From great fiction, more fiction still


THE TALE OF MURASAKI: A Novel, by Liza Dalby. Doubleday, 2000, 424 pp., $25.95.

What if the author of “The Tale of Genji” had written an autobiography and it had remained undiscovered until now? What would it be like?

That is the proposition Liza Dalby took on by composing just such a narrative. The result is “The Tale of Murasaki,” a flowing, empathetic tale. As well it might be. Dalby, who worked in a geisha house in Kyoto, studied anthropology and wrote “Geisha” (1983), also went on to write a history of Japan’s national costume, “Kimono: Fashioning Culture” (1993).

One must of course begin by recognizing that there is little biographical material about the author of “Genji” — beginning with her name: Murasaki Shikibu. Murasaki means “purple” as well as “agrimony,” a plant from which a red-purple dyestuff used to be extracted, and shikibu “the bureau of ceremonial.” How the two were put together to create what was to become the most famous name in Japanese literature is uncertain — except that both her father and brother held positions in that government bureau.

Some scholars have given her dates, 975-1014, but most question them. “Eiga Monogatari,” a chronicle of the court in which she served, makes a few references to her, as Fuji Shikibu, but few other contemporary documents mention her as a historical figure. As with Shakespeare and his oeuvre, some have even doubted that Murasaki was the sole author of “The Tale of Genji” — most recently, on the basis of computer analysis.

As to how her mind might have worked, though, there is much to draw on. First, Murasaki has left a “nikki,” a diary. A hodgepodge of various observations and reflections, including what appear to be letters, it was prepared, scholars say, over a brief period, from late 1008 to early 1010. But it gives an excellent flavor of Heian court life. Arthur Waley incorporated passages from the nikki into the introduction to his famous translation of the novel. Dalby does something similar, though in a more natural storyteller’s way.

So, when her Murasaki comments on her poet-colleague Izumi Shikibu, Dalby provides settings, as the real Murasaki doesn’t. On one occasion, the fictional autobiographer hears that her friend Sanenari is paying court to Izumi. “Of all people!” she exclaims, and observes:

“That she was witty I was the first to admit. She could produce poems at will and always managed to include something novel that caught the eye. Yet when it came to a thorough knowledge of the canon, and the ability to judge the work of others, she left a lot to be desired. I could not think of her as a poet of the highest caliber, but I supposed she must have other charms.”

Murasaki has also left a collection of about 130 poems. They are mostly “occasional poems,” many of them exchanges with this or that person. Taking advantage of this, Dalby has incorporated them into her narrative in the manner of an “uta-nikki,” poetic diary. The fact that the headnotes to many of the pieces are ephemeral gives Dalby a great opportunity to exercise her imagination.

I imagine, for instance, that Dalby dreamed up an attractive Chinese visitor named Ming-gwok from the headnote to a poem, which refers to someone saying, “I’m going to see Chinese.” Her Murasaki has a wonderful liaison with the gentle, accomplished youth.

Then there is “The Tale of Genji” itself. Dalby unobtrusively weaves scenes and characters from “The Tale” into her own story. There is, for example, a scene where the narrator’s brother, Nobunori, brings home a bunch of friends, and the young men, getting expansive on sake, discuss women they’ve known. It is a lively re-creation of what is known as “Ameyo no shinasadame” — “Grading women on a rainy night” — which occurs in the “Hahakigi” chapter of “Genji.”

None of the young men in “The Tale of Genji” is as blunt as a man who blurts out, “What I like is a woman who is ready to f**k as soon as you rustle her curtains.” But the language itself isn’t far-fetched. Plain talk is common in down-to-earth anecdotes such as those collected in “Konjaku Monogatari.”

One character who may strike some readers as too comical to be real for the genteel world of Genji the Shining Prince also comes straight out of the original tale. At one point, the fictional Murasaki decides to brush up her koto-playing skill and goes to practice with a princess who has lived “in somewhat straitened circumstances since her father died.”

“. . . Another servant moved the dingy curtain stand, and I caught a glimpse of a long pale face with a bulging forehead. Peeking dramatically over the top of an ancient fan was the most amazing nose I had ever seen, bright pink at the tip, as if it had been dyed with safflower.”

One of the many women Genji seduces is just such a person. She is given the sobriquet Suetsumuhana, “Safflower,” and her nose is compared to “Samanthabhadra’s vehicle” — to wit, the white elephant.

I can’t tell how many such scenes and characters Dalby has taken from Murasaki’s writings, but Dalby’s approach prompts a thought: Someone who reads “The Tale of Murasaki” and then turns to Murasaki’s diary, poems and “Genji,” as many no doubt will, will have moments of recognition — in more courtly but less natural settings and circumstances.

Dalby uses other contemporary sources. To give just one example, toward the end of her narrative, the fictional Murasaki speaks of her dreams, in one of which “a viper was slithering within my entrails and gnawing at my liver.” These startling images come from the “Kagero Nikki” (Gossamer Diary), by a woman known only as Michitsuna’s mother (936?-995), Murasaki Shikibu’s distant relation. She appears as “Auntie” in Dalby’s story.

The Murasaki Dalby has created is bisexual, adventuresome, sensitive to seasonal changes, pragmatic and contemplative. She is, above all, engaged in the world she is creating: that of Genji the Shining Prince. She shows drafts of chapters to various friends and supporters.

Indeed, it is when she learns that Empress Shoshi, whom she serves, expresses disappointment in the last 10 chapters of her “Tale” that she loses heart and begins to withdraw from worldly society. This is possible. There has been a centuries-old puzzlement over those 10 chapters, called “Uji jujo.” They deal with the world after Genji and seem somewhat inconclusive. This may explain why Dalby decided to add a “lost and last” chapter as an epilogue.

“The Tale of Murasaki” is an elegant achievement. Only someone who has nurtured an affinity for Japanese culture since falling in love with “The Tale of Genji” in her teens, as Dalby tells us she did, could have imagined herself as an 11th-century Japanese court lady with such persuasion.