Recognized as the world’s first novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” is a spiraling epic that encompasses a beautifully complex portrayal of 11th-century Japanese Imperial Court life.
Penned by a noblewoman, the novel starts with the birth of Genji, the “Shining Prince,” a son of an emperor. Although much of the book follows Genji’s growth and later exhaustive amorous pursuits, don’t expect a straightforward line of action. Also acknowledged for its psychological study, the novel continues its contemplation of aristocratic society after Genji dies, with the final quarter of the novel presenting the exploits of another young prince, revealing the superiority of Genji by comparison.
Royall Tyler’s 2001 translation, too, is superior, not only for the actual text, praised for its lively, exact rendering of the original, but for his inclusion of extensive notes and appendices, including maps of the inner palace, a chronology of the entire novel, and a summary of the poetic allusions found within.
Reflecting the courtly culture of poetic letter-writing, the novel’s pages are strewn with scraps of the heart revealing the full range of human emotion. In Chapter 24, “Butterflies,” Genji asks, “Must that dear bamboo, so young when I planted her deep in my garden, grow up with the passing years to a life apart from mine?”
To read “Genji” is to walk within the refined culture of Heian Period Japan, (794-1185), to marvel at selfishly pampered aristocracy and to discern the sly intrigue and undercurrents that marked this period in history.
Each week “Essentials” introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.