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The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji

by Murasaki Shikibu

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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The Tale of Genji, thought by many to be the first novel in the history of world literature, was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, in the eleventh century. Lady Murasaki lived during the Heian Period (794-1185). Reading a general description of this era, it is known for the writing of poetry, diaries, and fiction produced by court ladies for court ladies. Themes often included the love of nature as well as the art of love within the court.

This is the tale of “Prince” Genji, a son to a second concubine and thus his status is relegated to a glorified commoner. With no real duties or status, Genji embarks upon making the ladies happy with poetry, song, and lovemaking. His first “love” is a concubine of his father, Fujitsubo. Fujitsubo is the niece of the deceased Kiritsubo consort which she highly resembles. For the remainder of the story, Genji will pursue women who resemble his mother; Freud would have a heyday.

While this book does give us important history and cultural information,my personal take is that it reads like a soap opera; maybe a pre-cursor to Don Juan. But then, give the people what they want, eh? Because of the longevity of this book, I rated it 3 stars, but I didn’t really care for it. Read it because is was on the 1001 BYMRBYD list. ( )
  tess_schoolmarm | Apr 4, 2018 |
This is a phenomenal novel. Difficult to read, yes; but definitely a worthwhile effort.
If offers a panorama of characters surrounding the lives and loves of Genji and Murasaki. It opens a window into life of ancient Japan, a time when admiration for beauty prevailed. ( )
  xieouyang | Mar 3, 2018 |
There are definitely some things to like about Murasaki Shikibu's massive "The Tale of Genji," especially if you're interested in this period of Japanese culture. The book's biggest strength is in the description of daily life of the Japanese court and commoners and in this manner, the book has an almost cinematic feel.

The story centers around Genji, the son of the Emperor, who is removed from the line of succession because his mother was of lower class and was acceptable. With power out of his grasp, Genji more or less becomes a collector of women, whom he installs in different wings of his house. As he ages, his political fortunes change a bit, then stagnate and the things Genji did as a young man circle back as he experiences them from the opposite end.

There were parts of of the book that were cringy for me -- even though I understand this was a different time period -- not all of these women really wanted to be collected and his relationship with the young Murasaki was troubling. Overall, I thought the book was okay, but it definitely wasn't something I would have pushed through if it weren't on the 1,001 list. ( )
  amerynth | Feb 28, 2018 |
Considered the first novel written in ancient Japan. I took this on as it is cited as a classic in literature. It was of monumental length and somewhat difficult for me to follow and associate the multitude of characters that emerged.

The story itself basically covers the romantic intrigues of Genji and his son over a long period in the court of feudal Japan. I did not find it all that engaging through much of the narrative but as an insight to society and its customs it was certainly educational. I am glad I stuck with it and finished but it is not a tome I would wish to revisit anytime soon. ( )
  knightlight777 | Jan 7, 2018 |
After having read all six of the Chinese Classic Novels, it seemed like a logical continuation to go on to the Classic Japanese novel Genji monogatari; not just because of the geographical proximity but also because Japanese culture was greatly influenced by China back then (the early 11th century) and I was expecting something in a similar vein. As it turned out, I was profoundly mistaken in that assumption – The Tale of Genji is something quite different and fascinating in its own, unique way.

Apart from their cultural and temporal remoteness, what probably throws off most contemporary Western readers attempting the Classic Chinese novels is their huge cast of characters, many of them figuring under several different names – something that can make the narrative very hard to follow. The Tale of Genji, however, manages to outdo this by not even bothering with names in the first place – all of its (supposedly around four hundred) characters are referred to only by rank or role, at the utmost a nickname by way of some association (with a place, a colour, a flower etc.). Even “Genji” is not really a proper name but a designation given to Imperial offspring outside the line of succession. Now, as the novel spans several decades and generations, ranks and roles keep changing, and you end up with not only one character having several different designations, but also the same designation being used for several different characters. This alone would probably have sufficed to make the novel nigh unreadable, but thankfully the translator and editor of the edition I have been using, Royall Tyler, kindly placed a dramatis personae not only at the end of the book but also in front of each individual chapter, and I cannot emphasise enough how extremely helpful this was (and even then, I got confused on a couple of occasions and had to backtrack to figure out in which relationship a given character stood to another, or to Genji, or to the Emperor).

