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The Anecdote, or Microfiction and Its Relation to the Reader

L’anecdote ou la microfiction et son rapport avec le lecteur
Anne Bayard-Sakai


There are many discrete episodes in The Tale of Genji—anecdotes, micro stories, outgrowths of fiction—that are not integrated into the overall plot, and which introduce characters who do not reappear later in the novel. These features are considered through the perpectives of reading and Wolfgang Iser’s concept of “empty places” (Leerstellen). While a scholarly reading pursues the integration of micro stories, an ingenuous reading aids in rediscovering their autonomy and benefits from a fragmented, centrifugal reading.

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Editor’s notes

Original release : Anne BAYARD-SAKAI, « Anekudōto, aruiwa mikurofikushon, soshite dokusha to no kankei », in Sumie TERADA, Katsumi FUJIWARA and Hirohiko TAKADA eds, Genji monogatari no tōmeisa to futōmeisa – Bamen, waka, katari, jikan no bunseki o tōshite, Seikansha, Tōkyō, 2009.

Full text

1What does the act of reading the Genji monogatari imply and signify today? The question does not greatly concern scholarly reading of the work, but rather the ingenuous or pseudo-ingenuous act of ordinary readers and those events and questionings of meaning that trigger the reader’s relation to the text.

  • 1 Der Akt des Lesens, 1976; L’acte de lecture, théorie de l’effet esthétique, French translation, 19 (...)

2If the answer is not obvious, the reason is to be found in the nature of the text as well as in the temporal distance separating the moment of writing from that of reading. Distance is precisely what triggers questions about meaning: the very act of reading appears to be interrogated by a singular relation to a no less singular text. A confrontation with the Genji monogatari thus gives us an opportunity to test theories of reading—especially, for our purposes, Wolfgang Iser’s,1 which has been criticized for, among other things, applying only to or being valid for a limited corpus, that of the western nineteenth-century novel. It is not our objective to pronounce on the validity of Iser’s theory, but rather to examine how it might facilitate an understanding of the relations a modern reader might have with a text such as the Genji, a text from a period other than and remote from the reader’s own, written in a language the reader does not normally speak or read.

Rereading and Microsequences

3It goes without saying that reading a text such as the Genji monogatari leaves multiple impressions. Nevertheless, when viewed as a whole the work immediately presents what might be called a dual aspect. The first and most apparent is that the story is highly structured. It is supported mainly by the destiny of its characters, especially Hikaru, and by the psychological and narrative logic of forbidden desire (or, perhaps, of desire and forbidden things) and retribution for wrongs committed. This first aspect, then, is strongly centripetal. The second, which could instead be termed centrifugal, is that the narration is extremely fragmented. This refers not only to its many narrative systems, but also to the story, which is made up of all sorts of tiny extraneous pulses: comments, mini-stories, anecdotes, reminiscences. Of course these two aspects are present in most if not all novels—duality might be called the sign of fiction if not the hallmark of the monogatari (but this would exceed our present aim). In any event, without extrapolating, and limiting our scope to the Genji monogatari, we shall take the dispersed nature of the story as our starting point in attempting to perceive what happens in the reading process, when the reader must deal with both these aspects in order to have a reading experience that is neither overly inconsistent nor uncomfortable.

4Yet when we go back to the text to ascertain the presence of the two aspects and try to trace the process of reading the work, we find that the impression of duality seems unjustified in many respects. Put more precisely, the reality of the text does not truly support the impression, which must then stem from other sources.

5The above statement—that the reality of the text does not support the impression—reflects the following fact: the reader actually has considerable trouble finding textual sequences which do not reintegrate themselves, sometimes unexpectedly, into the great sweep of the text. In other words, the impression of fragmentation is chiefly linked to the fact that the linearity of reading hinders access to the essential intentions of the text: since each microsequence appears relatively self-contained, the reader does not immediately connect it to the fundamental structure of the story. This of course presents a reading problem basic to all texts, but one that is particularly important for the Genji monogatari: rereading. The integration of microsequences, which is to say their interpretation in relation to principal structural features and their resituation as components of those features, is automatically performed during rereading; what is gained in integration is lost to some extent in speckle, in variations.

