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Tale of Genji

Tale of Genji

3.5 19
by Murasaki Shikibu, Arthur Waley, Dennis Washburn

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In the eleventh century Murasaki Shikibu, a lady in the Heian court of Japan, wrote the world's first novel. But The Tale of Genji is no mere artifact. It is, rather, a lively and astonishingly nuanced portrait of a refined society where every dalliance is an act of political consequence, a play of characters whose inner lives are as rich and changeable as those


In the eleventh century Murasaki Shikibu, a lady in the Heian court of Japan, wrote the world's first novel. But The Tale of Genji is no mere artifact. It is, rather, a lively and astonishingly nuanced portrait of a refined society where every dalliance is an act of political consequence, a play of characters whose inner lives are as rich and changeable as those imagined by Proust. Chief of these is "the shining Genji," the son of the emperor and a man whose passionate impulses create great turmoil in his world and very nearly destroy him. This edition, recognized as the finest version in English, contains a dozen chapters from early in the book, carefully chosen by the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, with an introduction explaining the selection. It is illustrated throughout with woodcuts from a seventeenth-century edition.

Editorial Reviews

Janice P. Nimura
Royall Tyler's Tale of Genji is an enormous achievement.
New York Times
Reader-friendly at every turn, with generous footnotes, character lists, and illustrations....You have to reach for Tolstoy or Proust to convey just what a captivating experience this story can be.
Los Angeles Times
Tyler has completed the first major "Genji" translation of the 21st century, and it sets a new standard.
Not only is this latest English edition the most scrupulously true to the original, it also is superbly written and genuinely engaging. On occasion Tyler even manages to give us a taste of the formal aspect of Murasaki's style, with some wonderfully meandering, clause-embedded sentences. His technique is quite deliberate, and just as a reader feels the need to come up for air, the realization dawns that we are in fact following a subterranean map of Murasaki's prose.
Publishers Weekly
Widely recognized as the world's first novel, as well as one of its best, the 11th-century tale of Genji the shining prince has been painstakingly and tenderly translated by Tyler, a retired professor of Japanese language and literature. Genji, the son of an emperor by one of his "Intimates" and preternaturally blessed with beauty and charm, is the center of this two-volume opus though he and his heroine die some two-thirds into the book which details both his political fortunes and his many amorous adventures. Chronicling some 75 years of court life with a dizzyingly large cast of characters, it is an epic narrative; it is also minutely attentive to particulars of character, setting, emotion even costume. While two complete English translations exist (Arthur Waley's of 1933 and Edward Seidensticker's of 1976), Tyler clearly intends his to be the definitive one. It is richer, fuller and more complicated than the others indeed, Tyler's fidelity to the bygone Japanese custom of not writing proper names can sometimes make it difficult, for example, to determine which of Genji's myriad lovers he is thinking about. Unlike Waley's translation, Tyler's is unexpurgated; unlike Seidensticker's, his is heavily annotated. New line drawings of Japanese architecture and activity complement the text, while character lists at chapter beginnings, a plot summary at the conclusion and two glossaries one of offices and titles, the other of general terms orient the reader in a multigenerational and unfamiliar world. Tyler's formality of tone (contrast Seidensticker's anachronistic "He could see her point" to Tyler's simple "He sympathized") offers readers a more graceful, convincing rendering of this1,000-year-old masterpiece. Scholars and novices alike should be pleased. 6-city translator tour. (Oct. 15) Forecast: This massive project involved a whole team at Viking (see PW Interview with editor Wendy Wolf, Aug. 20). The 20,000-copy first printing may seem ambitious, but the attractive boxed edition and landmark translation effort should convince a substantial number of readers to finally add this classic to their collections. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Written in the 11th century, Lady Murasaki's account of court life in Heian Japan stands as one of the undisputed monuments of world literature and one of the first novels in the modern sense of the term. Stretching over several generations, it focuses on the Shining Prince, his defendants, and their shifting fortunes. Much of the substance of the novel resides in the layers and subtle nuances of etiquette, gesture, and ritual. There are two previous English translations available in both full and abridged forms, Arthur Waley's (1933) and Edward Seidensticker's (1976). Waley's efforts are groundbreaking, though they distort the work's form and make Genji into an Edwardian gentleman. Seidensticker's translation is solid, though it often simplifies the syntax. Tyler, who