Little Labors
March 7, 2016 3:18 AM   Subscribe

The Only Thing I Envy Men is an essay about women writers by Rivka Galchen, taken from her book Little Labors. The book focuses partly on writing by Japanese women, especially the 11th Century writers Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, authors of The Pillow Book and Tale of Genji respectively. The latter has recently been retranslated, and was the subject of a lengthy article in the New Yorker by Ian Buruma.
posted by Kattullus (10 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I first heard of the Tale of Genji here on metafilter 13 years ago now. And have been thankful ever since that I did.
posted by dng at 3:29 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

And also, coincidentally, am currently reading Pregnancy Diary by Yoko Ogawa (which means I have had to skip over the end of the first article for now, I'm afraid).
posted by dng at 3:38 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

After spending years on my to-read list, I took the plunge into Genji after reading Buruma's article. I've been reading it slowly, one chapter at a time, and I find it an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking read.

I also read Shirley Jackson's Live Among the Savages last summer. I thought it was a remarkable book. Galchen's new book would be intriguing to me if it mentioned only one of those works, but both, and adding a bunch of other works I like, makes it a must-read for me.
posted by Kattullus at 4:53 AM on March 7, 2016

There's a new translation of the Genji?! Good lord, I had no idea!
posted by Sokka shot first at 4:59 AM on March 7, 2016

(It's that men can have "secret babies" and women cannot.)
posted by notyou at 5:39 AM on March 7, 2016

I think I mention this in every "early Japanese women's literature" thread, but any Genji fans here should definitely read Towazugatari (which translates to "a story nobody asked for", though it's usually referred to in English as The Confessions of Lady Nijo). It's the memoirs of a Kamakura-era court lady and courtesan to the emperor, as she narrates her life, which is one part Game of Thrones-level court shenanigans (Nijo is a brilliant politician, and before her fall-from-grace and self-imposed exile from court she wound up the second most powerful woman in Japan after the empress) and one part a long list of affairs. The entire book is written as a narrative of "poor me, watch as I get buffeted by the winds of fate" but if you read between the lines it's about a brilliant strategist Littlefingering her way through the Kamakura court. It is an amazing book.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:03 AM on March 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu are very much worht reading. Thanks for the info that there is a new translation of Genji.
Also, I would suggest reading Ono no Komachi, for her life and legend as well as her poems.
posted by librosegretti at 8:58 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I love Galchen so much and only begrudge her because being so much a part of the new york literary elite excerpts like this from her upcoming book come out so painfully ahead of the time I'll actually be able to read the whole thing.
posted by wyndham at 10:21 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm also convinced she has the best taste in literature of anyone currently alive.
posted by wyndham at 10:22 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

That's a wonderful essay (I'm not entirely sure why you decided to distract from it with stuff about Genji, but never mind me, I like single-link posts), and I yelped with joy when I got to this:
What was I going to say? [...] That one of my favorite contemporary novels that also happened to be by a woman was “The Last Samurai,” by Helen DeWitt, and that one of the things I liked about it was that it takes so many pages into the main section before you recognize the narrator’s gender as female, and then so many pages more before you realize that the narrator of that section is a mother, in fact a single mother, who is trying to develop herself as a scholar and who tries to solve the problem of presenting a male role model to her son by setting him up to watch Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” over and over, a ridiculous but understandable plan, and that then the major section of the book is the son trying to solve the mystery of his paternity by investigating one potential father after another? It also seemed relevant to me that this brilliantly wordy and weird book actually sold many copies only because, randomly—and I feel pretty sure about this, though I’m only guessing—there was a Tom Cruise film by the same title that came out around the same time as the book.
It also sold some copies because I raved about it back in 2003 ("This is the best book ever written"), and you must all run out and buy and read it right now and encourage Ms. DeWitt to write some more damn novels.

Ahem. Back to your regularly scheduled discussion of Rivka Galchen!
posted by languagehat at 12:04 PM on March 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

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