Japan across time (Tale of the Gengi by Murasaki Shikibu)

“She was clever for her age, and she interested him. Difficult and unconventional relationships always interested him.”

In some ways, The Tale of Genji is a coming of age story. A handsome and charming youth, Genji has a way, as they say, with the ladies.

What is old—and this story is old—is new again. Written in the 11th century in the milieu of the political court of Japan, Murasaki gives us a story that is timeless. Just remove it from the privilege of palaces and the political intrigue and we have a story that could have been written today. Murasaki has managed a story that isn’t dated in language, style, or content.

The Tale of Genji has been compared to Gilgamesh and to The Iliad in timeless appeal, and it has the force of Shakespeare. As Shakespeare’s plays are interspersed with poetry, so too is Murasaki’s prose:

He plucked a few notes on his koto, but the sound only made him sadder.

“The waves on the strand, like moans of helpless longing.
The winds—like messengers from those who grieve?”

But the poetry she inserts is not hers. It is attributed to Chinese and Japanese poets of the past (that is, previous to the 11th century). And, like haiku, the quotes are pithy, descriptive, and timeless, and they totally relate to the passages they enhance.

My reading has taken place during the period of recent “Me Too” revelations and accusations. Clearly, while many of the women in this novel were willing participants and, like Genji, shed tears when the affair took a hiatus, there’s often that awful power imbalance. At least in one instance, there are uncomfortable circumstances involving a young girl he’s raising like a daughter. Genji’s behaviour can create shudders, yet Murasaki paints a feeling, sensuous young man who makes his way through a convoluted, political maze and … (ah, no spoiler here).

As to how I happened across such an ancient story, I read an article by Joe Fassner published on Atlantic online, January 23, 2018 in which he discusses The Written World, by the Harvard professor Martin Puchner who calls The Tale of Genji a “foundational text.” Fassner quoted Puchner:

The book was written about 1,000 years ago, at a time when a lot of literature was still produced by scribes, collected from various sources and cobbled together by editors. The foundational epics and religious texts in circulation then were very different from the reading material we’re used to. In that context, Murasaki’s diary felt to me like a turning point in the history of literature—it sounds so recognizable, so intimate, so modern. The fact that someone living in an extremely different time, halfway around the world, a thousand years ago, could whisper in my ear in that way—it’s magical.

And that is what Murasaki did for me: she whispered in my ear during nights of bedtime reading.

She wrote her story at a time when women were not taught to read and write (apparently by listening from behind the paper screens to her brother’s lessons). Her topic is modern in subject and theme. The writing is accessible, despite the gap of eons and culture. And, adding to the magic, the story is illustrated with woodcuts that were first published in the 1650 edition of the Illustrated Tale of Genji. The world’s first novel is also one of the greatest, even if you’re not a Japanese aficionado, but if you are, you are in for a special treat.

31 The Tale of Genji

Note: I cannot locate a source for the edition I borrowed from the library (Vintage Classics Edition, June 1990) that is annotated and illustrated. The link (kindle edition) I’ve provided is also copyrighted by Edward G. Seidensticker and is most likely the closest to the version I read.

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Tale of Genji