The most famous work of Japanese literature and the world's first novel--written a thousand years ago and one of the enduring classics of world literature. Written centuries before the time of Shakespeare and even Chaucer,The Tale of Genji marks the birth of the novel--and after more than a millennium, this seminal work continues to enchant readers throughout the world. Lady Murasaki Shikibu and her tale's hero, Prince Genji, have had an unmatched influence on Japanese culture. Prince Genji manifests what was to become an image of the ideal Heian era courtier; gentle and passionate. Genji is also a master poet, dancer, musician and painter.The Tale of Genji follows Prince Genji through his many loves and varied passions. This book has influenced not only generations of courtiers and samurai of the distant past, but artists and painters even in modern times--episodes in the tale have been incorporated into the design of kimonos and handicrafts, and the four-line poems calledwaka which dance throughout this work have earned it a place as a classic text in the study of poetry. This version by Kencho Suematsu was the first-ever translation in English. Condensed, it's a quarter length of the unabridged text, making it perfect for readers with limited time. "Not speaking is the wiser part, And words are sometimes vain, But to completely close the heart In silence, gives me pain." --Prince Genji, inThe Tale of Genji
If you are only going to read one translation of the Genji, make sure it's the Royall Tyler one. This is a beautiful, beautiful translation. Seidensticker can be rather dry, and Waley can have some rather jarring anachronism, but this one just flows so smoothly and is true to the somewhat intuitive style of the original Japanese.
This is also a book that you shouldn't read in a hurry. Take the time to savor it. Maybe even just a chapter here, a chapter there. Curl up with a cup of tea and just drift for a while.
The story involves Prince Genji and his various amours in the first four parts and his descendants, especially his purported son Kaoru and his grandchild Niou, in the last two parts. (Kaoru's greatest quality, I kid you not, is his strong "entrancing personal fragrance.") Genji reminds me of a Japanese version of Don Juan. At times things are told so obliquely though, I wasn't always sure if he was involved with various women platonically or sexually, or even whether the various relationships are consensual or not. The women are often depicted as ambivalent and Genji's beauty and accomplishments seem not to simply excuse but erase his flaws in the minds of others. But then, no male character in the book acts all that differently--they're all relentlessly sexually aggressive. When Genji kidnaps Murasaki, a ten-year-old girl he's enamored with, I wasn't sure at first of the nature of his regard and the way he grooms her into a future wife, and initiates her into sex, is indeed creepy to my "modern sensibilities." Murasaki is the major female character in the book, and by and large is too passive for me to feel a connection with her.
But then, so is just about every female character in the book. The Buddhist Japan depicted in this novel is every bit as misogynistic as the Christian Europe of this era. According to the book, Buddhist doctrine holds women are inherently evil--or they wouldn't be incarnated as women. Nor are they allowed into "Amida's paradise" in the afterlife. Women, at least of the upper classes, can only converse with men not part of their immediate family through screens or curtains or through notes or intermediaries. So by and large in this book women are not directly active but acted upon and are constantly cringing away from male attentions, weeping about (but excusing) rape, and then often starving themselves to death, willing themselves to fade away, planning to throw themselves into the river or taking vows as a nun.
I don't know that I can recommend this as a great read or one that can really give you insight into modern Japanese culture. A reviewer pointed out that, like a modern English-speaker reading Beowulf, modern Japanese can't sit down and read Tale of Genji and comprehend it without a translation and notes. This doesn't fit Western (or maybe even Japanese) expectations of what is Japanese. No geishas, samurai, martial arts, kabuki, haiku, manga, sushi, tea ceremony--or ritual suicide. In fact, suicide isn't honorable at this time, it's a disgrace. This is such a lengthy tome--over a thousand door-stopper pages, with hundreds of characters; it's hard to keep track of who is who, especially since in the original they're not named, though the translation I read mercifully gives them monikers to make it easier to follow the narrative. It's often a tedious read, and it doesn't so much end as stop. Nevertheless, I was often struck at times by the psychological complexity and the beauty of descriptions, and it gives a detailed look at the court life of the period. This isn't at all a martial culture that is described, but one with a very elaborate aesthetic where courtiers burst into impromptu verse and notes are judged not just by content but color and quality of paper, how it's scented, style and quality of handwriting, how it's folded and what flower the paper is tied up with.
Given its historical importance, I'm glad I tackled it. I took it at a pace averaging less than a hundred pages each day--slow for me. My rating tries to strike a balance between my recognition of its greatness as well as how much a slog I found most of it. It fits between the one star GoodReads "didn't like it" and the five star "it's amazing" because to be honest my reaction is both. I think this is one of those works, like The Bible or Confucius' Analects or The Koran you get more out of if you prepare yourself, and not something I should have tackled as a stand alone. Someone pointed me to an essay by Michael Dirda about his experience reading the book. Before reading it he loaded himself up with works on Japanese literature and history such as Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince and Donald Keene's Japanese Literature. Others recommend Liza Dalby's Tale of Murasaki for an accessible fictional biography of Lady Murasaki and the Heian court. Maybe some day, if I'm masochistic enough, I'll give Genji another try after preparing myself better--but I doubt it.
