The Tale of Genji takes us back—way back—to 11th century Japan, where the men have all the power and the women have all the problems. “Shining Genji,” son (but not heir) to the Emperor, is the star of the show, and a good two-thirds of this sweeping Tale are spent trailing his personal and political life. We chase him through bedroom after bedroom in town after town, and even into exile and back.
Then, oddly, our leading man dies, and a whole new cast of characters sees us through to the final curtain.
There’s a special sort of satisfaction to be had in following a character—any character—from birth to death. But to follow Genji’s life is also, for modern readers, to follow him into a profoundly unique setting. Heian Japan was marked by rigid political hierarchy, strict social customs, polygamy, and poetry—to name but a few features of this fascinating cultural landscape.
Poetry is, of course, the most welcome fixture of Genji’s world, serving as a primary vehicle of communication (especially in the context of courtship) among the various characters. One exchange sees two lovers invoking love beyond death:
When the end has come, and from my smoldering pyre smoke rises at last,
I know this undying flame even then will burn for you.
I would rise with you, yes, and vanish forever, that your smoke and mine
might decide which one of us burns with the greater sorrows.
Though I turn to smoke and forever melt away into the wide sky,
I shall never leave your side, who remain all my desire.
Other poems rely on nature metaphors and wordplay that make a faithful and lucid Genji translation nearly impossible to render.
For us, though, the biggest challenge of Genji is not the book’s (somewhat excessive) length, but its huge lineup of characters. Few are actually referred to by name, in keeping with the courtly etiquette of the Heian era. Instead, we are given titles, functions, and honorifics… all of which can change throughout a given character’s life/career. Genji, for example, goes from Captain to Consultant to Commander to Counselor to Chancellor, and more. At times he is simply “His Grace.”
Just below this (in terms of challenges) is the sheer feminist fatigue that today’s readers are likely to suffer as they hike the hills and valleys of Genji’s broad lifespan. The women of the Tale are, at every turn, damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They are bestowed as objects, relegated to the domestic sphere, shamed, blamed, coerced, and raped. They live, often, in anxiety, neglect, jealousy, and fear that they are unable to voice, and their only refuge from the whims of men is to become a nun.
Genji’s beloved, Lady Murasaki, says it best shortly before her death:
Ah, she reflected, there is nothing so pitifully confined and constricted as a woman.
Nevertheless, Genji‘s author, Murasaki Shikibu—a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi—proved to be Japan’s own Homer, Shakespeare, or Proust. Her work has spawned movies, plays, operas, and, of course, manga. But the ancient language in which she wrote the Tale around 1000 AD was already unintelligible a mere century later, and it took until 1913 for a modern Japanese translation to be published. No original manuscript survives.
It is to Shikibu’s extraordinary credit, then, that Genji’s legacy lingers on. Limitless in scope, rich in detail, and steady in pace, The Tale of Genji is so many worlds apart from the modern novel that we might as well call it another universe. And yet the myriad emotions and perspectives that make up its bulk remain thoroughly relatable today.
This, then, is Genji’s secret, told for centuries across the world:
Nothing is more real than fiction.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Adventures in love and loss among the aristocracy—what more could you ask for?
It has been her destiny to be caught betwixt and between.
The heart goes its own way sometimes.
O seer who roams the vastness of the heavens, go and find for me a soul I now seek in vain even when I chance to dream.
There will never come a dawn when you do not have my heart.