Similarly helpful are the extensive explanatory notes Tyler has added as well as the gresat number of illustrations spread throughout the book, which are not only decorative but very frequently help the reader visualise clothing, furniture or other items of daily use referenced in the narrative. I was really happy with this particular edition and think it is exemplary in pretty much every respect – this is how editions of literary texts from remote epochs and places should be done. Tyler makes The Tale of Genji approachable to modern readers without modernizing it, and the same thing can be said about his translation – obviously, I do not have the first clue about how faithful it stays to the original, but it reads very well; the language has an easy, rhythmical flow, but without trying to make readers forget that they are perusing the translation of an ancient Japanese novel. Even with all of Tyler’s efforts, however, the novel remains tantalizingly opaque in many places, many of the customs – in particular those regulating relationships between the sexes – appearing strange or outright bizarre to a modern reader. But as it turns out, this is not a bad thing at all, quite to the contrary, as this distance and the resulting struggle by the reader to comprehend generate significance and as the strange customs frequently reveal surprisingly recognisable structures.

The Tale of Genji starts off with a death, the death of Genji’s mother, who his father the Emperor was so much in love with that he could not bear to let her leave when she fell sick, thus indirectly causing her death. The Emperor eventually goes on to take a new wife which resembles the previous one (i.e., Genji’s mother) very closely, and which Genji falls hopelessly in love with (and has sex with, resulting in a son a few chapters later who will eventually become Emperor in turn, i.e. take over the position of Genji’s father). And as if that was not enough, Genji (who during all this time is having countless – I gave up trying to keep up by chapter 4 – other affairs) comes across a 10-year-old child which very much resembles the Emperor’s wife (and thus Genji’s dead mother) who Genji declares his soul mate and abducts in order to bring her up to be his perfect lover (i.e., become a version of the Emperor’s wife, the one who is the spitting image of his mother). And all of this is thematically tied up with a discussion Genji and his friends have in chapter 2 about whether there is such a thing as an ideal woman… It is all quite dizzying, but also strikingly familiar – French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would have had a field day with the way the Oedipal theme here runs through several substitutions, permutations and deferrals until signifier and signified become hopelessly entangled. One can easily imagine a Lacanian reading of the novel based on the Freudian Fort/Da dialectics on this alone, and that is even before the following generations come into play… Obviously, I am not going to do this here, but I have to admit that I am sorely tempted.

Now, many people might not care about Lacan or even Freud, but even readers without any interest in psychoanalysis will very likely be struck by how deeply psychological The Tale of Genji is. I always assumed that self-reflexive subjectivity was for the most part an invention of 18th century bourgeoisie, most notably Kant and Rousseau and that Stendal was the pioneer of the psychological novel. But as it turns out, they were (well, Murasaki Shibiku was) already doing it several hundred years before in Japan. It seems likely that Murasaki got there by a somewhat different way (I will speculate a bit on that farther down), but her keen insight into what motivates human beings, her rich and nuanced descriptions of the inner life of her protagonists rival that of Stendal or any other nineteenth century psychological novelist. Even though The Tale of Genji takes place among the upper crust of Japanese feudal society (we meet several emperors, and almost all main characters are highly placed court officials), there is nothing about politics or warfare here – the novel deals exclusively with private affairs, the only subject (the narrator remarks at one point) suitable for women to write about. The novel’s scope is hence confined to the domestic, but what might seem a limitation ends up giving it focus – as an analysis of the mechanics and power shifts in Romantic relationships I think it is only rivalled by De l’amour and Proust’s Recherche à la temps perdu.