(Oh, and as a Star Trek fan I couldn't help but be amused to see that Genji's moniker is "Hikuru." Sulu's first name is supposedly derived from it.)
The good looks that the people at court thought would lead to Genji having a short life, proved to be wrong and ended up turning Genji into s true ladies man. Most of the story is consumed by Genji's affairs, which can be a bit tiresome and confusing. Genji chose some rather unexpected characters to become his lovers including a little girl that he brings to the palace to shape into the perfect wife. One good thing about all of Genji's affairs is it gives the reader the chance to read many different Waka, which are two lined poems that would be exchanged between lovers.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Japanese history, since it is written by someone who lived during the Heian period. This book is also good for anyone who truly enjoys classics because it is considered one of the WORLD's first novels. However if you don't mind lengthy books, I would recommend reading the unabridged version which has 54 chapters compared to the 12 available in this version. One plus to the abridged version is it is full of woodblock printings inspired by the novel.
That's the good news. The bad news is that it's long and complex, which makes it a difficult read. Murasaki Shikibu didn't use any names for her characters when she wrote it. Instead she referred to characters rather obliquely by things like title or place of residence, which often change over the course of the story.
I've found that it's a book you cannot put down and come back to later and be able to pick up right where you left off. It's too complex for that. Rather, you have to be able to dedicate yourself to reading the book from start to finish, which is difficult to do given its length.
Casual readers will probably prefer an abridged version of this classic. Liza Dalby's Tale of Murasaki is also an excellent and accessible introduction to this work.
The Tale of Genji is an epic, inter-generational story filled with court intrigue, passion, desire and longing, with just a touch of the supernatural. It's almost like reading a Heian period soap opera. The eponymous Genji is the son of the Emperor's favorite Intimate. An exceptional man in both appearance and character, much of The Tale of Genji follows his life and romantic exploits. And because of his good looks, he is able to get away with much more than he really should. The last third of the novel turns to the lives of his heirs and descendants and their own romantic follies. While there is certainly an overarching narrative to The Tale of Genji, the novel frequently feels like a collection of very closely interconnected short stories. There is also a fair amount of humor in the tale. It's as if the reader is privy to the best court gossip and scandals.
One of the things that I love about Tyler's translation of The Tale of Genji is that it is so much more than just a translation. In addition to the copious and very helpful footnotes, Tyler provides an abundance of other useful information about the work and its context in the form of an extensive introduction, maps and diagrams, a chronology, general glossary, explanations of the importance of clothing and color, descriptions of offices and titles, a summary of the numerous poetic allusions, a list of characters, and suggestions for further reading. Each chapter begins with an explanation of its title, its relationships to other chapters, and indicates which characters are involved and the current title by which they are known. Also included are delightful line illustrations by Minoru Sugai depicting scenes and objects from The Tale of Genji, originally commissioned by Shogakukan Publishing. The only thing missing that I would have liked to have seen would be a family and relationship chart since things can get pretty complicated.
Granted, I haven't read any others to be able to compare, but I am very glad that I chose Tyler's translation of The Tale of Genji. Because Tyler remains so faithful to the original Japanese it's not always an easy read due to the amount of detail that must be gleaned from context rather than being explicitly stated and the complicated sentence structures. But Tyler offers plenty of guidance for the reader who wants it and I found his translation to be both elegant, accessible, and informative. Even excluding the additional material provided by Tyler, The Tale of Genji is a lengthy novel. Instead of ploughing through the book like I might have, I chose to take my time with the novel, reading a few chapters every few weeks and extending my enjoyment over a long period. Reading The Tale of Genji was a wonderfully immersive experience into Heian period Japan. For me, it was completely worth the time and effort required to really appreciate the tale.
Experiments in Manga
If offers a panorama of characters surrounding the lives and loves of Genji and Murasaki. It opens a window into life of ancient Japan, a time when admiration for beauty prevailed.
Genji to the English-speaking world and had a tremendous cultural impact. It was also the first version I read (since at the time otrher versions were not around), and contributyed to my lifelong interest in Heian Japanese culture.
Now, granted, I suspect a lot of readers are just like me, in that we'll go hunting for really good things about this book, even if, on the surface, it perhaps does less for us than most 1400 page medieval tales. And I'm not afraid to admit that the overwhelming impression I have now is that this is astonishingly long, and astonishingly old, and despite those two things is easily readable as what we today call a novel.
The problem is that we today are not accustomed to reading books like this. Genji is more like a successful '90s television series: it's pretty good, it's best taken one hour per week, there turns out to be very little variation but who cares because you're only reading it for an hour a week, and then the show-runners, who never had any real idea of how to end their now twenty year old 'artwork' just kind of stop making it. That's just like a lot of books that we now read as old novels: they weren't meant to be read cover to cover in a short period of time, they were meant to be dipped into, lived with, were meant to sink into the reader rather than be swallowed like a nice cherry. I admit, I've been formed by the modern novel, and I like to eat. Besides, if I spent years reading a book, I'd never get to write a goodreads review, and then my life would have no meaning.
