The Tale of Genji
By Shikibu Murasaki
The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece of Japanese literature, written in the 11th century — and it just may be “the world’s first novel”!
This unabridged edition is quite long — more than 50 chapters and 1300 pages — and bookended by a detailed introduction and a brief translator’s note. Each chapter title consists of a Japanese word or phrase, plus a translated phrase, a poetic image.
Shikibu Murasaki was an “imaginative genius court woman…chronicling…the darkening beauty of a world in decline”; in this book she’s written perhaps “the central literary work of the Japanese tradition…”
The introduction discusses the book’s “challenges and pleasures”, and how we can ground ourselves as readers in appreciating the context of the work. It includes a mini-biography of the author, words on “writerly practices and readerly expectations”, and notes on the translation process.
What’s it about, story-wise? I’m not quite sure yet! It’s epic, it contains romantic imagery and exchanges of poems, it features observation, experience, relationships unfolding. I only have a most general sense and I feel like I still need a more thorough narrative synopsis. But what’s most striking to me about the book is its remarkable longevity and lasting impact — not only an epic novel but an epic writerly achievement.