The Tale Of Genji: A Very Modern 1,000 Years Old Novel


The Tale of Genji (源氏物語, Genji Monogatari), written just over 1,000 years ago is considered by many to be the first world’s modern novel, one of the greatest books in the world, a cultural phenomenon—and one of the most difficult books to read, process—not to mention translate. Nice bonus, it was written by Murasaki Shikibu, the 11th-century noblewoman who profoundly changed Japan’s literary world.

I read Royall Tyler’s translation because it’s so close in form and content to the original Japanese version, and I was immeasurably impressed by so many things: from the lyrical writing style to the range of fascinating characters, the symbolism, the poetry, the imagery, the psychological depth, and the sensitivity to romance, politics, and nature in this exceedingly elegant and beautifully written book. As the book has fallen in the public domain, you can also read the full 1900 translation on websites such as Project Gutenberg.

A statue of Murasaki Shikibu in Kyoto, Japan.

The story

The first two parts of this literary masterpiece are dedicated to the life of Hikaru Genji or the ‘Shining Genji’—a formidable hero with a name that epitomizes his flawless good looks and an outstanding sense of style. The Uji Chapters or the third part of the book is set in a melancholy and much darker world and follows the lives of Genji’s grandson Niou and his good friend Kaoru.

There is no definitive plot in The Tale of Genji but the art of love and seduction, psychological and emotional fulfillment, or frustration, as well as aesthetics and beauty, all contribute to the central themes. At the same time, intimate relationships are set against a backdrop of politics, power, jealousy, and ambition.

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