The Genji Monogatari

The Tale of Genji (The Genji Monogatari) is the great classic of Japanese literature.  It was being written in the first years of the 11th century (so just a thousand years ago) by a lady at court, Murasaki Shikibu, and runs to 1200 pages in English translation.  There are now two full translations, one, published beginning in 1929, by Arthur Waley, the second, published in 1976, by Edward Seidensticker.  It is frequently called the first great novel in world literature, for it is prose narrative, but laced with waka, as that was presented as almost the standard courtly medium of dialogue.  The first two thirds of the book are the story of  Genji, the "Shining Prince," opening with his experience as a young lover, as he moves from one woman to another.  Then, as Genji grows older, the book does deal with more extended relationships, particularly with his second wife, Murasaki, and with his political fortunes--both out of power, in exile, and in power.  As a hero, Genji is not a fighter, comes before the samurai warrior ideal makes its entry into Japanese literature, a few hundred years later  He is a dancer, a singer, a poet--a man of all arts--and, above all, a lover.  And the book as a whole is not "The Tale of Genji."  Two-thirds of the way through the book, chapter 42 opens with the sentence "Genji is dead,"  and the central character in the last third is Kaoru, thought to be Genji's son, but actually the son of his friend Kashiwagi.  The book is not structured as most Western novels are, for, while generally chronological, and while one complication does lead to another, for a Western reader there seems to be relatively little attention given to plot--the author is interested in her characters (as Kawabata still is).  But its narrative substance, and, above all, that glorious Heian milieu, have provided the story material and characters for much of the important fiction and drama that has followed in the thousand years of Japanese literature since it was written.

In the early chapters, the character of the young Genji is central.  He is a son of the emperor, so a prince, and in natural capacities a "shining" prince, but his mother was a lesser lady of the court, so his inherent charm breeds jealousy in many others of superior station, and his mother dies when he is just an infant,which means that he absolutely depends upon the favor of his father--which, in general, he has.   In his romantic affairs, he seems at times to be chasing the memory of his mother.  In the early chapters it is as if the young Genji has a new woman in each chapter, and clearly the memory of his mother attracts him to some of them.  He has an affair with one of the emperors concubines, Fujitsubo, who reminds everyone of Genji's mother, and she then has his child, though it is thought to be the emperor's--which causes many problems later.

Murasaki could be called the heroine of the novel, is the most attractive female.  Genji first sees her when she is still a child (and he is but seventeen, though already an experienced lover), from a distance, when he is at a retreat recovering from a particularly traumatic love affair which has resulted in the death of the woman, Yugao.  He is so taken by Murasaki that he  "kidnaps" her from her grandmother, a nun, and then undertakes to train her to be the perfect wife.  This is a provocative idea in any culture, and it is fascinating to see how this sophisticated court lady of 1000 years ago works out the details of the relationship.

Generally acknowledged as the best critical study of this novel in English is Ivan Morris's The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (Oxford University Press, 1964).


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