‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu (Review – Part One)

IMG_5249There are big books, and there are BIG books.  Today’s choice is a BIG book, not just in size and weight, but in history, importance and (most importantly) enjoyment, and it’s one I’ve been meaning to get around to for far too long now.  It’s time to take a trip back into history, winding the clocks back a thousand years or so.  The language is different, the manners are foreign and the way people spend their days doesn’t quite fit in with today’s lifestyle.  One thing hasn’t changed though – boys will still be boys…

The Tale of Genji (translated by Royall Tyler), written at the start of the eleventh century by a lady living somewhere in the royal court (later given the name of Murasaki Shikibu), is undoubtedly one of the classics of world literature.  A long, long time ago in a galaxy country far, far away, the Emperor was borne a son by one of his junior wives.  Despite his preference for the wife, and the son, power struggles in the court meant that he would never be able to leave the throne to his latest child.  Instead, the child became a ‘commoner’, and ‘Hikaru Genji’, as the child was quickly dubbed, grew up outside the royal family, but still in a life of luxury.

Genji also had a gift of good looks, and boy did he use them.  This was an age when men of high standing were permitted to, nay encouraged to, explore the availability of the opposite sex, and when it came to exploring, none were as adventurous as the shining one.  However, after years of amorous conquests, he settles on one young lady (if not for the most romantic of reasons), and what follows is somewhat unexpected given the events of the first part of the book – a true love story…

I’m sure many readers will be a little puzzled by my tongue-in-cheek summary of the novel, but (as anyone who’s read the book will know), that is definitely one way of introducing The Tale of Genji.  The problem is that there are so many other aspects to the novel that one measly blog post, no matter how in depth it might be, could never really hope to do more than scratch the surface.  This is a book which on its own can represent a nation’s literary, if not cultural, past – just mention the word ‘Genji’, and you’ve already evoked more than a thousand years of history…

But what’s it really about?  Well, it’s an epic novel (in my version, 1120 pages) encompassing  the traditional 54 chapters, the content of which is, well, pretty much what I described above.  The first half of the book, especially, is all about Genji and his many, many women:

“He had feared that Genji’s looks might suffer once his hair was put up, at least while he remained so young, but not at all: he only looked more devastatingly handsome than ever.”
p.16 (Penguin Classics, 2003)

Rich, handsome, cultured, nice-smelling – oh, and permitted by the prevailing culture to basically assault any woman who takes his fancy -, this is a recipe for disaster, particularly for the reputation of any beautiful woman in the vicinity of the palace.  I won’t lie – there are parts of the book which can make for rather uncomfortable reading…

If this is how the book continued ad nauseam, it wouldn’t be the classic it is, though.  The truth is that The Tale of Genji is a book which gives itself the scope to examine a man’s life in detail.  It really is the tale of Genji, as we follow him all through his life.  The way in which the child becomes an adolescent, then a young man, then a leader of the realm and finally an old man wishing only for the tranquility of a temple in the mountains allows us to forget (some of) his early transgressions.  In fact, while in his youth he pursues many women, he cares for them all in his own way, and even does his best to help those forgotten by others when their beauty begins to fade.  He also mellows with age (somewhat..), even if sparks of the old flame surface from time to time:

“Despite himself he could not help seeing that that old habit of his, to suffer agonies for impossible desires, was with him still.  This was beneath him.  Not that he had not done far worse, but he reminded himself on the subject of his early escapades that the gods and buddhas must have forgiven errors committed in his thoughtless youth, and that thought reminded him how much better he now understood the perils of this path.” (p.360)

This is a book which explores a man’s character, his strengths and, especially, his weaknesses – which, having got to know him, we can (mostly) forgive.

The more I read of the book, the more I thought of another writer who used his work to follow the life of a man, a certain Anthony Trollope.  No, wait, I’m going somewhere with this…  Anyone who has read the Palliser novels will know that while the main topic appears to be British politics, the overarching theme of the series is an examination of the life and character of one character.  Plantagenet Palliser is a man born for great things, even if he didn’t really want them, and while Genji and Palliser are rather different in character (the Englishman is a born worker where his Japanese counterpart is much more of a dreamer), they are connected by their inability to escape their birthright.  The truth is that both the Duke and His Grace would turn their backs on the world if they could.