6This begs the question of which reading is more legitimate from the reader’s point of view. An integrated reading comes closer to the author’s intention; but is alignment with the author’s intention a relevant criterion, or the only one, for a reading today? Certainly, reading and rereading do not always occupy the same level of textual interpretation; but these two kinds of reading probably need be ranked only if we presume a truth of the text, in which case each successive reading would be evaluated according to its distance or proximity to this truth. If the contemporary reader has learned one thing, however, it is that the concept of the “truth of the text” is questionable at best.

Autonomy of Episodes

7Let us now see how reading specifically proceeds in several instances, all of which concern sequences in the text that are sufficiently defined to present a relatively closed textual entity.

8Our first consideration is with the most important textual entities in the order of microsequences. Books or chapters such as “Hanachirusato” 花散里 (“The Orange Blossoms,” Chapter 11) provide good examples. First, this short chapter clearly has a bipartite composition. Genji decides to pay a visit to one of his father’s consorts, the Reikeiden lady (Reikeiden no nyôgo), and her sister San no Kimi, with whom he had once had an affair. Passing through the neighborhood of Nakagawa on his way, he hears the sound of a koto coming from a house; as he looks towards it, Genji recalls that in the past he had a rendezvous with the lady there. With Koremitsu as his emissary, he sends her a poem, but the lady’s female attendants do not recognize Genji, or pretend not to; this moves Genji finally to continue on his way (part one).

  • 2 Edward Seidensticker, trans., The Tale of Genji (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), pp. 215-216.

He had no outrunners and his carriage and livery were unobtrusive. As he crossed the Inner River and left the city he passed a small house with tasteful plantings. Inside someone was playing a lively strain on a Japanese koto accompanied by a thirteen-stringed Chinese koto of good quality. The house being just inside the gate, he leaned from his carriage to survey the scene. The fragrance that came on the breeze from a great laurel tree made him think of the Kamo festival. It was a pleasant scene. And yes—he had seen it once before, a very long time ago. Would he be remembered? Just then a cuckoo called from a nearby tree, as if to urge him on. He had the carriage turned so that he might alight. Koremitsu, as always, was his messenger.2

  • 3 Genji monogatari, Shinpen Nihon koten bungaku zenshû (henceforth SNKBZ), Shôgakukan, vol. 2, 1995, (...)


9He arrives at the Reikeiden lady’s house and speaks with her of old times; then he goes discreetly to the west wing, where San no Kimi (also known as Hanachirusato) lives. She welcomes him without doubting the sincerity of his feelings (part two).

10The two parts are easily connected: a woman who chooses to forget a casual lover is contrasted with one who continues to love the Prince. The integration of the Hanachirusato episode into the rest of the novel is also apparent: the prince finds her again after he returns from exile, brings her to live in his Rokujô palace, makes her his son’s guardian, etc. The episode of the Nakagawa woman, however, does not seem to have a direct connection to other passages in the book, and so it is worth examining the way it is read.

11It is tempting to think of this episode as insignificant. But insignificant in relation to what? On balance, what the reader retrieves as the story unfolds is what will be considered significant. (The contrast is clear in the case of Hanachirusato, who has a known future; from this perspective, the woman who refuses Genji’s advances could be compared with others who do not have this capacity, such as Yûgao or, in some respects, Utsusemi). The Nakagawa lady is at the center of an episode that is insignificant because it concerns a non-iterative character, someone whose sole purpose is to show an aspect of the character Hikaru Genji.

He went on thinking about whatever woman he encountered. A perverse concomitant was that the women he went on thinking about went on thinking about him. (p. 217)

いかなるにつけても、御心の暇なく苦しげなり。年月を経ても、なほかやうに、見しあたり情過ぐしたまはぬにしも、なかなかあまたの人のもの思ひぐさなり。(vol. 2, p. 155)

12And yet one reads this episode with some interest. Its structure, if not novelistic, resembles a miniature story, with an introduction, the arrival on the scene, the discovery of the house, sensory elements (the sound of musical instruments, the fragrance of blossoms), the recollection, and the memory of an affair, followed by the proposal, the rejection, and a moral of sorts. A semiotic analysis, with agent, auxiliary, etc., would be equally feasible. In any event, this is an apparently closed textual unity with strong autonomy within the basic structure of the novel; of course it also serves to valorize the welcome that Hanachirusato gives Genji immediately following this episode.

