Did Lady Murasaki invent the Novel?
The Tale of Genji
Globe and Mail
December 6, 2008
There are two reasons to read
the 1,000-year-old Japanese novel
The Tale of Genji.
One is that it is very strange.
The other is that it is very familiar.
It is simultaneously a testament to the continuity of human nature and to the unceasing variety of customs and social arrangements that civilizations engender. Reading it is in some ways a challenge, and yet it goes down easily, in a dreamlike way, not quite understandable yet consistently alluring.
Did Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki) invent the novel in 1000 AD? Let's say she did, since no one but specialists read her rivals (Daphnis and Chloe? The Golden Ass?) while The Tale of Genji is read in Japanese schools as Shakespeare is read in English and North American schools, and has been fully translated into English three times in the past century (by Arthur Waley, Edward Seidensticker and Royall Tyler).
Let's say, further, that she invented two types of novels.
The first, of about 700 out of 1,100 pages, is a biographical novel about "The Shining Genji," a son of the emperor of Japan and one of his low-status concubines.
He is intelligent, graceful and wonderfully good-looking, and sets himself the task, early in his adult life, of knowing and loving as many women as he can (while, of course, maintaining and improving his status at the Heian Emperor's court).
His task is complicated by the fact that most of the women he might come to know are sequestered and unavailable, but his charm and intelligence more or less overcome this difficulty.
He lives to the age of 48 or 50; he marries several times (his society is polygamous); he finds true love; he has several children; he finds wisdom.
It is this last that gives The Tale of Genji its enduring appeal.
Heian Japan (794 to 1185 AD) saw the popularization of Buddhism (which had been introduced in the sixth century).
By the 10th century, there were well-established philosophical and poetic traditions that Lady Murasaki easily drew upon to infuse Genji's career, but also his inner life, with meaning as well as lyrical power.
At one point about halfway into the novel, for example, when Genji is, to all appearances, at the height of fame and power, he and one of his wives discuss whether spring or autumn is to be preferred.
After Genji leaves, the wife reflects: "He brings everything altogether in himself, like a willow that is all of a sudden blooming like a cherry. It sets a person to shivering."
Genji himself is only made more thoughtful and humble by his great career, and in the end dies lamenting his failures and flaws rather than celebrating his successes.
It is this, the author implies, not his looks or his intelligence or his achievements or his high connections, that raises him above all others.
And then, Murasaki Shikibu went on to invent another sort of novel, the much more time-limited and plot-driven tale of Niou and Kaoru, Genji's grandson and great-nephew, who are friends and love rivals.
The plot of this section (about 300 pages) concerns the rivalry and intrigue between the two young men over a pair of sisters, daughters of a nobleman who lives at some distance from the imperial court.
In this section, Murasaki explores the contrasting psychologies of the four main characters and the consequences of their various choices as they attempt to wrestle with their desires and their conflicting loyalties.
As in the earlier section, formalities of birth and inheritance only temporarily veil realities — characters discover that they are not who they thought they were, and that desire often overcomes taboos.
The Tale of Genji was composed like a Dickens novel, in chapters that Lady Murasaki showed to the women of the emperor's court as they were written.
It is therefore similar to a Dickens novel in that characters, adventures and observations proliferate. Some threads are lost track of, others emerge, the whole seems a bit disorganized.
But there is an internal integrity to it all that is made up of Lady Murasaki's overriding interest in what love is and what it feels like, in the progress of seasons and years, in the relationship between the inner life and external circumstances.
Somehow, The Tale of Genji defies the passage of a millennium and invites us to ponder that the more things change, the more they stay the same, while the more they stay the same, the more they change.
Jane Smiley's most recent novel is "Ten Days in the Hills." She is also the author of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel."