In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. The way she waited on him day after day only stirred up feeling against her, and perhaps this growing burden of resentment was what affected her health and obliged her often to withdraw in misery to her home; but His Majesty, who could less and less do without her, ignored his critics until his behavior seemed bound to be the talk of all. (p. 3)
Summary: One may be begotten by an Emperor and yet not be a prince; in Imperial Japan, Princes must be designated. The hero of the Tale is the son of a lower-born Intimate; being beautiful and intelligent, his father favors him for the throne, but it is impossible for political reasons, and thus the Emperor, rather than putting him in the line of succession, grants him a surname, Minamoto, making him simply a high-born commoner; thus he is called throughout the work, 'Genji', which means, more or less, Minamoto Name. Genji will later fall in love with one of the Emperor's wives, Fujitsubo; Genji, frustrated by the difficulties of this forbidden love, goes through a series of love affairs which always fail in one way or another. An indiscretion leads to Genji and Fujitsubo having a child, whom everyone thinks is the Emperor's younger son. The Heir Apparent, Genji's half brother, becomes Emperor, and Genji is caught in an indiscretion again, with one of his half-brother's concubines. While the Emperor does not hold it against him, the discovery having been made, he has no choice but to punish Genji, particularly given how much the Emperor's mother hates Genji. Genji is exiled, and while exiled, he has another affair, which results in a daughter. When the Emperor's mother grows ill, the Emperor pardons Genji; and in time, the throne passes to a new Emperor: the son of Genji and Fujitsubo. As the new Emperor knows that Genji is his real father, he raises Genji to the highest rank.
But, as so often happens, Genji's attainment of the heights is also the beginning of a decline. Having been raised so high, he requires an appropriate marriage, but (as also often happens) the marriage purely to correspond to social status is an utter disaster. They have nothing in common and do not get along particularly well. Genji is really in love with a girl know throughout the work as Murasaki, who reminds him of Fujitsubo; when she becomes sick, he abandons his wife for an extended period of time in order to nurse her back to health. Genji's nephew seduces her, and she has a son with him, Kaoru, who is thought by everyone to be Genji's. Murasaki becomes a nun and eventually dies, and Genji fades away shortly thereafter. We learn something of the next generation, in the last chapters, as we follow Kaoru and the prince Niou, who is Genji's grandson by his daughter, and their rivalry for a beautiful princess. The book ends abruptly in the midst of this story, for reasons unknown, but it is clear enough that, for all the mistakes Genji had made, the new generation does not seem to live up to his greatness.
Such is the basic plot, but it is somewhat misleading to summarize a book like this by its plot, because, while well plotted, it is not a plot-driven book. It is common to call The Tale of Genji 'the world's first novel', and it is true that many of the techniques that would later be common among novel-writers are already found here. But I think this fails to do justice to the work, which is a far more ambitious thing than a novel. It is more like a Scandinavian saga, except, instead of warriors and genealogies, it is structured by courtiers and bureaucratic offices. But even sagas are more interested in the narrative movement than we find here. The story gets told, but that's not where the focus is found.
I think the best analogy for thinking about The Tale of Genji is to think of a vast gallery of paintings. The paintings have an order to them, and you can walk through and get a story. But the paintings are really bound more by theme than by story, and to look at the painting only for what it contributes to the story is not actually to look at the painting. Nor would things really suffer by just wandering around the gallery without much worry about the story itself. And the best way to read the book is arguably not to worry much about the story; just look at the paintings. Perhaps this one will strike today, and another one will strike you when you read it again, but there's no need -- fortunately, because there is no possibility -- to take it all in here and now.
The comparison to painting is not accidental. It is difficult to convey how much, and in how many ways, the picturesque dominates the tale. Perhaps the best way to convey it is to quote an extended passage from "The Bluebell" (Chapter 20):
The snow was very deep by now, and more was falling. The waning light set off pine and bamboo prettily from one another, and Genji's face took on a clearer glow. "More than the glory of flowers and fall leaves that season by season capture everyone's heart, it is the night sky in winter, with snow aglitter beneath a brilliant moon, that in the absence of all color speaks to me strangely and carries my thoughts beyond this world; there is no higher wonder or delight. Whoever called it dreary understood nothing."
He had the blinds rolled up. The moon illumined all before them in its single color, while the garden shivered under the weight of snow, the brook uttered pathetic sobs, and desolate ice lay across the lake. Genji had the page girls go down and roll a snowball. Their charming figures and hair gleamed in the moonlight, while the bigger, more knowing ones were lovely in their varied, loosely worn gowns and their night service wear with the sashes half undone; meanwhile their hair, far longer than their gowns, stood out strikingly against the white of the snow. The little ones were a pleasure to watch running about happily, dropping their fans and showing their excited faces. They wanted to roll their snowball even bigger, but for all their struggles it would not budge. Some of them sat on the east end of the veranda, laughing nervously. (p. 373)
This is perhaps more explicit in description than some others, but virtually the entire book consists of paintable scenes. To a great degree, this picturesque character contributes to the book's pervading sense of nostalgia for lost perfections, which gives everything a sort of thematic unity. Everything is written as if it were a scene painted by the memory long after the events depicted.
The work is very poetic, and a number of things converge to make it so. The first is its picturesque character, already mentioned. Another is that the culture it depicts is built entirely on conventions of indirectness. We see part of this in the convention of never naming anyone directly, out of politeness, but it goes much farther than that. As a rule, men and women do not interact face to face, but through screens and fans -- the page girls dropping their fans and showing their faces in excitement over the snow show their youth by doing so. For a man to see a woman is an extraordinary intimacy, and often indicates something sexual. In addition, there are many things that simply cannot be said directly, so instead of saying them directly, they are constantly alluding to them with impromptu verse or writing poems that are intended to suggest -- by word, by allusion, by penstroke, and by carefully crafted paper -- what they cannot say directly. One of the best characters in the book is the one known as Omi no Kami, the Omi daughter, the lost-and-then-rediscovered daughter of Genji's best friend. She was raised in the country, so when she is brought to court, she does not fit in well at all, in part because she simply does not grasp that there are things you are not supposed to say outright. This leads to several scenes that are utterly hilarious in context.
What we find in The Tale of Genji is a story of beautiful life; it depicts a culture of aristocrats whose lives are almost purely aesthetic. Everyone is very human, with very human failings, including Genji himself; but they take being a flawed human being to a high art, and in this much of the attraction of the story lies.
Favorite Passage: A quick scene with the Omi daughter:
"He's the one, he's the one!" she whispered enthusiastically, loud and clear, on the subject of that most exceptionally stalwart young gentleman. It was very painful.
"Boat upon the sea, if you know not where to go, lost among the waves, let me then row out to you, but tell what port is yours!"
her voice rang out. "You always row your little boat back to the same girl! It isn't fair!"
The shocked Captain was wondering who on earth at the Consort's would ever express herself so crudely when he realized with amusement that this must be the young lady of whom he had heard.
"The boatman you see, though uncertain where to go, plaything of the winds, disdains to approach a shore where he has no wish to go."
he replied. That, they say, silenced her. (p. 543)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended, but you should be aware that this is not only a long work, it is a work that cannot be read quickly.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, Royall Tyler, tr. Penguin (New York: 2001).