taught Japanese language and literature for many years at the Australian National University, offers a version that effectively captures the indirection and shades of Murasaki's court language. Tyler also includes a series of appendixes, explaining clothing, colors, and poetic allusions, as well as a general glossary. A major contribution to our understanding of world literature; highly recommended. T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An elegant new translation (only the third ever done in English) of the 11th-century tale of court life in medieval Japan that is generally considered the world's oldest novel. For much of its great (though not excess) length, the story seems to be that of the eponymous "Shining Prince" Genji, the charismatic son of an emperor and a lowborn concubine. Genji's fondness for both palace intrigue and illicit love affairs bring him in and out of royal favor, and into intimate contact with such vividly drawn female characters as his own young stepmother Fujitsubo, the daughter ("Third Princess") of a former emperor who will marry him and turn the tables by cuckolding him, and a passionate noblewoman (Lady Rokujo) whose ghost will let neither Genji nor his many other women rest. The most memorable of them, however, may be the love of Genji's life, Murasaki, whom he first meets when she's a child and to whom he remains compulsively devoted and unfaithful, and whose lingering image sends him into the last of his several "self-exiles." Then, after almost 800 pages, this almost inhumanly vital protagonist dies ("His light was gone, and none among his many descendants could compare to what he had been"). A new plot emerges, in which Genji's putative son Kaoru (actually fathered by Third Princess's lover Kashiwagi) struggles with his best friend Niou (who is Genji's grandson) for the love of beautiful Ukifune, who flees them both, eventually becoming a nun. This ineffably urbane analysis of the permutations and the folly of romantic love can perhaps be compared to Proust, but to little else in Western fiction (it's actually closer in spirit to the medieval Romance of the Rose). The pseudonymous"Lady Murasaki's" precise characterizations (particularly of Genji, a marvelous mixture of sexual egoism and genuine innate nobility) are merely the crowning features of an astonishingly rich, absorbing drama that has stood, and will doubtless continue to stand, the severest tests of time and changing literary fashions. There is nothing else on earth quite like The Tale of Genji. Utterly irresistible.
Washington Post
“This new version by Dennis Washburn, a professor at Dartmouth, falls somewhere between Seidensticker’s reader-friendly translation and Tyler’s more stringently literal one, resulting in a fluid, elegant rendition.”
The New Yorker
“Murasaki watched the sexual maneuverings, the social plots, the marital politics, the swirl of slights and flatteries that went on around her, with the keen, sometimes sardonic, and always worldly eyes of a medieval Jane Austen.”
Edith Grossman
“A formidable accomplishment. The language is beautiful, the footnotes are helpful yet unobtrusive: Washburn has performed a great service by making this groundbreaking novel, written in the eleventh century, available to the English-speaking world in a version worthy of the Japanese masterpiece.”
Alan Tansman
“In Dennis Washburn’s new translation of The Tale of Genji, lovers of novels will have the literary experience denied them until now: for hours and weeks at a time they will be able to sink into the dark, titillating, sexy, sad, enraging, absorbing world of this, the world’s first novel, written by Murasaki Shikibu, the imaginative genius court woman of eleventh-century Japan. Washburn eliminates the gap in centuries between us and that long-lost world, and preserves for us the freshness of vision and voice of that great writer from long ago and her Proustian chronicling of the darkening beauty of a world in decline, a world depleted of male erotic power and female depredation, of the tortures of jealousy and the frailness of art and beauty to console.”
Open Letters Monthly
“This is the Washburn Tale of Genji from start to finish: immensely scholarly but also, somehow, uncannily readable, helpful without being pedantic, clarifying without ever simplifying…. It’s an amazingly cheering performance, a Genji to last a century.”
David Lurie
“Award-winning translator Dennis Washburn’s lucid and accessible rendering will introduce new readers to the entrancing narrative world of this great classic.”
Valerie Henitiuk
“Retranslations of a classic are always reason to celebrate. All the more so when it’s the Genji, with all its complex characters and unforgettable episodes. One tries to begin logically, from the first page, but can’t resist flipping ahead to locate favorite scenes and see how they are imagined anew. . . . A fresh and invaluable Tale of Genji for both those of us reuniting with a familiar friend and those encountering it for the very first time.”
From the Publisher
"While Tyler's version, which attempts to capture the social and political nuance of Murasaki's language, is the best choice for scholars, Waley's remains the most attractive and accessible for the general reader." —Library Journal