All of that said, Murasaki was clearly a woman of genius. That she can keep someone even moderately interested, despite the book's lack of variation, (what we now think of as) shallow characterisation, and formlessness is a testament to that. The real flaw of the book, from this modern reader's perspective, is none of these things, but the final third. Here, we have a story following the generation following Genji's. It's a fine story, about two young men and three young women, lots of love, conflict, and so on. But it suffers in comparison to the story of Genji himself for two reasons. First, the Genji part is very narrowly focused on Genji himself, which means that for all the proliferation of characters and incident, we have a firm base. The later chapters lack this strong focus, and it's not clear to me that Murasaki (if she actually wrote those chapters; apparently there's some debate) had as much control there as she did earlier. Second, the second part is very similar to the first. It's a bit as if Proust had put Swann in Love at the end of his novel: all the themes and dilemmas are there for you to see, but instead of being a little introductory taste, it's more like being served another main course after your main course.
All that said, a scholar will be able to tell me why I'm wrong about these flaws, show me how important they are to Murasaki's art and so on.
A scholar will not be able to convince me, though, that you should read Washburn's translation. Leaving aside the very odd decision not to have a list of characters (which becomes incredibly irritating in the later chapter, when everyone's being referred to by family associations), the prose is workmanlike at best. Nothing is ever unclear, which is nice, but there are so many sentences of the "There was one thing that Mr. Spot didn't like to do, and that is write calligraphy" type (where any competent writer or editor would have condense them down to "Mr. Spot didn't like to write calligraphy") that I sometimes wondered if anyone had proofread the thing at all. They obviously did, since there are only a couple of typos. But there's no way you could read this book and know that Murasaki is meant to be a master stylist. I don't know if the Penguin translation is any better, but I have to assume it is, and recommend that to people instead of this one.
My God, I can't take it anymore. Shining Genji this, pretty Genji that. Everything is always pretty and everybody always cries because things are so beautiful. Genji has affairs with women at the rate of one per chapter, Genji has affairs with a woman who looks like his mom, Genji adopts a little girl which he raises to be his wife, and builds a nice house to move them all in. His children are all fantastically beautiful. Everything is peach fuzz. Courtship -> the affair -> then the noble ladies pine for Genji. This happens multiple times.
Of course, there is the whole matter of my being raised in a completely different time and place, and thus missing out on a huge background of cultural context. Perhaps all this could be explained. So this isn't the end of my affair with Genji yet.
I'm not quite sure, in my uninformed opinion, that Genji can still be considered a novel. There is a definite prose style, multiple recurring characters. and even some form of psychological insight. There is also extensive usage and quotation of poetry. There also isn't much of an overarching plot, just several small narrative arcs which span a few chapters at most.
Blech. I might reread one of Vollmann's novels about whores to get the taste out of my mouth.
It's considered a classic both from Eastern and Western standpoints.
I am also cheating by writing this review after completing just the first volume of the two volume work - 570 out of 1200 pages. I will go on to read the remaining text, but I badly needed a break.
The Japanese language seems ideally suited to indirect speech, and the Tale of Genji makes it clear how much content was delivered by allusion rather than clear expression. Royall Tyler has tried to convey some of this in his translation. To make it comprehensible for the average English reader he adds information at the start of each chapter, and provides extensive notes to the text. Without this assistance it would be just about impossible to know who is who. The characters are referred to by titles, which change regularly as they proceed through life, or by a reference to something that happened in their story - a colour, a flower, a plant, a place and so on. I found myself frequently lost, even with Tyler's assistance.
But while the full length book is not as easy a read as the simplified text, the effort is worth it. You get a wonderful impression of the sophistication of life in the Japanese court 1000 years ago. The manners, the art, the architecture, the landscaping, love and courting - are all so far in advance of anything happening in Europe at the time that it gives a western reader cause to pause.
Of course, part of the appeal is the strangeness of the social mores of the time - courtship and conquest can occur without the beau ever clearly seeing the face of his paramour!?
The Tale of Genji is often referred to as the first novel. While it is different in concept from modern novels, it is certainly recognizable as a "real" novel. I don't know enough about Japanese literature at the time, but it is certainly a remarkable effort. The writer, Murasaki Shikabu, was a court lady of the 11th century, and her book seems to have become popular almost immediately.
Read (and still reading) Aug 2017
The story itself basically covers the romantic intrigues of Genji and his son over a long period in the court of feudal Japan. I did not find it all that engaging through much of the narrative but as an insight to society and its customs it was certainly educational. I am glad I stuck with it and finished but it is not a tome I would wish to revisit anytime soon.
Read Samoa June 2003
The story centers around Genji, the son of the Emperor, who is removed from the line of succession because his mother was of lower class and was acceptable. With power out of his grasp, Genji more or less becomes a collector of women, whom he installs in different wings of his house. As he ages, his political fortunes change a bit, then stagnate and the things Genji did as a young man circle back as he experiences them from the opposite end.
There were parts of of the book that were cringy for me -- even though I understand this was a different time period -- not all of these women really wanted to be collected and his relationship with the young Murasaki was troubling. Overall, I thought the book was okay, but it definitely wasn't something I would have pushed through if it weren't on the 1,001 list.