All you need to know about the books you meant to read; THE TALE OF GENJI (1010? - 1020?) by the Lady Murasaki Shikikbu

The summit of Japanese classical literature, Genji details both court and political life during the Heian period (794-1192).

Plot: The Emperor loves low-born Kiritsubo. She gives birth to a son. The Emperor's jealous first wife persecutes Kiritsubo to death. The boy is made Genji, or commoner, for his own protection. Much of the novel is consumed with Genji's pursuit of women. Among his many loves are the Emperor's latest mistress and a young girl, Murasaki, whom he adopts as a daughter. Genji flirts with incest. His amatory appetite creates political difficulties. The Emperor's wives, mistresses and ministers conspire against him. Genji embraces self-exile in Suma. Here he matures. His son is subjected to a dry, academic schooling as Genji learns the value of discipline. The new Suzaku Emperor persuades Genji to marry his third daughter. Genji's child-wife Murasaki feels displaced. She dies slowly of grief, hoping for rebirth in paradise. Genji never recovers: at 52 he believes his life is finished. Abruptly the last section of the book opens with Genji's death. The rest of the book concerns Genji's grandson Niaou and friend Kaoru. They both love Ukifuni. She is a sacrificial victim who cannot choose between her suitors. She tries to drown herself; fails, is reborn and becomes a "nun".

Theme: The Emperor's passion for Genji's low-born mother initiates the world into a cycle of sinful desire. Genji's loves bring him little happiness. Most of the women must be content with misery.

Style: The first two-thirds is lucid and elegant with discrete twitches of irony. The Ukifuni episodes are more impassioned.

Chief strengths: All the action takes place without chairs and in paper houses. Murasaki's world is entirely alien and makes most fantasy novels appear conventional. The modern Western reader must reappraise notions of sexuality and morality. The rituals that mask ferocious feeling find no counterpoint in the European tradition.

Chief weaknesses: The book is twice as long as War and Peace. Rather too often, characters settle down to a minutely described cup of tea and listen to the twittering of nightingales.

What they thought of it then: Murasaki Shikibu was famed in her lifetime. Court diarists record difficulty in obtaining manuscripts of the text. By the 12th century 'Genji' was a recognised classic.

What we think of it now: In Japan, much work in recent times has been spent on establishing a "clean" text and the correct order of chapters. Translated by Arthur Waley in 1933, the book was faintly patronised by Virginia Woolf who felt that it wasn't quite as good as Proust.

Responsible for: The Japanese literary tradition. Modern greats such as Tanizaki and Kawabara continued to explore the relationship between illicit passion and decorum.

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