230. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (c.1021)

“All of my women, each in her way, have qualities that make it impossible for me to abandon them. It makes my life very trying.”               page 327

Genji, the heavenly handsome son of the Emperor and his favourite concubine, carries on a myriad of simultaneous affairs with high born women stretching over decades.

The Tale of Genji is arguably the world’s first novel. It is definitely the world’s first ongoing soap opera. It has some beautiful and vivid scenery descriptions, gives a picture of Court life for the idle rich of 11th century Japan (thankfully, some of the cultural mysteries had been encountered in my previous read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon) and the constant three line poems which all characters use to describe their feelings are often tantalising. Well, I really wanted to finish this one, but ….

Excuse #1 : This is a monster of book physically. My copy (published by W W Norton, translator Dennis Washburn) was 1,319 pages of small print, weighing just under 2 kg.

Excuse #2 : The plethora of characters, especially Genji’s wives, concubines, girlfriends and occasional conquests, are rarely given names. Instead they are “the lady of the orange blossoms”, “the lady of the locust shell”, “the Akashi lady”, etc. The men holding positions at Court are rarely named, only known by their position title, and as they receive yearly promotions, their title changes. In both these cases it becomes difficult to follow who is who.

Excuse #3 : Probably best expressed by Genji himself.

“Will later generations think me frivolous and self-absorbed?”     page 370

Hell, yes! Also insincere, lying, cheating, predatory and vain while we’re at it.

In fairness, Genji does carry out his Court duties and supports his consorts and their entourages both financially and politically, but mostly the book (at least the first 400 pages, and I suspect the next 500) are only about his amorous successes and frustrations. I had hoped to get to at least page 880 which famously is a blank chapter signifying Genji’s death, before the last 400 deal with his children, but I have already spent a month on it so far, and I have another book borrowed from a library in South Australia with an upcoming deadline, so its sayounara, Genji-san. After all, as Genji himself realizes early on : “Fragile, transient life pays no heed to vows of eternal love”  (page 13)

Favourite lines/passages:

Genji misses his daughter who is still living with her mother at Lake Akashi

“If only I could hold her in these sleeves of mine

That she might live as long as it takes a feather

From an angel’s robe to wear away a mountain”

page 323

Personal rating:  For me, just an okay 4/10

In the years 1000-1050:

  •  Leif Ericsson reaches the North American continent, c. 1002, with brief Norse settlement the following year
  • Pueblo dwellings built at Mesa Verde, southwest Colorado
  • Ethelred II and Canute tussle over England, 1014-1015; Canute is enthroned by the English Witan Council 1016, dies 1035.
  • Duncan I killed by Macbeth, who becomes King of Scotland, 1040.
  • Polyphonic music develops in Europe (more of this anon)
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