"The Tale of Genji, as translated by Arthur Waley, is written with an almost miraculous naturalness, and what interests us is not the exoticism—the horrible word—but rather the human passions of the novel. Such interest is just: Murasaki's work is what one would quite precisely call a psychological novel. I dare to recommend this book to those who read me." —Jorge Luis Borges, The Total Library

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Tuttle Publishing
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Chapter 1

At the Court of an Emperor there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of very high rank was favored far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them. Thus her position at Court, preponderant though it was, exposed her to constant jealousy and ill will; and soon, worn out with petty vexations, she fell into a decline, growing very melancholy and retiring frequently to her home. But the Emperor, so far from wearying of her now that she was no longer well or gay, grew every day more tender, and paid not the smallest heed to those who reproved him, till his conduct became the talk of all the land; and even his own barons and courtiers began to look askance at an attachment so ill-advised. They whispered among themselves that in the Land Beyond the Sea such happenings had led to riot and disaster. The people of the country did indeed soon have many grievances to show: and some likened her to Yang Kueifei, the mistress of Ming Huang. Yet, for all this discontent, so great was the sheltering power of her master's love that none dared openly molest her.

Her father, who had been a Councilor, was dead. Her mother, who never forgot that the father was in his day a man of some consequence, managed despite all difficulties to give her as good an upbringing as generally falls to the lot of young ladies whose parents are alive and at the height of fortune. It would have helped matters greatly if there had been some influential guardian to busy himself on the child's behalf. Unfortunately, the mother was entirely alone in the world and sometimes, when troubles came, she felt very bitterly the lack of anyone to whom she could turn for comfort and advice. But to return to the daughter: In due time she bore him a little Prince who, perhaps because in some previous life a close bond had joined them, turned out as fine and likely a man-child as well might be in all the land. The Emperor could hardly contain himself during the days of waiting. But when, at the earliest possible moment, the child was presented at Court, he saw that rumor had not exaggerated its beauty. His eldest born prince was the son of Lady Kokiden, the daughter of the Minister of the Right, and this child was treated by all with the respect due to an undoubted Heir Apparent. But he was not so fine a child as the new prince; moreover the Emperor’s great affection for the new child's mother made him feel the boy to be in a peculiar sense his own possession. Unfortunately she was not of the same rank as the courtiers who waited upon him in the Upper Palace, so that despite his love for her, and though she wore all the airs of a great lady, it was not without considerable qualms that he now made it his practice to have her by him not only when there was to be some entertainment, but even when any business of importance was afoot. Sometimes indeed he would keep her when he woke in the morning, not letting her go back to her lodging, so that willy-nilly she acted the part of a Lady-in-Perpetual-Attendance.

Seeing all this, Lady Kokiden began to fear that the new prince, for whom the Emperor seemed to have so marked a preference, would, if she did not take care, soon be promoted to the Eastern Palace. But she had, after all, priority over her rival; the Emperor had loved her devotedly and she had borne him princes. It was even now chiefly the fear of her reproaches that made him uneasy about his new way of life. Thus, though his mistress could be sure of his protection, there were many who sought to humiliate her, and she felt so weak in herself that it seemed to her at last as though all the honors heaped upon her had brought with them terror rather than joy.

