The Tale of Genji
by Murasaki Shikibu

A Review by Scott finished July 25, 2010

This review will contain spoilers!

In many sentences:

There is so much to say about The Tale of Genji, that it's ridiculous to even pretend like I can get everything in during this small critique. I'll do my best, however, to condense my experience of reading this 1200 page epic as much as possible.

In general, the writing (and of course the translation) is excellent. Considering the massive scope of this book, it's amazing to consider how it never seems to repeat itself, it never gets dull, and it never relies on cheap tricks or melodrama to move the story forward. The characters are interesting because they behave the way real people behave, for both good and ill. Genji himself delivers what is arguably the theme of the entire work: "Not that tales accurately describe any particular person, rather, the telling begins when all those things the teller longs to have pass on to future generations - whatever there is about the way people live their lives, for better or worse, that is a sight to see or a wonder to hear - overflows the teller's heart" (461).

The use of poetry in this book (and in Japan at this time, depending on how accurate a reflection of reality this is) is utterly fascinating. To think, these characters were all so familiar with so many poems, that it wasn't ever necessary to explain or elaborate on a reference to a poem. Moreover, if your poems were not full of symbolism and metaphor you were looked down upon. It's also amazing to think that Mursaki's audience was so comfortable with all these poetic allusions. It both makes me feel inadequate (because I have next to nothing memorized any more) and inspired to memorize poetry in an attempt to engage in the world around in a different way. One of my favorite poems is no explicitly in the text, but it is alluded to. On page 1073, footnote 41, attributed to Gosenshū 1264: "That which they call this world lasts just the little while a mayfly lives, so briefly it might not be there at all."

Speaking of the poetry, I also enjoyed how certain poems, which were referenced frequently, became familiar enough that by the end of the book, I didn't have to check the footnote in order to know which poem it was referencing. In this regard, special accolade should be given to Royall Tyler for the consistency of translation, and the extremely informative notations.

Through my reading, I tagged numerous moments that I thought were particularly poignant, or funny, or just interesting, but it would take too long to go through them all here. Needless to say, if you are paying close attention, there are lots of great moments in The Tale of Genji. I especially enjoyed it when Murasaki spoke to the reader directly, feigning an inability to remember what had happened, a lack of confidence in the quality of poems during a particular evening of drinking and music, or a desire to not bore us with tedious details. This intimate moments always helped me feel a more intense connection with the work.

There were several moments in the work that I was reminded of ideas that were common in ancient Greek culture. I'm not trying to imply that there was influence between the two cultures, but I think it's interesting, none the less, to draw the parallels. First, on page 463, Genji is reflecting on how he must not let YÅ«giri catch even a glimpse of Murasaki. This reminded me of the fear prevalent in Greek myth of a father being usurped by his son. (This is especially evident in the myths about where the gods came from). Second, on page 643, we read "Yes, in this world of ours, where everything seems to be going from bad to worse, one is no doubt merely eccentric to leave one's family to sally forth alone to roam Koma and Cathay." (Koma is Korea, Cathay is China). Here we see that common sentiment that the past is the Golden Age of life, while things now are just a poor reflection of the glory of the past.

Finally, on page 898, we are privy to an internal monologue by ÅŒigimi, in which she laments the fact that despite her own good intentions, it will be the end result of Kaoru and Niou forcing themselves upon them that matters. Just as a character in a Greek myth would be punished for something they had no control over, here ÅŒigimi is going to be looked down upon, or mocked, or considered sinful even though she is literally in no position to do more than she already is to resist the amorous affection of Kaoru.

The biggest negative (if you can really even call it that) for me was the difficulty of following exactly who all the characters were at a particular moment. With the fact that no one really had a name (usually just a key characteristic that readers began to use to identify them) coupled with the ever changing array of titles, I often found myself flipping back and forth through the text and the appendices just to make sure I understand who I was reading about, or what their family tie was to another character I might be more familiar with. It was the only truly frustrating aspect of this otherwise wonderful piece of literature.

If you are the kind of reader who enjoys a book that is methodical in pacing, without moments of intense excitement or unnecessary melodrama, then I strongly recommend The Tale of Genji. The writing is beautiful, and the world is so rich and full of so many characters that it really does feel like you are watching the lives of those who lived over a thousand years ago in Japan. While the book my not feature a lot of nail-biting excitement, it is never boring. The characters in Genji have many of the same struggles, aspirations, and fears that we do now, and Mursaki captures it all so vividly that it's amazing to think it was written over a thousand years ago. Ultimately, this epic work may not have the structure of a modern novel, with climactic moments and a tidy ending, but it makes up for that in the intimacy it elicits by portraying the reality of life, as distant and foreign as it may be to modern American readers.

Favorite Quote

"How true it is that bitter experience yields fond memories!"

Murasaki Shikibu in The Tale of Genji

First Line

"In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor."

Murasaki Shikibu the First Line of The Tale of Genji

Last Line

"That appears to be what is in the book."

Murasaki Shikibu the Last Line of in The Tale of Genji

Originally Published Jan. 1, 1021

Paperback edition:

1182 pages - Nov. 26, 2002

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