The Tale of Genji

for day 27 of #blogjune

genjiThe Tale of Genji is sometimes called the world’s first novel. It was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a Lady-in-waiting of the Japanese Court in the Heian Period (early 11th century). 

I bought my copy of The Tale of Genji when I first started studying at the University of Melbourne in 1978 and I still haven’t finished reading it. The entire book in my translation runs to over 1000 pages (the novel finishes mid-sentence so it appears to be incomplete).

A few years ago I decided that I probably wasn’t going to get around to finally reading Genji until I retired and I put it in the “donate to op shop” pile. I assumed it was gone but always regretted letting it go and mentioned it to Wayne the other day… and he went looking today and found it in the garage with a stack of other old books! His super power really is finding things.

I’m very happy to have it back. I checked and I found a bookmark at page 214 so it looks like that’s as far as I got last time.

The most famous translation is Arthur Waley’s, published between 1921 and 1933. I’ve read the first chapters, but I much prefer the translation by Edward Seidensticker that I bought, published in 1976.

There is a huge cast of characters, it’s like a very early version of Game of Thrones, and if you want to really follow the tale you’ll end up following footnotes and have post-it notes everywhere so you can keep track of who is doing what.

The prose, though, is wonderful. Compare the first sentence in Waley’s translation…

”At the Court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of very high rank was favored far beyond all the rest.”

and Seidensticker’s spare but beautiful…

”In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.”

There is also a more recent translation by Royall Tyler and if you’re unsure about which one to start with there is an instructive discussion here.

And finally, should you find yourself in Kyoto one day you can even visit some of the sites mentioned in the book.

kyoto

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6 responses to “The Tale of Genji

  1. Love this! I remember studying this somewhere along the way in my schooling – part of why I love art history is that you really get a comprehensive taste of the culture & society from which the art came. It’s also what turned me on to modern Japanese writers – some of y favourites!

    • True! We have visited Kyoto so it’s also amazing to read in the book descriptions of places from hundreds of years ago and you have touched something that was there.

      • Ooooh! That history! I got a taste of living with that when I studied abroad in Italy, but that depth of historical richness isn’t the same here in the US. There is a bit of it back East, but the farther west you travel the younger everything gets!

  2. I have so often helped students conduct research for papers on this novel, but I never really slowed down long enough to learn about it. Thanks!

    • I now know people who are reading all three translations, it could be a very long term global book group!

  3. (Sincere apologies to Ruth whose comment I somehow deleted while I was trying to moderate it on my phone app.)

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