3. The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu (transl. Edward G. Seidensticker)
At this point in my series, 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius, which happens to be very early, you may be thinking "Why does he have to pick books that are over 1000 pages long?"
The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil and The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin are both multi-volume works. Now I add to the list The Tale of Genji, which is no less than 1090 pages and 54 chapters. If it is any consolation to readers who dislike long books, most editions of The Tale of Genji have the woodcut illustrations reproduced from a 1650 edition of the novel.
So there are pictures.
But let me get to the real reason why I've made The Tale of Genji number three on a list of 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius . . .
Some stories, from the moment you begin reading them, beckon you into a world--a world that by the first page has already charmed you, has already captured your interest with only a handful of details about that world--and you are ready to settle down into this fictional place and stay there indefinitely.
Such was my early experience of reading this delightful novel, which also happens to be the "first great novel in the literature of the world".(1)
I remember the exact twinge of emotion as I began The Tale of Genji. You may have felt this before, it often comes at the beginning of a great novel. You read the first sentence and your heart strings pull a bit, you read the next sentence, then the first paragraph; and what fills you thereafter is such a tremendous amount of sheer love, a deluge of love--
Whether it is a love for the author, or for her created world, I'm not certain. But I'm pretty sure that it relates to a love of literature. The pleasure of books that happened to me long ago. And so, now you know why I prefer multi-volume works . . . . longer books afford a longer holiday in the imaginary realm.
The Tale of Genji is a romance novel, but nothing like the romances of its time, or the romances of our time for that matter, because of how realistic and believable it all is. The novel describes court life during the Heian dynasty in 10th century Japan--and to a contemporary reader, this is a real treat.
We are treated to details of setting, daily rituals, and gossip of a pre-modern society. A work of fiction that takes place in the 10th century, and was written in the 11th--imagine that!
The seductive power of the novel lies in the charm and charisma of its hero--the idealized prince, "the Shining Genji". Genji's extreme good looks, his poetic sensibility, and the many women he seduces all interest us, but it is the contradiction he seems to have been born with that lends his character even greater mystery.
On the one hand, the narrator paints her hero as if he were a god, possessing gifts beyond human measure; on the other hand, the story of Genji is the story of an emperor's son born out of wedlock. The "prince" therefore has common blood running through him. This other side of Genji, which is human, which is fragile, also makes him an emotional wreck.
The narrator seems to know everything there is to know about Genji, and the story itself is engrossing. It is a preeminent tale of passion from beginning to end. But Murasaki Shikibu, the Japanesse noblewoman and author, gives her readers more than a sensationalistic biography. The richness of psychological observation, the depth of characterization for a novel written at such an early point in history, the loose-flowing narrative strung together with Japanese couplets, suffuses the literary work with a dual sense of modern and ancient.
The narrator's attitude toward her subject, her awareness of Genji's inherent contradiction as both a person and a character, adds a layer of complexity to the tale. If you are like me, you will find yourself trying to guess what the narrator, and by extension, the author, thinks about Genji. Because her point of view seems to change throughout the novel, along with the good and bad fortune of the protagonist . . .
The story behind Genji's birth tells as much about Genji as it does about the ancient emperor and his low-ranking concubine. There is a strange connection between Genji's birth, the formation of his character, and the subsequent events in his life . . .
We read about the events surrounding his birth in the first paragraph:
In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court. The emperor's pity and affection quite passed bounds. No longer caring what his ladies and courtiers might say, he behaved as if intent upon stirring gossip.
We are immediately drawn into the court intrigue. By the end of the first paragraph, we seem to have all of the information we need to understand the story.
His court looked with very great misgiving upon what seemed a reckless infatuation. In China just such an unreasoning passion had been the undoing of an emperor and had spread turmoil through the land. As the resentment grew, the example of Yang Kuei-fei was the one most frequently cited against the lady.
Sympathy arises for both the emperor's concubine and the emperor himself. The predicament is laid out so plainly that we grasp it without effort and want to know what happens to each of them.
Though the mother of the new son had the emperor's love, her detractors were numerous and alert to the slightest inadvertency. She was in continuous torment, feeling that she had nowhere to turn. She lived in the Paulownia Court. The emperor had to pass the apartments of other ladies to reach hers, and it must be admitted that their resentment at his constant comings and goings was not unreasonable. Her visits to the royal chambers were equally frequent. The robes of her women were in a scandalous state from trash strewn along bridges and galleries. Once some women conspired to have both doors of a gallery she must pass bolted shut, and so she found herself unable to advance or retreat. Her anguish over the mounting list of insults was presently more than the emperor could bear. He moved a lady out of rooms adjacent to his own and assigned them to the lady of the Paulownia Court and so, of course, aroused new resentment.
When the young prince reached the age of three, the resources of the treasury and the stewards' offices were exhausted to make the ceremonial bestowing of trousers as elaborate as that for the eldest son. Once more there was malicious talk; but the prince himself, as he grew up, was so superior of mien and disposition that few could find it in themselves to dislike him. Among the more discriminating, indeed, were some who marveled that such a paragon had been born into this world.
If my discussion of The Tale of Genji has peaked your interest, but 1000 pages sounds too long, there is a shorter edition with fewer chapters (by the same translator).
You may also like to read a few chapters online.
I do recommend the translation by Edward G. Seidensticker over the Waley and Tyler translations. The Seidensticker translation, hailed as a classic, is without embellishment. The Waley translation, while beautiful and poetic, strays from the original too much. The Tyler translation does not quite evoke the same mystery. It is too dry, too scholarly perhaps.
This post is part of a series of posts on 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius
1. Edward G. Seidensticker, Introduction to The Tale of Genji.