#61 The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

The earliest illustrated handscroll of The Tale of Genji (12th century)

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.

17th-century Genji illustrations

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?

Favorite Quotes:

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.

Read: 2016

Quote of the Week

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

-Toni Morrison, Beloved

It’s Not How Big It Is, It’s Whether You Can Read It

Hi, everyone. This is Clarissa.


Clarissa and I are going to be spending the next 1,500 pages together, because Samuel Richardson was a sadist and so is life.

To put 1,500 pages in perspective, here’s Clarissa stacked up (literally) against a few of the other behemoths on The List:


For the record, that’s…

Gargantua and Pantagruel: 1,021 pages
The Golden Notebook: 688 pages (very thick pages, in this case)
Anna Karenina: 864 pages
The Tale of Genji: 1,120 pages

I couldn’t even fit In Search of Lost Time into the picture, in all its 4,217-page glory, because Proust died before he could edit it (probably). Here it is, so it doesn’t feel left out:


Other 700+ page books on The List include The Brothers Karamazov, Middlemarch, The Iliad, The Lord of the Rings, Gone With the Wind, Tom Jones, Vanity Fair, U.S.A., An American Tragedy, The Woman in White, The Magic Mountain, and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Needless to say, my elbows are getting tired.

Still, even after all this time and all those pages, Clarissa‘s immense proportions leave a staggering impression. It’s outrageous, how long this book is. Unholy. It’s an abomination of a book, if there ever was one. Just look at the offensive font size—it’s like an assault to the eyes:


But it’s OK. It’s all good. Everything is just fine, because this time next year (hopefully) (pretty please) (God willing), The Challenge will be a dusty memory collecting haze, or whatever. You know, a Thing that is Past. Ancient History of an Olden Day. This time next year, I will be sitting on a beach with a Beach Read in a delightfully liberal font—a font so large, the pages look scared. A font so large, the retiree three towels away can read it without squinting. A font so large, I could wear it like a medal.

A font so large, Clarissa would start to wonder about the size of its serif.

I can hardly wait. I can hardly stand it, being so close to the endgame and yet so (distressingly) (you’ve got to be kidding me) (WHY God WHY) far. But knowing it’s coming is enough—as long as there’s a beach on the other side.

Knowing it’s coming is plenty, actually—as long as I can make serif-as-penis jokes in the meantime.


#51 The Tin Drum, Günter Grass

Oskar Matzerath is no ordinary three-year-old.

He’s not even three years old.

Oskar decided, in fact, to remain three years old no matter how much time went by—all because #adulting held so little appeal.

But wait—there’s more.

Oskar has this drum, this tin drum, a drum he’s obsessed with to the point of violence and betrayal. Also, his scream can shatter glass. So Oskar drums and screams his way around his native Danzig, like a three-year-old but not as a three-year-old, while the Nazi Party gains power over in Germany and begins its march toward Poland.

When he finally decides to grow up a little (mentally and physically) after the war ends, Oskar:

  • works a series of random jobs (gang leader, tombstone engraver, nude model, and jazz band drummer, to name a few)
  • is accused of murdering his neighbor, and
  • winds up in an insane asylum.

His only regret is that he’s innocent.

This is a nasty piece of literature narrated by a nasty piece of work. Oskar is a lying, thieving, whining, bragging, manipulating sociopath. He hits pregnant women and kicks dogs. He has a God (or, more accurately, a Jesus) complex. Worst of all, he regularly refers to himself in the third person.

We can only assume Mr. Burns and Dolores Umbridge are saving him a seat in Hell.

And yet, despite my generalized disgust for The Tin Drum, there is one contextual detail I find endlessly intriguing. Günter Grass, like Oskar, grew up in the Free City of Danzig (now called Gdańsk) and moved from Poland to Germany after the war. With The Tin Drum, published in 1959, Grass hoped to force a post-war Germany to confront its past—military members and civilians alike. What Grass didn’t mention until 2006—almost 50 years later—was that, at 17, he himself was a member of the Waffen-SS and trained as a tank gunner. 

Accused of hypocrisy for holding himself up as a “moral authority, [and] a rather smug one,” Grass nevertheless felt the time had come to confront his own past. Shmoop, always spot-on, sums up the controversy like this:

What do you think? Did Grass earn a ton of money and a Nobel Prize by claiming a moral high ground he really didn’t deserve? Or did having to confront his own participation in the war give him the right to demand that others confront theirs?

If you like unreliable narrators, demon children, historical themes, and magical realism, you might enjoy The Tin Drum. Just know that the longer you spend with it, the dirtier your hands will get.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Audiobook was probably the wrong format for this novel. I’ll have to get back to you on this when my ears stop ringing from all the moaning, wailing, screaming, and sneering.

Also the criminal third person.

Favorite Quotes:

When Satan’s not in the mood, virtue triumphs. Hasn’t even Satan a right not to be in the mood once in a while?

Today I know that all things are watching, that nothing goes unseen, that even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings.

Boredom may well be the very essence of evil.

Read: 2016

Quote of the Week

History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.

-Joseph Heller, Catch-22