The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu wasn’t my favorite book this year. In fact, it’s right there among my least favorite books with Madame Bovary.
This story takes place in the 11th century at the height of the Heian Period in Japan which was all about court life and aristocracy. While this noble class had land, they had minor nobles in charge so that they could spend all their time doing pretty much nothing and live the life.
These nobles, especially the line of the emperor, have several wives and concubines; it’s completely normal. Genji is the result of an affair between his mother and the emperor. While the emperor loved him more than any of his legitimately born children, he was afraid that making Genji a prince would expose him to danger, so he placed him high in the royal government without a title. It didn’t hurt that Genji was universally loved.
So beings Genji’s life. He has affairs, falls in love, has children, goes into exile, comes back, and pretty much personifies court life.
I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t like it, and it’s because it felt so shallow. There’s no depth of character, no real humanity. Every emotion seems overblown and false, partly, I think, because the main characters are inherently selfish.
Genji lives a varied life. He has freedom, riches, and looks. He can do whatever he wants, but he seems to always find himself at the mercy of the world. Instead of taking control of his life, he lets it blow him about, and then bemoans the results (especially as the results are because of his own choices).
The other characters are his wives and lovers. Probably the most important is Fujitsubo, one of the wives of Genji’s father, the emperor, and also Genji’s lover (I know, very weird). After she has Genji’s child, which everyone thinks is the emperor, she feels guilt and ends the affair, but the tumultuous relationship and emotions continue. Murasaki, Genji’s second wife and niece of Fujitsubo, is another major character. However, she seems unreliable and flaky.
The story is pretty standard, starting with Genji’s mother’s relationship with the emperor, and then focusing on Genji’s life. However, the sheer amount of characters can make it difficult to keep straight who is who.
Like I said earlier, I wasn’t overly impressed by the writing, mostly because of the lack of moral guidance (which I found out while reading Japanese history, is pretty typical of that culture’s morality—it’s never black and white) and responsibility. There’s always an excuse for bad behavior, and people take advantage of each other. Plus, there are some parts that are overly sentimental without feeling heartfelt, if that makes sense. However, there are some beautiful quotes:
“The world know it not; but you, Autumn, I confess it: your wind at night-fall stabs deep into my heart.”
“Ceaseless as the interminable voices of the bell-cricket, all night till dawn my tears flow.”
This book is interesting because it’s one of the first novels written. It catches a glimpse of Japanese court life in the 11th century that we’d never see otherwise, a look at the morals and values of a culture so far removed from Western thought. However, it doesn’t move me in any way, and that lowers it in my opinion. But you might feel differently.