her tale.

‍   Because I am not a specialist in the field of classical Japanese literature, I was unaware of these texts when I wrote my own pseudo-supplement, the chapter entitled “Lightning” on precisely this theme. When I discovered it, the similarities of our viewpoints were as interesting as the differences. The direction of this story hinges on the question of what one believes Ukifune to have been capable of—a metamorphosis from the weak creature who allowed herself to be tossed about by two lovers to a person who discovered her own steadfastness of purpose. In this regard, my Lightning follows The Dewy Mountain Path, but pushes that notion even further. 

‍   Kaoru leaves Ono with the intention of being Ukifune's patron (on his own terms, so he can have her and not have her at the same time, in his neurotic fashion); and Ukifune may very well accept this, but in her own mind she has moved beyond her dependence on him. The biggest difference in my version is that Prince Niou bows out, whereas The Dewy Mountain Path ending still contains the potential dynamic of rivalry between Kaoru and Niou—perhaps intentionally so, as an echo of Murasaki's ending. I snipped off that dangling thread definitively.

‍   I wrote Lightning as an attempt to portray Murasaki's coming to terms with her own lifelong engagement with the Buddhist notion of "wild words, fancy phrases"—the understanding she herself developed after renouncing the world, reflected in the development of her character Ukifune and the choices she made. For "my" Murasaki (and in my heart I believe that for the real Murasaki as well) self-knowledge was the key to writing fiction. She realized that throughout her life her stories were not a flight from reality, but a search for reality—something she had known deep down all along, and all of it an attempt to make sense of existence. She was at pains not to mistake mere verisimilitude for truth. Murasaki surely knew that characters can be more real than people, and that the fictional world is more profound than the concrete.