Her lodging was in the wing called Kiritsubo. It was but natural that the many ladies whose doors she had to pass on her repeated journeys to the Emperor's room should have grown exasperated; and sometimes, when these comings and goings became frequent beyond measure, it would happen that on bridges and in corridors, here or there along the way that she must go, strange tricks were played to frighten her or unpleasant things were left lying about which spoiled the dresses of the ladies who accompanied her. Once indeed someone locked the door of a portico, so that the poor thing wandered this way and that for a great while in sore distress. So many were the miseries into which this state of affairs now daily brought her that the Emperor could no longer endure to witness her vexations and moved her to the Koroden. In order to make room for her he was obliged to shift the Chief Lady of the Wardrobe to lodgings outside. So far from improving matters he had merely procured her a new and most embittered enemy!

The young prince was now three years old. The Putting on of the Trousers was performed with as much ceremony as in the case of the Heir Apparent. Marvelous gifts flowed from the Imperial Treasury and Tribute House. This too incurred the censure of many, but brought no enmity to the child himself; for his growing beauty and the charm of his disposition were a wonder and delight to all who met him. Indeed many persons of ripe experience confessed themselves astounded that such a creature should actually have been born in these latter and degenerate days.

In the summer of that year the lady became very downcast. She repeatedly asked for leave to go to her home, but it was not granted. For a year she continued in the same state. The Emperor to all her entreaties answered only "Try for a little while longer." But she was getting worse every day, and when for five or six days she had been growing steadily weaker her mother sent to the Palace a tearful plea for her release. Fearing even now that her enemies might contrive to put some unimaginable shame upon her, the sick lady left her son behind and prepared to quit the Palace in secret. The Emperor knew that the time had come when, little as he liked it, he must let her go. But that she should slip away without a word of farewell was more than he could bear, and he hastened to her side. He found her still charming and beautiful, but her face very thin and wan. She looked at him tenderly, saying nothing. Was she alive? So faint, was the dwindling spark that she scarcely seemed so. Suddenly forgetting all that had happened and all that was to come, he called her by a hundred pretty names and weeping showered upon her a thousand caresses; but she made no answer. For sounds and sights reached her but faintly,and she seemed dazed, as one that scarcely remembered she lay upon a bed. Seeing her thus he knew not what to do. In great trouble and perplexity he sent for a hand litter. But when they would have laid her in it, he forbad them, saying "There was an oath between us that neither should go alone upon the road that all at last must tread. How can I now let her go from me?" The lady heard him and "At last!" she said; "Though that desired at last be come, because I go alone how gladly would I live!"

Thus with faint voice and failing breath she whispered. But though she had found strength to speak, each word was uttered with great toil and pain. Come what might, the Emperor would have watched by her till the end, but that the priests who were to read the Intercession had already been dispatched to her home. She must be brought there before nightfall, and at last he forced himself to let the bearers carry her away. He tried to sleep but felt stifled and could not close his eyes. All night long messengers were coming and going between her home and the Palace. From the first they brought no good news, and soon after midnight announced that this time on arriving at the house they had heard a noise of wailing and lamentation, and learned from those within that the lady had just breathed her last. The Emperor lay motionless as though he had not understood.

Though his father was so fond of his company, it was thought better after this event that the Prince should go away from the Palace. He did not understand what had happened, but seeing the servants all wringing their hands and the Emperor himself continually weeping, he felt that it must have been something very terrible. He knew that even quite ordinary separations made people unhappy; but here was such a dismal wailing and lamenting as he had never seen before, and he concluded that this must be some very extraordinary kind of parting.

Meet the Author

Lady Murasaki Shikibu, born in the year 978, was a member of the famed Fujiwara clan—one of the most influential families of the Heian period. Her literary ability quickly won her a place in the entourage of the Empress Akiko, whose court valued the rare woman who was a master of writing. After the death of her husband, Murasaki Shikibu immersed herself in Buddhism, and the religion's influence permeates her writing.