There is an additional facet to Murasaki’s work, however, which figures neither in Stendal or in Proust (or at least is nowhere near as prominent as in Genji monogatari) and that is a keen awareness of gender relations. In Japanese feudal society, the relationships between men and women appear to have been at least as strictly regulated as those between differences in rank, with distance being the all-important factor. And this means literal distance – there is a whole arrangement of barriers separating men from women in The Tale of Genji, starting with several layers of clothing, moving on to curtains, to wall screens, doors, and walls – symbolic and real space working together to keep the genders apart. Even while most of the interaction in the novel takes places between people of different gender, for the most part they are not even visible to each other during their conversations, but talk through some kind of barrier and the closeness between two people is indicated by the degree of physical separation between them. The males often invest considerable effort and guile just to catch a brief glimpse of a woman’s face or figure, which very frequently leads to them hiding and outright spying on a woman they are interested in (and at this point, I could have sworn I heard Lacan chuckle). It is important for women to keep that distance as otherwise their reputation and possibly even existence is threatened; but it will come to nobody’s surprise that the men on more than one occasion pierce those barriers even against resistance of the female behind them. Murasaki does only very rarely judge openly – the narrator generally keeps her distance, and only in a few instances draws attention to herself – but lets her characters condemn themselves by their own words and actions. There is more than one case of a male noble complaining about a female who had the misfortune to catch his eyes being “childish” only to then loudly denounce her as a wanton after she has given in to his forceful advances (and more often than not against her will). As the novel unfolds, it effectively presents something like an encyclopedia of rhetoric devices for dominating women – and I was struck by how much those devices resembled those chronicled in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s and Valentine DeLandro’s comic Bitch Planet, the first volume of which I happened to be reading at the same time as Genji. Both works obviously are very different from each other – but also very (and depressingly) similar in their cataloguing of ways in which women are manipulated and subjugated by a male-centered discourse, which apparently has not changed much during the last thousand years.

Genji, although far from innocent of this behaviour himself, at least differs from the novel’s other male characters in that he appears to genuinely care about his women, trying to give all of them at least some amount of attention and frequently taking care of their livelihood. And if this sprawling, dispersed novel has something like a centre, it would certainly lie in Genji’s relationship to one of them, the Murasaki under whose name the author of the novel has become known. She is the girl Genji abducts when she is ten years old, something the author makes quite clear was not at all a common occurrence in feudal Japan, and in spite of those rather inauspicious beginnings, the love between him and Murasaki runs as a red thread even through all of Genji’s numerous affairs and general inconstancy. With all of Genji’s ceaseless womanizing, the novel does get a bit repetitive and even a bit of a slog in parts, but the reader’s interest never quite flags completely before it is rekindled by the enchanting description of a lavish feast or the narration of a particularly adventurous tryst. And then, about two-thirds into the novel, Murasaki dies, and the chapter following this death, describing Genji’s reaction to it, is one of the most touching and heart-rending piecer of literature which I have ever read. The only comparison I can think of is the ending of Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders – in fact, once one starts to think about it, there are rather a lot of similarities between Delany’s novel and The Tale of Genji: Both present a decades-spanning love story between two people embedded in a closed community, both are centered around amorous relationships, both are (although for entirely different reasons) somewhat hard to get through on occasion, but reward the reader with a huge emotional pay-off…. of course, both novels read entirely differently, but the similarities are of a sufficient density to make me think that Delany consciously used Murasaki’s novel as a model for his own. All of which is a bit off-topic, but it shows, like the parallel to Bitch Planet I mentioned above, how The Tale of Genji, in spite (or possibly because) of all its strangeness and opacity, still can resonate with contemporary readers.

