Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The World’s First Novel by Lesley Downer

One day, a little over a thousand years ago, a Japanese court lady picked up her writing brush. In those days Japanese noblewomen lived in seclusion. The only men they could expect to see throughout their entire lives were their fathers, brothers, sons and, if they had one, their husband. The woman - no one knows her name but she has gone down in history as Murasaki Shikibu - was a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court.
Lady Murasaki at her desk
by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 - 1865) 1858

Some time around 1006 - sixty years before the Battle of Hastings, a couple of hundred years after Beowulf and a couple of hundred years before Chaucer - she started writing a story to entertain her mistress, the empress. Like the sultan listening to The Thousand and One Nights or the readers of the instalments of Dickens’s novels, the court ladies clamoured for more.

Murasaki Shikibu was unlikely ever to have a love story of her own, so - perhaps a bit like Jane Austen - she dreamt up the ultimate man and fleshed him out. Prince Genji, the result of her imaginings, was handsome and charming, but also kind-hearted. He was human and flawed. As she told his story he developed and changed and grew older. He suffered terrible losses and tragedies. What Murasaki wrote was amazingly modern, all about relationships and character and feelings. It is moving and gripping and spellbinding and reads like the freshest of page turners. It was the world’s first novel.

In The Tale of Genji Murasaki recounts Genji’s adventures, travels, love affairs and tragedies. A breaker of hearts and fatally prone to falling in love, he’s an adept in the arts of perfume mixing, poetry writing and calligraphy. In his society court ladies keep themselves hidden inside their palaces. He exchanges poems with women he’s never seen and decides if they’re worth meeting on the basis of their handwriting and the quality of their poems. It’s a world quite Proustian in its delicacy and beauty and eternal leisure.
Ox carts - The Tale of Genji
by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617 - 1891) 

This was a society with a very different ethos from our own. Women were never openly seen by men. Noblewomen lived in vermilion-painted palaces (the aristocracy were the only people who counted, as far as Murasaki was concerned) and when visitors called, they received them hidden behind screens. When the women went out they trundled around the tree-lined boulevards of the capital, Heian-kyo, in magnificent ox-drawn carriages, hidden from view, though they made sure there was an exquisite silk sleeve dangling gracefully out of the window so the passing crowd could imagine just how beautiful and cultured the hidden lady was. There was much standing on tiptoe and peeping through lattice fences, not just by the men, trying to catch a glimpse of these elusive creatures, but also by women, when someone like Prince Genji passed by.

In The Tale of Genji men regularly enter ladies’ palaces at night, make love to them in the pitch dark without ever having seen their face and leave at daybreak. The servants, being well trained, studiously ignore the intruders though they are well aware of who they are, as each man wears a distinctive perfume which he has mixed himself.
Spot the lady - hidden behind the screens
Tale of Genji by Kano Hidenobu (late 17th/early 18th century)

Some of the most memorable episodes in The Tale of Genji are humorous. At one point, Genji hears about a princess who lives all alone (apart, of course, from her maids, who don’t count). One day he happens to hear her playing her zither with such skill he assumes she must be very beautiful. He sends her poems, but she is so shy she doesn’t answer, which only piques his interest further. Finally he sneaks in. There is a delicious scent of sandalwood emanating from her clothes, surely evidence of extraordinary beauty. But when he wakes up the next morning and finally sees her he discovers that, far from being beautiful, she has a huge red nose and, worse still, wears very old-fashioned clothes. He’s so horrified he doesn’t even send the customary morning-after poem until evening. But in the end his tender heart is touched and he takes her too under his wing.
Heian Shrine, Kyoto, modelled on Heian Palace 
(794 - 1227), which Lady Murasaki knew.

The early part of the tale is full of stories like these, poignant, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, detailing Genii’s youthful indiscretions and misadventures, at the end of which he has gathered a brood of women who each live in an apartment in his palace. But as Genji gets older, the story gets darker; in all it is some 54 chapters and 1000 pages long. He suffers, he has terrible failures and disasters and in the end loses the person dearest to his heart - Murasaki, after whom the author is named.

By the time I sat down and read the whole novel I’d been living in Japan for several years. I knew Heian-kyo, Genji’s and also Murasaki’s city, very well. It exists like a ghostly presence underlying the streets of Kyoto, its modern name. The vermilion buildings and green-tiled roofs of Heian Shrine are an exact replica, scaled down a little, of the imperial palace that Murasaki knew, which stood until 1227. In spring the gardens, lake and delicate pavilions are swathed in clouds of cherry blossom. And you can still imagine the ox carts with their huge wooden wheels rumbling up and down the long straight streets of the City of Purple Hills and Crystal Streams, as the poets called it.

The Tale of Genji suffuses Japanese culture and Japanese society. It features in everything from art to the incense guessing game, and episodes from it form the plots of many Noh plays. It enormously coloured the way Japan looked to me. Japanese, I should add, are usually amazed to hear that I’ve read and love The Tale of Genji. For them it’s like Beowulf, so difficult that they too can’t read it in the original and rely on modern Japanese translations.
Lady Murasaki might have glimpsed
yamabushi mountain priests like these from
 the window of her oxcart as she passed
Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto (first built 656 AD) 

As a postscript, if you’re inspired to read The Tale of Genji, you should borrow, buy or steal the Arthur Waley translation. Scholars will tell you it’s not impeccably accurate. Waley took liberties, he changed details. If what you want is a precise, perfectly accurate translation, you could try Edward Seidensticker’s version or Royall Tyler’s magnificent two volume set with copious footnotes and a very interesting introduction. But if you read either of those you won’t be swept off your feet and fall madly in love with Genji and be transported away and unable to stop reading. For that you’ll have to go to Arthur Waley.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel,The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see www.lesleydowner.com.


Katherine Langrish said...

Wonderful post! I too fell in love with Genji many years ago. The translation I read was the Seidensticker one, but more recently I managed to find a copy of Waley's - so a treat in store!

Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you for this enticing review, Lesley. I must read this book (the Arthur Waley translation for me, I think!) I have an old, tanned paperback edition of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, which I love. It's another book that brings to life the extraordinary world of the Heian court.

Leslie Wilson said...

I must read it! You have made it sound really excellent. And I love Waley’s Chinese poetry so shall look for that version too..