An elegant new translation (only the third ever done in English) of the 11th-century tale of court life in medieval Japan that is generally considered the world’s oldest novel.
For much of its great (though not excess) length, the story seems to be that of the eponymous “Shining Prince” Genji, the charismatic son of an emperor and a lowborn concubine. Genji’s fondness for both palace intrigue and illicit love affairs bring him in and out of royal favor, and into intimate contact with such vividly drawn female characters as his own young stepmother Fujitsubo, the daughter (“Third Princess”) of a former emperor who will marry him and turn the tables by cuckolding him, and a passionate noblewoman (Lady Rokujo) whose ghost will let neither Genji nor his many other women rest. The most memorable of them, however, may be the love of Genji’s life, Murasaki, whom he first meets when she’s a child and to whom he remains compulsively devoted and unfaithful, and whose lingering image sends him into the last of his several “self-exiles.” Then, after almost 800 pages, this almost inhumanly vital protagonist dies (“His light was gone, and none among his many descendants could compare to what he had been”). A new plot emerges, in which Genji’s putative son Kaoru (actually fathered by Third Princess’s lover Kashiwagi) struggles with his best friend Niou (who is Genji’s grandson) for the love of beautiful Ukifune, who flees them both, eventually becoming a nun. This ineffably urbane analysis of the permutations and the folly of romantic love can perhaps be compared to Proust, but to little else in Western fiction (it’s actually closer in spirit to the medieval Romance of the Rose). The pseudonymous “Lady Murasaki’s” precise characterizations (particularly of Genji, a marvelous mixture of sexual egoism and genuine innate nobility) are merely the crowning features of an astonishingly rich, absorbing drama that has stood, and will doubtless continue to stand, the severest tests of time and changing literary fashions.
There is nothing else on earth quite like The Tale of Genji. Utterly irresistible.