Did Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki) invent the novel in 1000 AD? The Tale of Genji is read in Japanese schools as Shakespeare is read in English and North American schools today.
The 1,000-year-old Japanese novel is a testament to the continuity of human nature and to the unceasing variety of customs and social arrangements that civilizations engender. Reading it is in some ways a challenge, and yet it goes down easily, in a dreamlike way, not quite understandable yet consistently alluring.
The first part of the book is a biographical novel about “The Shining Genji,” a son of the emperor of Japan and one of his low-status concubines.
He is intelligent, graceful and wonderfully good-looking, and sets himself the task, early in his adult life, of knowing and loving as many women as he can. His task is complicated by the fact that most of the women he might come to know are sequestered and unavailable, but his charm and intelligence more or less overcome this difficulty.
He lives to the age of 48 or 50; he marries polygamously several times; he finds true love; he has several children; he finds wisdom.
It is this last that gives The Tale of Genji its enduring appeal.
Heian Japan (794 to 1185 AD) saw the popularization of Buddhism.
By the 10th century, there were well-established philosophical and poetic traditions that Lady Murasaki easily drew upon to infuse Genji’s career, but also his inner life, with meaning as well as lyrical power.
At one point about halfway into the novel, for example, when Genji is, to all appearances, at the height of fame and power, he and one of his wives discuss whether spring or autumn is to be preferred.
After Genji leaves, the wife reflects: “He brings everything altogether in himself, like a willow that is all of a sudden blooming like a cherry. It sets a person to shivering.”
Genji himself is only made more thoughtful and humble by his great career, and in the end dies lamenting his failures and flaws rather than celebrating his successes.
It is this, the author implies, not his looks or his intelligence or his achievements or his high connections, that raises him above all others.
The latter portion of the novel concerns the rivalry and intrigue between the two young men over a pair of sisters, daughters of a nobleman who lives at some distance from the imperial court.
Murasaki explores the contrasting psychologies of the four main characters and the consequences of their various choices as they attempt to wrestle with their desires and their conflicting loyalties.
As in the earlier section, formalities of birth and inheritance only temporarily veil realities — characters discover that they are not who they thought they were, and that desire often overcomes taboos.
There is an integrity to it all that is made up of Lady Murasaki’s overriding interest in what love is and what it feels like, in the progress of seasons and years, in the relationship between the inner life and external circumstances.
Somehow, The Tale of Genji defies the passage of a millennium and invites us to ponder that the more things change, the more they stay the same, while the more they stay the same, the more they change.
Jane Smiley’s complete review at the Globe and Mail.
A photographic appreciation of the Tale of Genji.