If you’re anything like me, you love a good classic. The Odyssey, Iliad, Journey to the West, and other mammoth-sized books in the category impress upon the reader not only a sense of an intense dedication to the tale (many of these in fact authored by more than one person), but also a universal truth: the Story remains much the same.
However, there is a certain tendency publishers have with these gargantuans––perhaps to keep them accessible, perhaps to make them feasible material for literature classes––and that is to hack off huge portions of the text to keep the page count to a more reasonable number.
While I get the idea behind it, I am an intense avoider of “abridged” editions of anything (unless we’re talking Yu-Gi-Oh Abridged, which cracks me up terribly), mainly because I have a hard time knowing I’m not getting the full story, and also, because anything that has been cut has been done so subjectively… and how does the editor know what I will and won’t want to read?
To put my case in point, I’m going to talk about The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. The novel is extremely important, not just in Japan, but for the history of literature, as it is considered the very first Novel, with a capital N. That being a story that shows consistent character development (arcs of high and low, changed perceptions by story’s end, etc.), as well as modern definitions of conflict, climax, and resolution.
The Tale of Genji was completed in 1021, by a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shōshi. It was written in installments, and perhaps more importantly, it was written by Murasaki Shikibu in a time when women were highly discouraged from carrying any formal literacy. (It should be noted that Murasaki’s father didn’t care, and encouraged her studies.)
It is a complicated story that is hard to distill down into a paragraph, but basically, it follows the life and times of a Prince of the royal court, his conquests (a verifiable Japanese Casanova), and his quest to ‘sculpt’ the perfect wife. Keep in mind that this is an eastern culture, and at the time, polygamy was more than accepted amongst men, and even expected (it was basically expected if a woman allowed a man to see her face, she was allowing him into her bed–whether on accident or not, and if the man visited her three nights in a row, they were married, simple as that). There is political intrigue, including a scandal in which Shikibu wrote a fictional account of the imperial line being disrupted by a bastard child––something that the monks of the time assured Shikibu she would go to Hell for, and of course the classical tragedy of Japanese romance––no one finds happiness.
The book takes a drastic turn in the final third (a point which has scholars suggest that Shikibu’s daughter was in fact the person who finished the tome), and follows two of Genji’s relatives and their more tragic outcomes.
So, in short, this is one seriously long story. The most recent unabridged translation by Royall Tyler (which I highly suggest if you decide to pick it up) weighs in at 1,216 pages. One thousand, two hundred and sixteen pages of awesome classical literature. Yeah, it has its dragging parts, and partly because of the language it comes from (and the Empress it was written for, who, mind you, had it read to her) the language is highly formal and sometimes stilted. Tyler helps the reader get through portions of the text by reminding us at the beginning of every chapter who is now called what, because people are not called by their real names but their titles (Minister of the Left, Empress, etc), and stations are changing all the time.
Even granting those points, I find it hard to believe that this same translation, published in its abridged form by Penguin, has been hacked down to a mere 356 pages! Only a fourth of the entire text was deemed important enough to keep, and with some of the reviews I’ve been reading, it doesn’t help the text at all:
I’ve been reading Genji for 50 years. I’m no scholar and do not read Japanese, but I have kept coming back to it. It is one of the world’s greatest novels, and the earliest one. I have both the Waley and Seidensticker translations. I had hand surgery this summer and have been discovering the joys of one handed reading with my Kindle. I thought this an ideal time to revisit an old favorite. Wrong. This sad, truncated version lacks complexity, depth and charm. It breaks off incomprehensibly before the deaths of Murasaki and Genji, and the whole last third of the novel, the most psychologically interesting part, is missing. There are parts that Tyler usefully omitted, like those concerned with poor dreary Suetsumuhana, but if I had encountered it in this form 50 years ago I would never have given it a second reading. –Pandorabook
I remember when I was unpacking my books from America, and N J noted how BIG The Count of Monte Cristo was, and feeling angry that she might have read an abridged version in high school. It certainly makes me wonder how much of the Odyssey I missed out on (certainly it wasn’t as big as the 560 page book on my shelf now, while the abridged version on Amazon is only 174 pages).
Just take a look at all of these abridged books, and think about how many of the author’s words were deemed posthumously “fluff” and axed. In my case, nearly everything that got cut from Genji (above) were my favorite parts of the story.
If you’re a reader of classics, could you imagine one of your longer stories reduced to only 100 or so pages? Could you imagine one of your own novels reduced to only a fourth of its size?