Book Review: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of GenjiTitle: The Tale of Genji
Author: Murasaki Shikibu
Genre: Classics / Monogatari
Date: 2006 (1008)
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.
Pages: 1360
Started: 1st January 2019
Completed: 24th January 2019
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Expansive, compelling, and sophisticated in its representation of ethical concerns and aesthetic ideals, Murasaki’s tale came to occupy a central place in Japan’s remarkable history of artistic achievement and is now recognized as a masterpiece of world literature.

Murasaki Shikibu was a Japanese novelist, poet and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court during the Heian period. She is best known for writing The Tale of Genji. Her personal name is unknown.

The Tale of Genji is sometimes known as the world’s first novel and the first psychological novel and it was written in an archaic ancestor of Japanese. It was first translated into modern Japanese in the early 20th century but the first, and unsuccessful, attempt to translate the text into English occurred in 1882.

I always wonder how much beauty of a book like this gets lost in translation. I did enjoy The Tale of Genji because I learnt so much about Japanese history and the cultural practices of the specific time in which this was written and set but, at times, I found the language dull and uninspiring. This is a translation of the original text though so unless I become fluent in Heian period Japanese I doubt I’ll ever truly appreciate the text.

I adored the small pieces of poetry littered throughout this epic novel. They’re just beautiful and they were my favourite aspect of the book. I know that the separation of the poetry from the main prose was a stylistic choice made by the translator to make the text easier to read but I did like it because it drew my eye to the brilliant poetic sections of the novel.

The tale itself is complex, following the life of Prince Genji who is demoted to the status of a commoner despite being the Emperor’s son. The book reveals much about ancient Japanese traditions from the Heian period, especially the lives of those at court. Murasaki Shikibu was a lady-in-waiting so she would have intimate knowledge of the court and the habits of the upper classes even if she wasn’t part of that class herself. It’s a rather sensual novel in some regards but it also features the harsh realities of being a woman, as there are several depictions of rape in the book but they are brushed aside due to the class and gender of the rapist. Some parts of the novel are rather brutal which is made worse by the blunt translation. It’d be interesting to see the difference between this edition and another translation but, at this moment in time, I don’t have the time or patience to read another translation.

Overall, I did enjoy this book on some levels but not on others. I have mixed feelings about it that I’m going to attribute to the translation. It was interesting to read such an old book and I do think it gave me an insight into a culture and time that I knew nothing about before reading it. I would recommend it but with some hesitation due to its length and the dryness of the language in this translation.

Read for The Classics Club.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

  1. Translation is such a huge factor when enjoying a book set & written in a country other than your own.
    I found this comparison paragraph in a New Yorker article about the 4 main translators: ‘Chapter 4, titled “Yugao,” Genji comes across a run-down house, the abode of a young woman he is about to seduce. Waley describes the entrance like this: “There was a wattled fence over which some ivy-like creeper spread its cool green leaves, and among the leaves were white flowers with petals half-unfolded like the lips of people smiling at their own thoughts.” Seidensticker: “A pleasantly green vine was climbing a board wall. The white flowers, he thought, had a rather self-satisfied look about them.” Tyler: “A bright green vine, its white flowers smiling to themselves, was clambering merrily over what looked like a board fence.” Washburn: “A pleasant-looking green vine was creeping luxuriantly up a horizontal trellis, which resembled a board fence. White flowers were blooming on the vine, looking extremely self-satisfied and apparently without a care in the world.”’

    I’ll certainly be checking which one I have on my TBR pile 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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