M.J. Fiori's Reviews > The Tale of Murasaki

The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby
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Jun 26, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: i-am-obsessed-with-japan, actually-reviewed
Read in April, 2010

I very much enjoyed Liza Dalby's The Tale of Murasaki while I was reading it. But it was only after I read two other books that I realized exactly how good the book was.

These other two books were the real-life memoirs/diaries of Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji, the 11th century masterpiece considered by many to be the world's first novel) and A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, a classical Heian work that deals with the same age. (The latter book has been itself "reworked" in A Tale of False Fortunes, a 20th century novel by Fumiko Ueda Enchi - another novel I highly recommend.) These works, among other historical sources, provide the facts and the bones for Dalby's engaging novel, which is a attempt to reconstruct the life of the Lady Murasaki spent at Heian Japan's royal court and on its fringes. Liza Dalby's research was impeccable; and after reading the source materials and seeing exactly where they become vague, ambiguous or simply nonexistent, the scope of the imaginative work she put in becomes clear. It is pure speculation that Murasaki fell in love with a cultivated Chinese scholar she met while living with her father at his "exile" post, far from the Heian capital. But it is fact that Murasaki wrote knowingly and certainly first hand of love and loss as well as courtship and court life, that her knowledge of Chinese (literature, culture, simply the ability to decipher the characters) set her apart from nearly all other women in Japan of the day. The relationship that Dalby paints between Murasaki and the visiting Chinese scholar - their friendship budding, flowering and growing over discussions of art and poetry - is completely believable. It makes sense that Murasaki's "origin story" include some explanation for how she managed to cultivate such strong and nuanced artistic sensibilities when she had a quiet upbringing and was later stuck in a provincial backwater, albeit with a highly cultured father. This is only one example of the "life gaps" that Dalby fills in; Murasaki's feelings towards and home life with her husband represent another big question mark historically, and this is also handled in a very believable manner. The novel flows so smoothly and so logically that it was impossible for me to surmise at first reading which aspects were historically based and which were the author's invention.

Liza Dalby relies on the speculation that the bulk of Lady Murasaki's memoirs - particularly her dutiful, detail-laden accounts of important court events (the birth of Princess Shoshi's first child, the festivities that followed on the auspicious days after the birth, etc.) - was commissioned, probably by the Regent Fujiwara. The passages containing more personal, obviously "unscripted" observations by Murasaki are fewer and farther between. The most interesting and tense portions of the novel concern how Murasaki manages to navigate a relationship at court with the powerful, overbearing and sometimes lecherous Fujiwara - doing his bidding (mainly involving her literary skills) while somehow keeping out of his clutches. This is the man whose praises are trumpeted in A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, another work probably commissioned by Fujiwara himself as a way of preserving a glowing legacy for himself and his clan. As the novel shows, Murasaki *must* present everything related to Fujiwara's family in a good light for posterity; the rest of the book is concerned with how she managed to survive the vagaries of court life while still devoting herself to her masterwork, Genji.

Why is Lady Muraski is an interesting subject? She was the first novelist, a woman who stood out among even the (much more highly educated) men of her era for her erudition a quick wit - a highly valued skill at court and one she mastered was the ability to compose a tanka on the spot to commemorate an occasion or even a fleeting moment - and she was in an elite circle of court ladies gathered about the Princess Shoshi, Fujiwara's daughter. The travails of life as a woman in an earlier, repressed age; the burdens of court life with its gossip, intrigues and ambitious jostling for position; relationships among women as well as love and friendship in a culture that demanded that men and women be essentially separated by a screen at nearly all times; life in a highly cultivated, highly stylized age that is extremely unlike anything we know in the west today ... all this makes for a fascinating read. You don't have to have pre-existing knowledge of Heian Japan to appreciate the book. But if you do, you may appreciate its author even more.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Ðɑηηɑ (new) - added it

Ðɑηηɑ A great review :) I think I gonna read this book, I am very into Asian Historical Fiction!

M.J. Fiori Thanks. In that case, I think you will enjoy it.

message 3: by Louise (new)

Louise This is a terrific review, renders other reviews obsolete. Thanks!

message 4: by Ijeoma (new)

Ijeoma What a wonderful review! Thanks for taking the time to share.

M.J. Fiori Thanks for the kind comments! I realize I have completely gotten out of the habit of reviewing books. But it's interesting to go back and read my own detailed thoughts years later (and I love reading other reviewers' impressions), so maybe I should self-motivate more.

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