So much has been said about Genji Monogatari (源氏物語): some say it is the world’s first novel; others, the greatest novel ever written; others again an incomparable source of information on Heian Japan. For some it is a satire, for others a great love story. All these are probably true, but it depends on your point of view, culture and even your sex as to how true. There have been manga, movie, emaki and opera versions but the original is still the best and likely to always be so.
Genji was written by a noblewoman residing at the Heian court in 11th century Japan. We don’t know her name, merely her honorific court names, Murasaki Shikibu. What is extraordinary about her book is its depiction of the lives of about 400 characters, all rendered naturalistically and realistically over a period of many years. No other writer has ever been able to do this.
Genji is the greatest work of Japanese fiction, and has inspired Kawabata and Tanizaki. It’s position in Japanese literature is analogous to that of Skakespeare in Elizabethan drama or Homer in Greek poetry. English translations include the free one by Arthur Waley, once regarded as a major work of English literature in itself, and versions by Edward Seidensticker and Royall Tyler, which make attempts to deal with conventions in Heian literature not accessible to English (nor modern Japanese) readers.
My reading showed me that it is one of the greatest of autobiographies. For me, Murasaki, whose own name we do not even know, is the true hero of the story. Genji himself is a cypher: yet for sure Murasaki loved him, or someone like him. In her book Murasaki stands revealed; it is one of the great acts of intimacy in world literature. She is tangible, present in every adjective, real, alive. She was a strong living personality, a passionate nature, possessing great sensitivity to nature (so much more than the conventional Heian pose) and one who loved deeply and was not able to express her love. Of Murasaki, the scholars tell us, we know nothing. But her book tells us as much as one person can tell another, and with such power that we can never forget her.
This is a book from a distant era. Its survival, composition, culture and conventions, even its authorship, have inspired scholarly debate. There is even a ‘Murasaki question’ to parallel the ‘Homeric question’, concerning who wrote the book. Homer is in fact a useful analogue, but we don’t need to know any of this. Murasaki tells us all we need to know. Over 1,000 pages, 400 characters and many, many tankas, yet we never lose the way. I like to think that Murasaki never finished her book, and that somewhere she is still writing some later chapters, that someone who loved so deeply in 11th century Japan could be granted some special dispensation by those in charge.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.