10. Book 10: Japan (English) – The Tale of Genji = Genji monogatari (MURASAKI Shikibu)


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.


This Heian Era classic from about 1000 CE is famous as probably the first great novel in the world and one of the earliest classics by a female writer. It is massive and took a long time to wade through! You can even see her development as the writing gets better and the characters more multi-dimensional as the plot progresses. It does have something of an unfinished, uneven feel though. Genji himself was gone so suddenly that it seems as if a chapter is missing, which is apparently the case. It gives lots of interesting insights into the exotic world of the Japanese court. Genji is a royal prince and a playboy – and to these modern eyes his womanising seems a bit tiresome! His relations in these polygamous times are quite complicated.
The Japanese appreciation of nature and importance of social relations stand in relief.
Incidentally, Murasaki Shikibu’s given name is unknown. Personal names were seemingly unimportant during this period, likewise in her book. Murasaki (’Purple’) is actually this book’s heroine (are there any other authors who had their name taken from one of their own creations?), while Shikibu was a courtly title held by her father.


Murasaki Shikibu (c.  973 – c. 1014), The Tale of Genji, translated from Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, NY/London, Everyman’s Library, 1992, ISBN 978-1-85715-108-4

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