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The Tale of Genji 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wish I'd realized... if you enlarge the cover it says abridged, but nowhere does the description say this. So, I've got an abridged ebook, and there are no returns on ebooks. Really annoyed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Genji is the ultimate Prince. So much admire by everyone and so dear to many people around him. His elegance and grace surpassed anything that exist before him. Superbly written to give us a glimse into 11 century Japan Imperial Court. The Tale of Genji brings readers to a new threshold of enjoyment and fascination.
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bully180 More than 1 year ago
At first I thought that The Tale of Genji would be an ok book. But when I started reading it I couldn't put it down. The only problem I had with the book is that some parts were really confusing and it jumped around a whole lot. For the most part I had to reread it and take it in bits of pieces. So pretty much what im saying it isn't a book that you can just fly through. You really need to break it down and think through it. If you really like history or enjoy Japanese culture than I believe this a really good and interesting book to read. It was really amazing and outrageous to read about different cultures and how they depended on life in there period of time. When I was reading I loved how vivid the story was when they were described the court life. It was so vivid that when I read it I could actually see it in my head as if actually I was there during the time. They described the events beautifully. Talking about the plot, well the plot is mostly about Genji`s life. The book really went through and talked about the affairs he had with many woman. It pretty much showed you his life at his time period. It didn't just show his affairs with different woman but even about his culture. Genji had a really rough time and I don't think he new what he was doing at the time. Genji had everything in front of him but to me he never opened his heart up for anything. I believe he was a very ignorant type that used many people than he would help. But then again his life at his time and period it wasn't easy and was really different from today's life. In many parts of the book it would make you think how lucky we are today that we didn't or don't have to got through the things they did at the time. One main thing that really made me think is how woman were treated at the time and it would probably kill me to be hidden all day and not seeing men all the time. That's why I really liked this book because it really explained and made you think how lucky we are today then to be treated in Genji`s time. I really loved this book and its one of m favorites I do to recommend it to everyone but mainly people that love history or Japanese culture.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Very good book about the Japanese Imperial Court. The translator soothed the major pain of the difficult names of the characters. In the original Japanese and translated Chinese versions (which is very close to Japanese). Yet, you should read the original if you can or Chinese or Korean (not as good as Chinese) translations. The character names are very difficult. For example, when a comcubine becomes a queen, she sometimes takes another title and it is very easy to get lost in the book. Also, in the original, the some characters are not given names until much later or not at all. Yet, overall, this book is excellent. If you really enjoyed this book, try the Red Chamber Dream. The story is somewhat similar yet is way better in poetry, characters, and major plot line.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Tale of Genji unfolds almost like a modern-day soap opera. And although the tale touches on the historical importance of its time, most of the book is focused solely on the love affairs men enjoyed with women and the consequences that came about. With knowledge that the book was written by a woman, where in her time women wrote to entertain themselves, it is fair to say that The Tale of Genji succeeds in providing its intended female audience a grand entertaining tale. So absorbed is the book with love affairs, however, that one is left wondering if even the males enjoyed any other activities in life other than their personal relationships. The book¿s description of its characters, particularly that of Genji leave a powerful impression on the reader. The tale is surprisingly engrossing and enjoyable to read, but at times difficult to follow. It seems the tale is indeed ¿patched together¿ as often times readers may find themselves returning back to previous chapters to understand exactly what is being discussed. It is worth noting that an interesting aspect of the novel is its wide use of poetry. There are literally hundreds of poems located within the novel, and like the novel itself, these poems, though entertaining, can be difficult to follow for the general reader. Perhaps the book¿s biggest disappointments occur with the death of Genji. It is hard to imagine the main character and hero of the book dead long before the book reaches its end, but that is precisely what occurs in this novel. The general reader may find it difficult to adjust to an almost completely new set of characters with a similar plot for the remaining chapters. Of course it is the novel¿s length that is most difficult to bear. The novel endlessly stretches on without a solid plot or timeline that makes it seem never-ending. When the end is finally reached, the reader may be disappointed that the book seems unfinished and startlingly comes to an abrupt end without notice. All in all, this book might be recommended only for those with a true appreciation of Japanese writing. It is not a book that even the most avid of readers will be able to breeze through it requires a slower, more methodical method of reading. In fact, it is very likely that the reader will want to return to parts of the novel several times seeking clarity or further explanation as events unfold. This is not a story that has a clear structure. The story does seem to jump around a bit, and even though it offers much love and tragedy, it fails to satisfy the reader with its less-than-exciting ending. For its history alone and the very way it came to exist in today¿s literature collections, the book deserves at least three stars out of five.