The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji

Book - 1992
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In the early eleventh century Murasaki Shikibu, a lady in the Heian court of Japan, wrote what many consider to be the world's first novel, more than three centuries before Chaucer. The Heian era (794--1185) is recognized as one of the very greatest periods in Japanese literature, and The Tale of Genji is not only the unquestioned prose masterpiece of that period but also the most lively and absorbing account we have of the intricate, exquisite, highly ordered court culture that made such a masterpiece possible.

Genji is the favorite son of the emperor but also a man of dangerously passionate impulses. In his highly refined world, where every dalliance is an act of political consequence, his shifting alliances and secret love affairs create great turmoil and very nearly destroy him.

Edward Seidensticker's translation of Lady Murasaki's splendid romance has been honored throughout the English-speaking world for its fluency, scholarly depth, and deep literary tact and sensitivity.

(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)

Publisher: New York, N.Y. : Knopf, 1992
ISBN: 9780679417385
Branch Call Number: FICTION Muraski Shikibu
Characteristics: xxv, 1184 p. ; 21 cm
Additional Contributors: Seidensticker, Edward 1921-2007

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Apr 12, 2019

Though set (and written) in the royal courts of Japan in the dim mists of history, some aspects of this rambling work (not a “novel” in the modern sense) are familiar. With all their needs taken care of by others, these royals have little to do with their time but form alliances, dalliances, and petty rivalries (all in the most polite of courtly manners, of course, and often by writing poetry to each other). The story goes on, as their lives go on, continuously sprouting new storylines (not really “plots”), fractal-like, never reaching a conclusion – in other words, it is not too much of a stretch to call this a soap opera. Other aspects are quite foreign to a contemporary American audience, such as the aforementioned use of poetry and allusion, and the fact that it was rude to speak of anyone by name (the translator has used names on occasion but usually refers to characters by their royal title). There are dozens of characters, and an occasional touch that seems surprisingly modern, such as the blank chapter indicating Genji’s death. There is an occasional interference by the supernatural, such as one character who dies near the beginning but comes back as a ghost in a later chapter – modern audiences would probably be surprised ("Genji" is not at all a frightening tale) and call this “magic realism”, but it appears to simply have been part of the beliefs of the time and the reader “back then” wouldn’t have found it disconcerting. Even more disquieting, though more important to the work as a whole, is the kidnapping incident – which may be a sordid reflection of the “beauty and the beast” archetype, and may also be a semiautobiographical insert by the author herself.

“Genji Monogatari” is also known for its illustrations, produced roughly a century after Murasaki Shikibu wrote the book. Many of these are reproduced as line drawings in this edition; most of them fill in cultural details (clothes and costuming, tools, games, instruments, mythical figures) that the modern audience would miss. A few of them are distracting or off-topic (I thought “Bushy Beard” would be a character from folklore but it turned out merely to be an illustration of one princess complaining that so-and-so’s beard was unkempt), but these are few. All in all they provide an interesting commentary for an interesting (at least historically interesting) book.

Mar 12, 2018

I think the translator is Royall Tyler. Not sure what the deal is with the cover picture, though!

Feb 19, 2018

It would really help to know who the translator is for this version!

Mar 15, 2010

This 1100+-page novel about Royal Japanese life, 1000+ years ago, was a fascinating read. Chronological, characters and translation of Japanese terms as well as diagrams helped. As the novel is based upon Lady Murasaki life, I first read and recommend: "Diary of Lady Murasaki". Enjoy!


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