There is a surprising amount of poetry in this novel (at least I was surprised by it): Almost every time one of the characters sees some striking scenery, or experiences a particularly intense emotion, or has something interesting happen to them – in short, pretty much every time something in any way extraordinary happens, the experience is shaped and crystallized into a poem by the character it is happening to. And as if that wasn’t enough, poems also are an important means of communication between characters – they keep sending them to each other, and judgement on the quality of the poem often is synonymous with judgement on the person who wrote it. These poems are no spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, however, but are carefully crafted, full of clever wordplay and subtle literary allusions (and as such they are of course quite untranslatable – this is where the efforts of translator / editor Royall Tyler reach a truly heroic peak; and while there is no way to faithfully render the poems into English, he at least manages to give readers an appreciation of what the poems must be like in the original). Apart from their inherent quality and the light they shed on the characters presumably composing them (the poems being expressions of a character, their quality does vary somewhat, not all characters in the novel being equally accomplished poets), I think the poems fulfill a third, possibly even more important function for the novel as a whole: In order to be able to transform their experience into elaborately fashioned poetry, the characters need to step from the immediacy of that experience, to view it from a distance and ultimately, they need to distance themselves from their own selves.

Considering how central distance both literal and figurative is in The Tale of Genji, it is probably no surprise to find it structuring the most fundamental of the individual as well; there is a distance, a deferral inside the individual itself, and that distance not only enables the characters’ constant poeticizing but also the turning inwards on oneself, the self-observation and psychologizing that appears so strikingly modern about this novel and which now turns out to result from the profoundly feudal, hierarchical and rank-obsessed society it was written and is set in. (Or, one would at least like to imagine, maybe it is the other way around and the ancient Japanese penchant for allusive, wordplay-heavy poetry let not only to psychological observation but also to the kind of highly formalized thinking that determined Japanese society of that time and has lasting effects on the Japanese way of life until today.)
1 vote Larou | Nov 19, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
The main thing required of a noble gentleman in Heian Japan was a sense of style. Seducing another man’s wife could be forgiven; a bad poem, clumsy handwriting, or the wrong perfume could not.
added by Jozefus | editThe New Yorker, Ian Buruma (Jul 15, 2016)
Het verhaal van Genji is dé klassieke roman uit de Japanse literaire historie. Het boek werd in de elfde eeuw geschreven door Murasaki Shikibu, pseudoniem van een hofdame in de keizerlijke hoofdstad Heian-kyo (Kyoto). Het torent al duizend jaar als de berg Fuji uit boven het literaire landschap van Japan.
added by Jozefus | editNRC Handelsblad, Auke Hulst (pay site) (Nov 15, 2013)

» Add other authors (33 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shikibu, Murasakiprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Соколова-Д… Татьяна Львовнапер.main authorsome editionsconfirmed
Buckley, PaulCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Enchi, FumikoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Koh, TsuboiIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Seidensticker, Edward G.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tyler, RoyallTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Waley, ArthurTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Magesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor.
In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
There are reportedly three basic translations of "The Tale of Genji" into English. Arthur Waley produced a six part translation between 1925 and 1933. Edward Seidensticker produced the second English version in 1976, described as "doggedly faithful" to the original. The most recent translation into English is Royall Tyler's, published in 2001.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 014243714X, Paperback)

Written in the eleventh century, this exquisite portrait of courtly life in medieval Japan is widely celebrated as the world’s first novel. Genji, the Shining Prince, is the son of an emperor. He is a passionate character whose tempestuous nature, family circumstances, love affairs, alliances, and shifting political fortunes form the core of this magnificent epic. Royall Tyler’s superior translation is detailed, poetic, and superbly true to the Japanese original while allowing the modern reader to appreciate it as a contemporary treasure. Supplemented with detailed notes, glossaries, character lists, and chronologies to help the reader navigate the multigenerational narrative, this comprehensive edition presents this ancient tale in the grand style that it deserves.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:15 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

The Tale of Genji is one of the world's earliest novels, written in the 11th century. The novel's plot centers on the romantic relationships of the noble hero Genji.

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