A case for leisurely literature

Immediately after finishing the Tale of Genji, I read Egil’s Saga. Both take place at roughly the same time (circa 1000 C.E.), and were composed not much later (about a century) and in similar forms (verses embedded in prose narrative); both feature large casts roaming about unfamiliar and long-vanished cultures and landscapes; both stories span multiple generations (in neither is anyone alive at the beginning still around by the end); and both are classics in their respective traditions — still read today after the lapse of a millennium.

Why then did reading Egil, of fewer than 200 pages, seem like so much more work than reading Genji, weighing in at 1120 pages in the Royall Tyler translation?

(Please don’t misunderstood: I strongly recommend both. But reading Egil did seem so effortful.)

I think it might be partly a limitation of the capacity to process narrative. Egil is so compressed it is terse. Decades fall by in sentences, and although there are also more extended sequences, such as the expedition to the north or the court case at the end, the overall impression is of a headlong rush into oblivion. And it is such a strange world! The men are, as a rule, at the same time childish and murderous, prone to bursting into a frenzied rage for no particular reason. And the women — well! The women! And everyone is thoroughly drunk much of the time.

On the other hand, Genji is capacious, it enfolds everything, it takes its time, years slip languorously by like moving from one stage to the next of a casual love affair, perhaps even one never to be consummated. Fifty pages might be devoted to a boating party, then a hundred to how to deal with a willful princess. Nothing ever happens, really, yet it is never dull. And it is such a strange world! Manliness is best expressed by the tendency to burst into tears for no particular reason. The women blacken their teeth and shave their eyebrows, only to paint them on again in green — not that anyone can even see the women most of time (not even each other), so dim and hemmed about with barriers are the spaces they inhabit. And everyone is quite drunk a significant fraction of the time.

What do they have in common? Eruptions of the supernatural, snatches of poetry, intrigue (romantic or political), the melancholy of exile and of frustrated love.

And how do they differ? O worlds unknown and apart! No overlap at all, truly —

Viking Iceland.

Heian Japan.

Sometimes a book is like a desk drawer crammed so full of index cards that it won’t shut, all of them covered all over with tiny, precise handwriting. This is Egil.

Sometimes a book is like a house, a large one, where one might spend the mornings sipping milky coffee on the terrace, in a chair under the leaf-shattered sunlight; the afternoons in the library, shadowy and cool, remote from the doings of the rest of the household; the evenings, after dinner, aloof in a corner of the drawing room, someone at the piano over there plinking away at something resembling Chopin, at one’s elbow a goblet, discreetly renewed, of excellent claret; and at night, in the cool moonlight falling through the windowpanes, in bed, crisp linen sheets pulled up to the chin, one arm thrust out, asleep, athwart, enwrapped in dreams that one has no need to recall. This is Genji.

Is one better than the other? No. Of course not. But one is more leisurely than the other. And in leisure there is pleasure.