Back in the 11th Century, at the same time the English were just about getting over the Battle of Hastings, a Japanese lady was writing a book which has been called (though this is subject to debate) the first ever novel. And that novel was called The Tale of Genji.
Weighing in at a massive 1169 pages long, this is not a book for the faint hearted. But to my surprise, despite its length, it's actually quite an easy read.
First thing to consider before you decide to read The Tale of Genji is which translation you want to read. There are merits and demerits for each of the translations in terms of accuracy, but as a non-Japanese speaker (well I'm working on it, but ancient Japanese is probably as difficult to decipher to a modern day Japanese speaker, as Anglo Saxon would be for a modern day English speaker) my primary concern was around how the writing flowed and how easy it was for me to read. So that would be my advice, always, when you have a number of translations to select from: read an extract from each of the translations and pick the one that best works for you. There are three main translations of Genji, being (in chronological order) the Arthur Waley translation, Edward Seidensticker and Royall Tyler. In terms of accuracy I believe the Tyler translation is said to be the most accurate, Waley's the most beautiful and Seidensticker's a bit somewhere in between the two. Just looking at a single passage, you can see the difference:
'Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the
hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall--audible till then as a gentle
intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising
and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most
unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such
surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed,
continually planning and counter-planning.'
'Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.'
'Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now
raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath
the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie
swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail
in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so
much to ponder, could not sleep.'
Now, for me after considering all the texts the Seidensticker translation worked best, but that's just my choice. If you want to read Genji, I'd suggest you have a read of all three versions and pick the one that works best for you.
Once you've decided on which version to read it's time to get reading! So, a little about the story. Genji, of the story's title, is the favoured son of the Emperor by his favourite lady (though not the Empress). Because Genji is born to one of the Emperor's lesser ladies which generates much jealousy, and because he is so handsome, the Emperor decides to make him a commoner minamoto rather than according him princely status. On account of the extreme jealously towards his mother, she falls out of favour in court (though not with the Emperor) and the effect of the jealously eventually brings about her death.
The Emperor is disconsolate until he discovers the beautiful Fujitsubo who rivals Genji's mother in beauty. As Genji grows older, he falls in love with Fujitsubo and as a result of an unfortunate encounter (unknown to the Emperor) he fathers a son by Fujitsubo. The child is brought up as Genji's brother and later becomes Emperor.
The story follows the 'shining Genji' through his romantic exploits, his pursual of ladies of rare and singular beauty. And through these exploits we learn more about Japanese courtly culture in this time period. And it is a story told beautifully, with seductions carried out through poetry, with distinction being measured by familiarity with the classic Chinese poetry and the delicacy of the writer's calligraphy. Refinement is measured by the length of their sleeves, the careful selection of their dress, the quality of their gifts.
One of the things that comes through the story is the slightly unhappy treatment of the ladies. For example, Genji, being obsessed with Fujitsubo, finds a young girl who is related to her (her father is Fujitsubo's brother). The girl, being underage, is effectively kidnapped by Genji and taken into his house. She becomes, after a time, his principal lady, his Murasaki (namesake of the writer I think) who is in all respects the perfect lady, distinguished, beautiful beyond compare, delicate of mind and deed, patient in spite of Genji's many infidelities. Aside from this kidnap of a minor, the violation of a lady's honour (a 'gentleman' forcing himself upon her) results in dishonour for the woman but not, it seems, for the man. If Murasaki Shikibu wants us to see how women are mistreated this comes through quite effectively in the novel.
Genji is certainly a novel of two halves. In the first part we see how the shining Genji goes through his life, his trials and tribulations, his affairs, his great successes. It is a shining time, and whilst it is not without difficulties there is little criticism of the behaviour and character of Genji and his cohorts. However after Genji dies (yes dies!) half way through the book we follow the lives of Genji's son Kaoru (who is not his son but the son of Cho no Chujo's son Kashiwagi following an affair between him and the Third Princess who was Genji's wife - complicated much?) and Prince Niu who is Genji's grandson. There's a certain darkening to the second half, the exploits are not so forgivable or laudable, their poetry not so refined, their mastery of the arts (music, dancing) not so complete. Their behaviour results in the possible suicide of a lady who is almost literally torn apart by their 'affections'. It is a dark time and all that is good and valued, all that was shining has become tarnished.
And this is one of the most interesting things about The Tale of Genji, how it tells us that whilst the specifics, the details may have changed, some things are eternal. The feeling that we are living in a declining age is a feeling which spans back through the centuries, back to the early writings of an 11th Century Japanese lady, writing the first novel. A reminder, perhaps, that whilst things may change, human nature stays the same.
I could have gone on reading Genji forever. It is a sad, beautiful, exciting, passionate and enlightening story. Not without its flaws; it takes time to get going (the first few chapters are a bit meh) and there are bits in the middle that feel kind of wrong and disjointed, but at its core it is a love story and the object of love is Genji.
The Tale of Genji receives an historic 9/10 Biis.