Rereading and Story

13From this perspective, the rather atypical “Hahakigi” (“The Broom Tree,” Chapter 2) immediately seems problematic, as the major portion of its text is devoted to discussions about women and amorous anecdotes told by a group of young men on a dull, rainy evening. The interest in this series of anecdotes is that most, while also self-contained, will integrate themselves to varying degrees into the general organization of the story. The most obvious such anecdote is told by Tô no Chûjô about a woman so unassuming that he tended to neglect her; and how, after she was threatened by his principal wife, she disappeared, taking their child with her. These characters reappear as Yûgao and her daughter Tamakazura. Note also that many of the men’s comments concern middle-ranking women, those of the zuryô 受領 (provincial governor) class; and since some of these women will be caught up in Genji’s adventures, their comments may foreshadow later events in the story. The care apparent in some anecdotes also deserves mention: one example is the story of the jealous woman who is so furious that she bites her lover’s finger. Not only is the incident presented as forceful, a bit commonplace and, even realistic, but the anecdote is complete in itself, concluding with the death of the woman. What essentially differentiates these anecdotes from one another? The final destiny each reserves for its heroine. In other words, when reading them casually or for the first time, the reader has little reason to distinguish among them. On rereading, though, one anecdote will be read as simply an anecdote, while another will be read as the first appearance of an important person in the story; one is part of the plot, another is outside it. We might then ask ourselves to what extent the mechanism of reading lies in transforming an insignificant anecdote into significant foreshadowing.

14One further remark: it is not a trivial matter to have an insignificant anecdote paired with one which is not. Viewed in terms of the process and game of reading, this device—which seems to be repeated—might be an indicator of the way the novel functions as a whole. To develop this point, however, would exceed our present aim.

Outgrowths in Fiction

15Let us now consider two kinds of fictional outgrowths in the novel. Although they may have little impact on plot development, they demonstrate how a reader focuses on secondary text sequences.

16The first concerns the character of Gen no Naishi, the assistant handmaid who is so fond of love affairs. Her role in the novel is to incarnate a purely physical relationship; but once she has a story she becomes a fully-fledged character, albeit a secondary one who has virtually no effect on the plot. Despite this, the reader re-encounters her with some pleasure. She makes a reappearance in the famous chapter “Aoi” (“Heartvine”), after the scene of the battle of the carriages, when she has her carriage moved to make room for Genji’s and Murasaki’s carriage. Genji and Naishi once again exchange poems loaded with double entendres; Genji, apparently disgusted, makes a definitive comment. According to the commentators, Naishi is sixty or sixty-one years old at the time.

… old Naishi, still youthfully resisting the years.

Frowning, he sent back… (p. 164)

あさましう、古りがたくもいまめくかなと憎さに... (vol 2, p. 29)

17She appears one more time a dozen years later, in Chapter 20, “Asagao” (“The Morning Glory”). Genji is paying a visit to Asagao’s aunt in hopes of seducing her niece. He happens upon Gen no Naishi, who has become a nun but is as coy as ever. She speaks to him flirtatiously, then:

Evidence that he had settled down again and that she had his attention seems to have swept her back to the old years, and all the old coquettishness came forth anew. It was too evident, from the imperfect articulation, that the playful words came from a toothless old mouth. “Even as I spoke,” she said, and it seemed rather too much. He was both amused and saddened at the suggestion that old age had come upon her suddenly and undetected. (p. 354)

...寄りゐたまへる御けはひに、いとど昔思ひ出つつ、古りがたくなまめかしきさまにもてなして、いたうすげみにたる口つき思ひやらるる声づかひの、さすがに舌つきにてうち戯れむとはなほ思へり。「言ひこしほどに」など聞こえかかるまばゆさよ。今しも来たる老いのやうになど、ほほ笑まれたまふものから、ひきかへ、これもあはれなり。(vol. 2, p. 483)

18Thus, while Genji and Naishi share a past, she appears only in unimportant or inconsequential scenes. Gen no Naishi’s trajectory could of course be interpreted as an example of female aging, but this would be making a bit too much of a character whose value is on balance purely recreational. Significantly, her role does not change: it may be more accurate to speak here of a portrait rather than an anecdote.