Surely their love lives are very different, though?  Superficially, yes, but if we look deeper, there are similarities between their great loves.  Murasaki and Glencora are both young women forced into marriage with an older man (in Murasaki’s case, through immense and distasteful trickery) and both feel abandoned throughout the work (one for other women, one for politics).  However, as the books develop, the two women come to love their husbands, and both are loved deeply, in turn, by the men; when the inevitable, tragic, early end arrives, the men are inconsolable.  Drawing a long bow?  Perhaps – the Genji-Palliser parallel was one which I had in mind constantly while reading The Tale of Genji, though…

With the overwhelming charisma and presence of His Grace, one of the surprises about The Tale of Genji is the fact that the main man himself doesn’t make it to the end.  Murasaki passes away around two-thirds of the way through, and her husband doesn’t survive her by much (his passing is marked, poignantly, by an empty, unnumbered chapter entitled ‘Vanished into the Clouds’).  After his death, there are a few, bumbling, connecting chapters before the start of a new narrative, one in which the next generation comes to the fore in the shape of Genji’s grandson, Niou, and His Grace’s supposed son, Kaoru.

This last third of the novel has two main purposes.  The first is to continue the rivalry between the two (dead) friends and protagonists from the main part of the novel, Genji and Tō no Chūjō.  While it may seem that the young men are both of Genji stock, the truth is that they’re not – and blood, as always, will out.  You see, in matters of the heart, Genji was always a step ahead of his contemporary 😉

The second theme of this last part of the book is the comparison it engenders with the original story, and its inevitable lack of the gloss of the earlier story.  It’s true that Niou and Kaoru are handsome, virile men, intelligent and cultured, their robes exuding the subtle fragrances of incense.  However, when set next to Genji and his generation, they are merely young boys, copies of the original.  In many ways, the continuation of the story merely serves to confirm to the reader (and listener) how times have changed for the worse – the good old days really were better.  Plus ça change…

And that’s as far as we’re going today –  I’ve got more to say, just not here.  Tomorrow, in the second half of my ramblings, I’ll be looking at past and present, gender inequality and the wonders of translation – do join me 😉

17 thoughts on “‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu (Review – Part One)

  1. Hi Tony, I saw the book in the bookshop and it looks attractive and is not expensive (around 30 euro’s). I have an older translation. I doubt wether I will read it in English, a Dutch translation or not at all. Probably I’ll take the easy way and lend a Dutch translation from the library. Most of times I prefer the Dutch translation above the original (English or not) except for books like “Huckleberry Finn” that are unreadable in translation. Greetings, Erik


    1. Erik – It is long, so it’s probably one for the language you’re most comfortable in – provided, of course, that it’s a good translation 😉


    1. Chelsea – I’ll be commenting, briefly, on the translation in the second part of the review. Suffice it to say that I prefer this one…


        1. Claire – Noooo! I loathe reading long books on an e-reader – they’re for short books, things you want to get through quickly (also free short stories etc). For a good long book, you need the real thing 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Tony, I read the first 70 pages in the Royall Tyler translation. It’s a beautifully produced book. Still reading it proved a bit tiring, so now I’m going to try the Dutch translation. Greetings, Erik


  3. Just discovered your blog today. I also have a blog, titled Svetlana’s Read and Views, and on my blog I review contemporary fiction, some non-fiction and so far. I loved Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, and I was curious what your take on it will be. Glad you also enjoyed it 🙂 If you were to ever delve into Chinese literature, try out Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin 😀 and good luck!


    1. Svetlana – Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Genji is a classic, of course, and I’m sure it’ll be near the top of the list when I come to look at my books of the year…


  4. For some reason I couldn’t add a comment here yesterday?
    Anyway, this was a great review, and very inspiring for me as a reviewer myself, so thank you for this 🙂
    I’ve ordered this version of the book so it should be very interesting to read it later 🙂


    1. Jävla Musik – Thanks 🙂 It is a great read – in fact, I’ll soon be opening a commentary on the book, the third Genji-related work on my blog in the past year!


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