Tim's Reviews > The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
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Jan 25, 12

Read in March, 2010

This is a truly magnificent work, a great gift to fans of classics, romance and Japanese literature. The quotes on the inside cover say it all.: "Both epic and intimate...A landmark event", "the oldest full-length novel in existence, and still very much alive...Tyler skillfully catches the erotic flavor, the vivid characterizations, and the elusive poetry of this classic", and "superbly written and genuinely engaging".

What I want to focus on is why a modern reader should attempt to navigate 1,120 closely packed pages, and why this book is not for everyone.

Why should you care? This is the earliest novel in the world, written between 1009 and 1016. It was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a gentlewoman to the Empress and probably her daughter. The chapters were handed around the court and the earliest surviving version comes from over 200 years later. Not only is this the first novel ever written it is a great story, and is just as alive today.

The Story: The story follows the life of Lord Genji, a son to the Japanese emperor. Because his mother dies when he is young and she was only a lower Intimate, Genji is made a commoner, but as he is a favorite of the Emperor he is also very well connected. This gives him the maximum flexibility, able to pursue life without the ritual obligations of a royal family member but also able to become politically influential.
We follow Genji and his offspring throughout the trials and tribulations of their lives. The narrator gives several perspectives throughout the book, which bring vividness to this tale. There are parts where the story sags, and the transition from the focus on Genji to his grandson Kaoru when the author changes (this is a controversial point in Japan, but the book really changes after chapter 41) is a little rough - but perseverance is rewarded, and the story does pick up. Editors were in short supply I suppose. The ending is also abrupt, they think the second author died suddenly.

Three premises:
Sex:Genji has a prodigious sexual drive and the first part of the book focuses on his love life. Don't read this if you bring modern sexual perspectives to the story, the romance is successful if you can think of the perspectives of the time.
Genji: Also Genji is a true romantic hero. He is never described - he is just beautiful and gorgeous, and smells great and plays the kin (7-string musical instrument) wonderfully and recites moving poetry and sings like an angel. If you can't believe that, don't start the book. You need to accept the basic romantic premise that Genji is the man.
Women:Like in Shakespeare, women are more powerful than their station in society would make them appear, and this shows up more clearly later in the story. Women are not helpless, and this story is not sexist.

The Poetry: One important characteristic of high court literacy at that time was memorizing hundreds of tanka - short 3 line poetry a little longer that haiku. The characters frequently either recite or refer to well-known tanka. Tyler's notation of the poems are detailed and bring the story to life. My favorite poem is from Kokinshuu 611: "My love knows no destination and has no end, the only boundary, to me, is the next time we meet". Poems seem to appear on almost every other page, and are a crucial feature of the book.

The Translation: After reading this book, I have looked up Royall Tyler on the web. A distinguished professor in classical Japanese, this is his final work before retiring. I tried to read an earlier translation but had to give up, this translation just sings, and seems to balance the work of Seidensticker (accurate but dull) with Waley (inaccurate but interesting). This is translated from a language that included very few pronouns and the convention of listing all the characters at the start of each chapter and their current title was very helpful in following the story. Several times I got lost on who the subject of a particular sentence was but those notes really helped.

The Takeaway: Reading Genji takes commitment and patience but your effort will be rewarded many times over. There are a few times in the book where the authors speak directly to the reader, and they always made me smile. To think that Murasaki Shikibu, 1,000 years later was speaking to me about how she felt about her own characters was amazing.
The is an abridged 400-page version out there too, but as a purist I can't recommend it.
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