19The other fictional outgrowth concerns Chapter 15, “Yomogiu” (“The Wormwood Patch”) and the relations between Suetsumuhana and her aunt. This outgrowth is interesting because it builds on a character with an important role in the plot, Suetsumuhana. Genji forgets this unattractive woman during his exile, and after his return he does not contact her, though she is waiting for him to do so. Suetsumuhana’s house is falling into ruin and she is on the brink of destitution when her aunt (her mother’s sister), a zuryô’s wife, asks her to come live with her. The aunt hopes to make Suetsumuhana into her daughters’ servant in revenge for the scorn she endured when she married the provincial official. Suetsumuhana, however, resists and remains in her secluded house. Finally, on his way to visit Hanachirusato, Genji passes by Suetsumuhana’s house and is reminded of her. When he sees her poverty-stricken living conditions he once again offers her his protection and financial support.

20This is essentially a variant of the Cinderella story, with the noteworthy exception of one element: the aunt’s intervention, which helps to form a fictional outgrowth. This in turn provides a glimpse of intrafamilial relations and their attendant resentments without negatively affecting Suetsumuhana’s characterization or her role in the novel. While the reverses of fate are certainly illustrated in this episode, a reader who began with this sequence would find it impossible to extrapolate about the heart of the novel.

21Before returning in conclusion to the question of reading, we might also note a variety of microsequence: the picturesque passage. We shall consider two, one which is very short and the other a little longer.

22The very short passage comes from Chapter 13, “Akashi.” One evening Genji plays the koto so beautifully that his listeners are moved to rapture or tears.

Lowly rustics, though they could not have identified the music, were lured out into the sea winds, there to catch cold. (p. 254)

何とも聞きわくまじきこのもかのものしはふる人どもも、すずろはしくて浜風をひき歩く。(vol 2, p. 240)

  • 4 The Tale of Genji, pp. 362-363; SNKBZ, vol. 3, p. 25.

23The second passage concerns the scholars’ behavior at the ceremony in which Yûgiri received his scholarly sobriquet (azana 字) in Chapter 21, “Otome” (“The Maiden”).4 The scholars, who are convened with great ceremony, are portrayed as ridiculous because they are out of touch with the ways of the court.

24While both microsequences are insignificant, they lend coherence to fictional content which, if limited to the principal characters’ stories, can sometimes make for fairly abstract reading. In this sense, everything that distances or constitutes diffusion with regard to the plot or to the principal plots adds layers to the novel (and not realistic ones, as both the above cases are closer to caricature), along with varying the rhythm of a reading which, at such times, does not lend itself to the apprehension of meaning.

Repertory and Emptiness

25The above examples share certain characteristics: they resist rereading, do not let themselves be drawn into centripetal logic, preserve their textual autonomy, and do not contribute to a determination of meaning. We must now return to the reading process and the way in which the reader progressively constructs the meaning of the text being read: this will remind us that the reader proceeds by means of memorization and anticipation and is therefore always situated in a moment of the text, and that the reader is above all engaged in an act of perpetual correction. This approach can also be enhanced insofar as a reader now begins with the view that a literary work is open and indeterminate. Members of the Constance School, particularly Wolfgang Iser, have given this indeterminate aspect a name: empty places, Leerstellen. These refer not only to moments in the text when the text says nothing, but also indicate opportunities for organizing the text. The text is considered open because its organization is never completely set; hence the reader can choose to combine this or that segment while ignoring others.

26Theoretically, a work allows countless subjective readings; but we know that this is not the case, for several reasons. First, the reader has an interpretive, cultural, social, and historical background, a code which ensures that, at a given moment in the story, the possibilities of interpretation are not infinite. A text requires that the reader have this skill—Iser calls the theoretical reader an implied reader, never identified with an actual reader, who is an entity of the text insofar as he or she has mastered this skill, which he calls “repertory.” This is the part of the code necessary to comprehend the text, the repertory being specific to each text. The same general idea is also found in the work of Umberto Eco, who speaks of the model reader and the encyclopedia.

27It is thus understandable why Iser’s theory was criticized as extrapolating a valuable model for the nineteenth-century novel: the implied reader’s repertory is not so distant from the actual reader’s as to render reading strategies invalid. How, then, does this apply to those of us who read the Genji?

