Reading Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji

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Before I get into this, I must say that I only ended up reading about fifty or so pages of The Tale of Genji for various reasons (such as being lazy). As such, everything I say will just be based off of that initial part.

A bit of background, first. The Tale of Genji is largely credited as the first ever novel (though of course there were stories before it), written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century. (As her name might suggest, the novel was written in Japan.) It was recognized as a literary classic soon after its writing (according to Wikipedia, which I am using as a partial resource, it was considered a classic as early as a decade after its completion), and has been translated numerous times; I have the Arthur Waley translation, which was completed in 1933.

The Arthur Waley translation of the novel is quite interesting, especially grammatically; my knowledge of grammar is pretty basic, so I don’t know the reasoning, but there are numerous inconsistencies with modern American English grammar. First off, there’s a bit of confusion with paragraphs. Often speech is not marked by a new paragraph, and often there are two different people speaking in a single paragraph. How much of this is error, original intent by Murasaki, or interpretation by Waley is not clear, but it’s nevertheless interesting.

The prose is poetic and often long-winded, sometimes to confusion. The novel is short on proper nouns, and there are tons of places where I simply didn’t know what was going on (though that might have been my fault). It’s incredibly interesting and even fun to read, though; especially when I tried reading it in a Japanese voice (specifically one from Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time). Because of the prose’s interesting nature, the story can be hard to follow–like I said before, I was often confused as to who the novel was referring to or specifically describing, which added an interesting sense of confusion to the reading (surprisingly, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to be confused!). Luckily, the extent of this relented after the first chapter; a footnote explains that the first chapter was written in a more fairy-tale or court diary style.

The story itself follows Genji, a son of the Emperor; the exact details of his position are a bit confusing (more so because of my unfamiliarity with Japanese culture and government at that time) and are often irrelevant. The actual plot of the novel, at least in the first three chapters I read, follows Genji’s romantic exploits; the first chapter follows his initial upbringing, the second chapter involves a teenaged conversation between Genji and a few friends about women (which is, interestingly, rather condescending towards women without feeling overblown or caricatured by Murasaki), and then the novel gets into things proper (the details of which are extremely interesting, even if I can’t properly remember them).

The culture of Japan in the early 11th century is truly fascinating; most notably the frequent quoting of poems, usually in relation or analogy to the situation. It seems as if the people of that time and location had dozens if not hundreds of poems and songs memorized, which seems like it would be hard enough to do without anything else in one’s life.

Overall, reading The Tale of Genji was incredibly enjoyable (though of course I only read that beginning; I plan on reading the rest… sometime) as well as educational; the amount of similarities between the novel and modern novels is pretty amazing, especially, even if the translation has something to do with that. I might suggest a more modern translation, but I heavily recommend reading some version of The Tale of Genji if you’re interested in literature and its history.

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