28The question can be answered on several levels. Our fantasy is to superimpose ourselves on the implied reader inscribed in the heart of the original text, a reader with whom even the most learned reader cannot hope to identify: lost knowledge can never be recovered nor the imagined sharing of sensibility ever be re-experienced. On the other hand, scholarly reading today sets out to retrace parts and moments of reading entrusted to the implied reader by recovering elements and mechanisms of text organization, selection, etc. And what of nonscholarly reading? There too, the question of rereading may be of interest since, once read, the Genji monogatari constitutes an actual reader’s own repertory of the work, a repertory not without links to a reduced version of the initial implied reader’s repertory. Hence the integration effected by rereading many microsequences, using an approach which we characterize as centripetal to the text.

29The question remains open as to what a first-time reader of the Genji monogatari reads today. The modern reader’s repertory has, a priori, little in common with that of the implied reader originally addressed. This is precisely the time when this group of anecdotes regains provisional autonomy (since as the novel progresses the repertory changes, and memory and anticipation carry out incremental corrections) and the modern reader is able to enjoy the pleasures of fragmentary, centrifugal reading, fleeting though they (the pleasures and the reading) are.

30In closing, let us examine some of the narrator’s comments which appear in the text and which seem definitively to respect the reader’s freedom. In such moments the narrator states that she will not describe what has taken place; in other words, textually and explicitly she is managing the Leerstellen which no repertory can attempt to fill. We shall limit ourselves to two of the many identifiable sequences of this kind. The first comes from Chapter 12, “Suma” 須磨, when the narrator explains why she cannot give us a report on the letters and poems Genji has written.

He did write to certain people who should know of the event. I have no doubt that there were many fine passages in the letters with which he saddened the lives of his many ladies, but, grief-stricken myself, I did not listen as carefully as I might have. (p. 220)

さるべき所どころに、御文ばかり、うち忍びたまひしにも、あはれとしのばるばかり尽くいたまへるは、見どころもありぬべかりしかど、そのをりの心地のまぎれに、はかばかしうも聞きおかずなりにけり。(vol 2, p. 163)

31Although the average reader cannot fill the void, it remains an opening point in the text, and this despite not constituting a gap that significantly affects the advancement of the plot.

32The second sequence brings us back to a fictional outgrowth mentioned earlier, the Cinderella story. The chapter ends in this way:

Though no one has asked me to do so, I should like to describe the surprise of the assistant viceroy’s wife at this turn of events, and Jijû’s pleasure and guilt. But it would be a bother and my head is aching; and perhaps—these things do happen, they say—something will someday remind me to continue the story. (p. 302)

かの大弐の北の方上りて驚き思へるさま、侍従が、うれしきものの、いましばし待ちきこえざりける心浅さを恥づかしう思へるほどなどを、いますこし問はず語りもせまほしけれど、いと頭いたう、うるさくものうければなむ、いままたもついであらむをりに、思ひ出でてなむ聞こゆべきとぞ。(vol 2, p. 355)

33Everything happens as though the author has grown tired of devoting her time, ink, and paper to anecdotal matters, that is, to events that do not affect the plot of the novel: therefore she does not think twice about giving her narrator a headache. Unless the narrator is feigning illness to avoid performing a chore… But what a lovely headache, the reader might say, delighted to find, in the form of a never-to-be resolved uncertainty, room for freedom and imagination in what is essentially outside the text of the Genji monogatari.

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1 Der Akt des Lesens, 1976; L’acte de lecture, théorie de l’effet esthétique, French translation, 1997; Japanese translation, 行為としての読書、美的作用の理論、岩波書店、1982.

2 Edward Seidensticker, trans., The Tale of Genji (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), pp. 215-216.

3 Genji monogatari, Shinpen Nihon koten bungaku zenshû (henceforth SNKBZ), Shôgakukan, vol. 2, 1995, p. 154.

4 The Tale of Genji, pp. 362-363; SNKBZ, vol. 3, p. 25.

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Electronic reference

Anne Bayard-Sakai, “The Anecdote, or Microfiction and Its Relation to the Reader”Cipango - French Journal of Japanese Studies [Online], 3 | 2014, Online since 12 October 2015, connection on 30 May 2023. URL:; DOI:

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